Seven Things Nobody Tells You When You Go Off to College

Dear Incoming College Freshhumans,

Welcome to college.  For the next four years (and change), you will be in a unique social class that gives you all kinds of opportunities.  You will get discounted movie tickets, drink specials, and enough free koozies to build a squishy mountain of theme-colored joy (so you never have to worry about finding a soft place to land ever again).  You will become a culinary artiste – Easy Mac is an underrated, but oh so cheesy, medium – and a late-night philosopher who plumbs the existential depths of syndicated reruns of Walker, Texas Ranger because that’s all that’s on at three in the morning and who needs sleep anyway?  

You will have a socially-accepted reason to sit around in a coffeeshop for days (you might consider moving in), grow creative facial hair, take four-hour-long naps and stay on your parent’s insurance.  It’s like being European, except better because you know what college towns have that European cities do not?  Bojangles.  Bojangles on every corner. Late-night Bojangles.  Your veins will flow with Bo-sauce and you will love it.

I loved college.  I loved it so much that I went on to do more college (i.e. grad school).  Much to my surprise, grad school is not college and there was significantly less of the Walker, Texas Ranger and more of the sobbing uncontrollably over papers and learning and stuff.  Don’t get me wrong, grad school is great and all – I got a whole lot smarter, Ma! – but there is something special about life as an undergraduate.  For many students, college is their first time away from home. It’s a pivotal time in a young person’s life: you’re learning about yourself, your dreams, your plans, and what you’ll put up with from other people.  Dorm living is especially useful in this aspect.  College can be a place of reinvention, but it can also be a place where you crash and burn like the Hindenburg (too soon?).  

I received quite a bit of good advice when I went off to college, but here are some things I didn’t hear – things that I think a few of you might need to hear as well.

1.  College will not make you a better person. You’ll hear a lot of talk about the possibility of reinventing yourself when you go to college.  Were you a nerd in high school?  BAM!  College.  Now you’re the freshman studmuffin.  Those co-eds can’t get enough of you.  Were you a goof-off?  BAM! College.  Now you’re the top of your class. Your advisers are calling you for mentorship.  College is the real-life equivalent of the Old Spice Guy. 

It’s not that easy.  Yes, college is a place where you can stretch your boundaries.  You can let aspects of your personality – sense of humor, courage, compassion – shine through because you’re in a new place.  You’re a blank slate to the people around you.  But you’re still you.  You can very easily exhaust yourself when you try to become someone else.  At your very core, you will be the same person when you arrive at Freshman Orientation and when you cross the stage to get your diploma.  And that’s okay.  Don’t stress out because the fears, the insecurities, or the things you hate about yourself don’t go away.  They don’t just disappear when you become “an adult.”  

2. College is a scary, scary place sometimes.  You may have some of the highest moments of your life in these four years.  Travelling abroad, doing internships, discovering your passions, sharing friendships, falling in love – these are all the awesome things people tell you will happen to you in college.  What they don’t mention is that you may struggle through depression. You may struggle through anxiety.  You certainly will struggle through stress, and broken relationships, and anger, and homesickness.  I don’t mean to dampen your enthusiasm.  College is awesome, except when it’s not.  

And when it’s not, remember that you have resources.  Know where your college counseling center is.  Know where the chaplain’s office is (if you are a person of faith, and even if you’re not). Know where the fitness center is (exercise is key to staying mentally healthy). Know where the student health center is. Use these resources.  There’s no shame in asking for help. 

3.  You will fall down. You’re going to screw up. Embrace this. You will tread too roughly on tentative new relationships. You will annoy your roommate. You will be annoyed by your roommate.  You will be too much or too little in a given situation.  You will find yourself in over your head.  The sooner this happens to you, the better, because the first time is the worst.  After that, you get used to stumbling.  

Just remember: everyone around you is also struggling, even – and especially – the kids who seem like they’ve got it all together.  That perky, 4.0 biochem major in your Intro to Soc class spends just as much time as you do – if not more – feeling absolutely inadequate to the task.  You will both be okay.

4.  Your mentors are just people, at the end of the day. The mentoring relationship between a professor and student is one of the coolest parts of college.  You may have a special mentor in your major, or you might make an impression on a professor who then takes an interest in your academic career.  They can help you, and help you to find opportunities, and encourage you, and even challenge you to be more than you think you can be.  You’ll find yourself putting a lot of stock in what they have to say.

They fall down too, though.

You will disagree with your mentors sometimes. You have to to grow.  It’s not the end of the world. Sometimes you’re wrong, and sometimes they’re wrong.  It can be a sticky situation, especially if they’re your adviser, but you are building yourself; you’re not creating a clone of your favorite Physics prof.  And you may lose a mentor through this process. That’s a part of growth as well.  As with other types of friends, mentors may come in and go out of your life, crossing paths with you when you need them and then passing by.  It’s perfectly normal.

5.  Don’t be afraid of “missing out.” Yes, try new things, even if you only try them once.  But if your instincts tell you that tantric yoga, or beer pong, or Young Republican meetings, or Young Democrat meetings, or chess club, or any other new pursuit isn’t for you, listen to them.  When someone says, “Oh, but you’ll be missing out,” do not listen to them. Listen to yourself.  I promise you: in five years, you will not miss being miserable at parties that you didn’t want to go to.  What you will miss is time you could have spent doing things that make you happy with people who make you happy.  If that’s tabletop gaming, then find a group to do that with.  If it’s salsa dancing, then find a club.   Always, always, always put time aside for yourself to not do anything.  You’ll drown if you don’t.

On that note, you can’t force “life events” to happen to you.  You may find your calling in these four years. You may not. You may fall in love. You may not.  You’re not “missing your window” to do any of these things.  Your life is not a checklist of major events.  It’s not a script to someone else’s movie.  No time you spend on this earth is wasted.  You can get stressed out about how “little” you’ve “accomplished.”  Always, always, always remember that your path is unique, and that no matter what you do, it is worthwhile, unless you are kicking puppies or a Nazi. 

6. Know the difference between your dreams and your plans. Dreams don’t change; they’re a part of our core identities. Plans are how we aim to reach our dreams; they are meant to change and evolve.

I’ve known I wanted to write, in some capacity, since I was five years old.  Well, that and be President and breed unicorns. I’ve always felt that writing is the way I connect with people the best.  I want to use my words to bring joy and comfort, to inspire, to rally my community to action.  This is a dream that I have.  

My plans, on the other hand, have changed so often that I have lost count.  I was going to be a journalist. Then a minister. Then a teacher. Then a professor.  Now, I am doing none of those things.  But I am still writing.  

Don’t invest too much of your self-worth in the plans.  More often than not, the plans don’t work out, and I’ve seen too many bright people shattered because their plans for medical school, or grad school, or internships, have fallen through.  Even if your ideal life-plan shrivels up like a potato-chip bag in the microwave, your dreams, the reason for your being, exist untouched. Don’t forget them.

7. Being “good” at something doesn’t mean it’s the right path for you.

We thrive on feedback.  Since college is such a new experience in so many ways, we need outside reassurance that we’re doing the right thing pretty much constantly.  We seek affirmation before we choose a course schedule, before we move off-campus, before we take that internship or go to that country for a Maymester.  If everyone around you says that you’re good at, say, business, but your real dream is to teach, it’s hard to separate your own needs from the need to please other people, especially the people you live and work with.  

Sometimes you have to say “no” to the praise.  You may even get that rare beast, the unwanted Mentor, who tells you that you’re “wasting your potential” to do something you don’t really want to do.  You’ve got so many paths ahead of you right now.  Don’t let someone choose one for you.

With that wisdom, it’s off to school! Hit up IKEA for some furniture you can’t pronounce or put together, and pray there’s either an aspiring engineer or a foreign-exchange student from Sweden on your floor during move-in day.  Call your parents every once in a while. They need it, and you need it to keep you grounded.  Make friends the first day, and don’t worry about seeming awkward. Everyone feels like they have a giant, visible booger hanging out of their nostril on the first day.  It’s okay. You’re okay.  You’re in for a hell of a ride.

-k

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