college

The “Best” Four Years

Fall of 2016 was the first fall in 18 years that I was not returning to school.

As the weather cooled, I continued to go to the same job that I went to all summer. Nothing changed except for the addition of another layer to my outfit. But as I saw back-to-school displays in Target and drove behind the yellow school bus making stops in my neighborhood, I felt nostalgic. My nostalgia, however, extended only to pre-K through 12th grade. When I heard coworkers talking about their children starting college, I felt nothing but relief that I would never have to do that again and a faint wave of nausea as I remembered my first semester at college.

The only person who warned me that I might hate college was my brother.

He told me this the summer after I graduated from high school. “It gets better,” he added, after shattering the image of freedom and intellectual growth that everyone else swore I would encounter in college. “I hated my freshman year—and my sophomore year. Junior year wasn’t bad, and by the time I was a senior, I actually really liked it.”

So I would have to wait three years to like college? This was unacceptable to 18-year-old me. I had been almost constantly uncomfortable in middle school and felt only tolerance for high school; I was ready to enjoy school for once. I cast aside my brother’s words and chose instead to focus on what everyone else—my mom, my sister, college brochures, society, the media—told me. College would be the best four years of my life! I’d make friendships that would last for years to come! I would grow as a person become who I was meant to be! I would date lots of boys! I would sit on the quad and do my homework while shirtless football players threw a Frisbee nearby!

On the day I moved into my dorm at college, the first doubts set in. There were people everywhere as my parents and I carried boxes and suitcases and lamps up the stairs in my dorm, and they all seemed louder, older, and more confident than me. Except for my roommate.

I immediately wished she were louder or more confident. She only said a few words to me as I unpacked, never moved from her perch on her Ralph Lauren bedding, and stared at her laptop as if it held the secrets to the universe as my dad tried to engage her in conversation.

Great—everyone else at this school was gregarious and cheerful while my roommate had possibly taken a recent vow of silence. And it wasn’t like I brought so much effortless coolness and charm to the situation that I could counteract it. I felt as awkward as she acted. I had hoped I could rely on my roommate to force me into social interactions and introduce me to people, but that hope faded on day one.

I was a little quick to judge her, however. Despite my initial impression that she was even shier and more awkward than me, she turned out to be far more interested in parties than in me, and also far less interested in bringing me along to said parties than I would have liked. Our first meaningful interaction consisted of her apologizing profusely after vomiting in our room—an interaction that she remembered none of the next morning.

I had not transformed into a social butterfly the first time I set foot on campus as I hoped I would; I was still an antisocial caterpillar awaiting metamorphosis. Being surrounded by people at all times quickly drained my already low energy reserves, meaning that by Friday night, the thought of spending even a second in a crowded dorm room that reeked of Natty-Lite and body odor was the last thing I wanted to do. When surrounded by a roomful of people I don’t know, I shut off completely—words can’t be formed, eyes can’t focus on any one thing. But there could still have been hope for my social life. After all, I was surrounded by alcohol, that ubiquitous social lubricant that has brought countless nerds, dorks, and geeks out of their shells.

Something strange happened though—I found that I could not drink.

I don’t mean that I had a low tolerance and vomited after a single shot, or that any religious beliefs or ethical qualms stopped me from consuming alcohol. Nor did a family history of alcoholism scare me away from the substance. I didn’t like the taste, but there were ways around that. I wanted to drink. I wanted to feel my awkwardness and hesitation, my anxiety and my fear, fall away. But I just couldn’t. The idea of losing control, of making a mistake, terrified me. I didn’t know anyone well yet, and I didn’t trust anyone not to abandon me if anything went wrong. Frankly, the idea of drinking scared the shit out of me. So I decided that I just wouldn’t.

With this decision, I feared that I was also deciding that I didn’t want to have friends or fun during college, and I sank into a state of constant anxiety broken up only by occasional periods of acute hopelessness. It didn’t help that even in the daytime, even on weekdays, I felt like I was at that sweaty dorm room party, surrounded by people but unable to connect.

With the $60,000 per year price tag of my private liberal arts college, I should not have been surprised by masses of rich people around me, but I was. Where were all the other scholarship recipients, the other students receiving hefty financial aid because their single mothers were low-earning librarians?

Instead, I was eating at the table next to the heir to the Mars Bars fortune and living with a girl whose father flew to China for business once a month. Boys wore pastel-colored shorts and boat shoes, and the girls all had perfect hair at all times. I learned that “athletic-wear” was its own category of fashion, and it did not involve baggy sweatpants and old t-shirts.

At Dickinson, I met a Jewish person for the first time and learned that race (along with a ton of other stuff) is a social construct. I learned what a hipster was and basically took a master class in preppiness. Brands like Longchamp, Frye, and Vineyard Vines became a part of my lexicon. Everyone was from the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic, and suddenly I felt like I was from the Wild West.

I cried almost every morning for the first month of college. Each morning I woke up and found myself still in my dorm room, still at college, still surrounded by people who I felt like I couldn’t connect with because I was too boring, too awkward, too reserved, too sober, too lame, too introverted, too poor, too uncultured, too Midwest, too uncollegiate.

I would sit in class, copying derivatives and integrals off the whiteboard in Multivariable Calculus, outwardly fine, but having the distinct feeling that I was drowning. I couldn’t breathe, my stomach twisted, and I was certain that I would never get out. For that first month, the knowledge that I had another seven and a half semesters in this, my own personal hell, was unbearable.

One day, my German professor, who was blonde, like my mom, and about the same height as my mom, wore a blouse that my mom also owned, and I almost burst into tears in the middle of class. I ran into my professor later that day, and she asked me if everything was all right, as I had obviously not been as subtle in concealing my distress as I had hoped. Everything was fine, I assured her, with a bright smile. I probably said something stupid and transparent about it being my “allergies” acting up.

I researched transferring, but I was afraid that it would be financially unwise. Besides, what if I just hated college? What if I was too much of a momma’s girl and a homebody to ever live at a four year college? Should I just go to community college, live at home until my parents died, and then move with my twelve cats into the shitty apartment that was all my salary at Walmart could buy me?

I decided to stay where I was, since my parents (read: my dad) would never allow me to attend anything less than a competitive four-year college, and they were right in this, as the academics were not the hard part of college for me. During the first couple of months my freshman year, I lived for the weekdays. When Sunday evening rolled around, I was ready to dive into five days of classes and homework and evenings of guilt-free Downton Abbey watching, not feeling like I should be out being social and embracing the “college experience”—or whatever all those misguided adults had told me about college. Everyone except my brother, who was the one person I should have listened to.

The thing is, I hate change in general, so I don’t know why I let society and my family make me think that college would be something I would like. I crave comfort. I will always choose contentment over adventure. (I’m an enneagram six after all.)

Even someone who hates change as much as me can adjust eventually.

I started hanging out and talking more with the girls who lived on my floor, and even though I sometimes felt like our friendship ended on Friday evenings and started up again on Sunday afternoon, it was a vast improvement. My lack of weekend friendships were my fault—I could have partied if I wanted to—but I still couldn’t force myself out of my comfort zone. I had experienced enough change to last me for years, and the thought of getting dressed up and going out and doing shots and hooking up with some random guy nauseated me.

By the time it was October and fall break was upon the student body, I could honestly go home and tell my family that I liked college more than I had at first—although that only meant that I no longer wanted to cry during every waking hour.

I had been looking forward to fall break since my first night at college, staring up at the concrete ceiling over my bed, but it was not quite the relaxing and comforting homecoming that I wanted. My mom was packing up the house and preparing to put it on the market for when she moved in with her fiance in a small town 3 hours from where I grew up and 5 hours from where I now attended school.

I came home to a half-empty house and the knowledge that this was the last time I would ever be in the home that I had lived in all my life.

On the car ride back to school at the end of the break, I cried the entire time, and upon my return to campus, I felt as though I had regressed back to myself as I had been during my first few days on campus. I was homesick again, but this time I didn’t even have a home to return to. As I thought about the next four years, I imagined myself as a nomad, drifting from college to my Dad’s house in my hometown to my mom’s new house in the boonies, and back again to school.

The drowning feeling returned.

Even as my academics remained strong and my social life improved, I never went more than a day without a feeling of crushing dread and sadness. When people talked about going home for Thanksgiving, I put on a façade of cheerfulness, saying how excited I was to visit my grandmother and see my cousins, meanwhile dreading going to my mom’s new house and seeing bits of our old life mingling amongst her fiancé’s things.

College got better, and I’ve kind-of-sort-of-maybe come to terms with my mom’s move–4 years later, as a college grad and supposed adult human.

But I never loved college. There were moment’s of pure exhilaration and fun, sure. No matter how many of those I had though, I never stopped feeling like college–or at least that college–was not for me.

There are lots of complicated, very personal reasons behind that, some of which I may never share on TWotW. Some of my reasons for hating college, however, were probably more common. During my first two years of college, I rarely drank, and I never let myself get intoxicated. Even once I did feel more comfortable drinking, I still didn’t like most college parties or bars. I wasn’t interested in “hooking up,” and no one was interested in hooking up with me anyways. As a hardcore introvert, lots of things about the social scene in college did not suit my personality.

I’m sure that there are lots of other people who felt this way in college, but we don’t talk about it. Everyone seems bent on perpetuating this myth that college is the best four years of your life. That wasn’t true for me, and I honestly don’t think it’s true for most people. I hope it isn’t. 

Even for uber-extroverts who loved the communal living of college and enjoyed every party they went to and were members of 15 clubs, I hope that there are better things waiting for them after college. I don’t think anyone should be having their peak life experiences between 18 and 22. So I wish I didn’t feel like such a loser that I didn’t.

I think a lot needs to change about how we portray college in the media and how we talk to teenagers about it. We simultaneously frame college as some four-year-long Woodstock, with boundless alcohol, drugs, and sex, while also being  bastions of intellectualism and tickets to lifelong success and prosperity.

But my experience of college? It was a time of immense and terrifying change for me, a time of making and losing the deepest friendships of my life, and four years of constantly being at least slightly uncomfortable at all times.

I’m not saying I wish I had never done it. I just wish I had been more prepared for the truth of college.

college

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