I’d been looking ahead to college since freshman year – and I was a happy high schooler who enjoyed living at home. From my dad’s stories of his days in the Cal band to the mailers of gorgeous brick buildings that started arriving after the PSAT, college just seemed like this perfect alternative world. Practically every adult you talk to will tell you that their college years were the best ones of their life. You would meet your best friends for life, learn everything from philosophy to calculus to beer pong technique, and somewhere along the way, you’d discover yourself and a sense of purpose. Or so the myth goes.
According to this conception of college, everything works out. Even if you ended up at one of your safety schools, it would turn into your dream school. “You just need to get out of your comfort zone, and once you meet that one set of friends, take that one class, or pick up that one activity – because your roommate suggested it and you didn’t have anything better to do – well, ka-bamb, you’re living that brochure-worthy college experience.” Or so the myth goes.
I did all my research and got accept to my first choice school. And they definitely shouldn’t put me on the brochure because I’m not living the myth of college.
Yeah, I had a blast first semester. Classes were pretty easy, I had a job that sounded much cooler than it was, and I felt pretty popular (at least most of the time). I rarely called home, and whenever I arrived for the holidays, I was spilling over with stories and excitement.
Thinking back on it now, I can’t quite isolate the biggest factor. Was I actually having fun? Did I have fun because I chose to embrace everything that came my way? Or did I just take cute photos and convince myself that college parties were the greatest thing in the world?
Whatever the biggest factor in my first semester fun, I don’t think it was a very authentic one. When I came back for the beginning of second semester, the gorgeous brick buildings came crashing around my ears. I called my mom practically every day, cried to my best friend from home, and spent my free time curled up in my room reading Harry Potter. I seriously considered transferring – I even started the common app once again.
To be sure, it’s been a rough semester – classes are hard, and writing paper after paper gets isolating. I’m an extrovert, and I don’t like spending long hours alone, especially when class discussions stalled and I didn’t manage to meet many people who share my academic interests. Doubtlessly there are several key factors that make Rice a difficult fit for me, not least the fact that I’m trying to get a liberal arts education from an engineering school.
And then there’s the whole element of change, of leaving behind friends I’ve known my whole life for new people I’ve known for only a few months. Sure, residential colleges make it easy to meet people, but it doesn’t necessarily make it easy to know them. I have a lot of acquaintances, but there are times where I’ve felt extraordinarily alone.
I’d chalk some of these discontents up to personal growth, my own increasing ability to look beyond the cute photos and inside jokes and develop a better sense of what I want from college. Some of my struggles were due to inadequate research. After all, I didn’t know anyone who had come to Rice, and reading only college guidebooks and anonymous reviews will certainly leave some gaps in one’s knowledge.
But mostly, I think my struggles here have been based in unrealistic expectations, the myth that $60,000 per year can buy the perfect experience.
And it really can’t, because nothing is perfect and we cannot expect it to be, no matter how much we (or our parents) are paying.
We need to stop upholding college as this perfect utopia of self-discovery. Instead, it’s just a bunch of school-smart 18-22 year-olds working their way towards a degree.
I know, it sounds much less cool, right? It’s much more fun to pretend that a stressful Sunday night comes on the heels of a weekend camping trip rather than a weekend of studying, with maybe a nice meal and trip to Target thrown into the mix.
I think this misconception and the tendency to romanticize college is downright dangerous. For the mental health of every student, we need to recognize that college is really fucking hard. Classes are hard, meeting new people is hard, being away from home is hard, and finding yourself is really hard, especially in an environment with intense pressures and new challenges.
And having a great o-week, the happiest students ranking, and a wonderful first 8 weeks of college doesn’t make it much easier. In fact, it might even make it harder, because it means the myth lives on. It stalks the darker realities, keeping all these maladjustments and insecurities hidden until something provokes them.
Looking back on it now, from Saturday night in April, with one more week of freshman year, I think that’s exactly what happened to me. I was completely committed to the idea of having a picture-perfect college experience, and after 8 great weeks, I thought I had found it. Okay yes, of course there were some small flaws, but nothing I couldn’t sweep under the rug. And sweep it under the rug I did. I had completely bought into this myth.
And I’m now trying to buy back out of it, into a mindset where I’m paying for a degree but am 100 percent responsible for the rest of my experience. I’m not looking forward to answering the simple questions like “How’s Rice?” because I know the honest answer and the popular answer are not the same. People expect me to say that everything is awesome, and I don’t want to whine or burst their bubbles. I know it’s irrational, but its somehow embarrassing to admit that my school might not be everything I’d hoped for. But not everything about college is awesome, and I think we need to start talking about the bad parts along with the good ones. So I’ll do my best to start the conversation.