In the minds of parents, preteens, and Hollywood producers, college is considered one of the only idyllic times we as humans will ever experience.
As babies, we are pampered and provided for. We have it so good we can go to the bathroom wherever we want and other people find it endearing. (College is somewhat like this so long as the camera phones stay safely stowed.) In primary school, we’re dodging bullies and feeling awkward about our height, the fact that our moms still blow kisses to us from their cars, and the crushing reality that there is no such man as Santa Claus. Middle school is no better because now we’re battling our hormones and everybody else’s. Cliques really begin to form and there is a one hundred percent guarantee that you will know public shame. High school is either the time we get introduced to pot or nerdish ambition. Either you take physical education three times a day or you max out on Advanced Placement classes in the hopes that you get a leg up in that mythical utopia that is college.
Between being a preschooler and a high school senior, we spend our whole lives looking forward. We welcome the intensity, the high-speed blur that is our youth. We want to be adults. We want the responsibility. We want the wisdom, the glamour, the chance to be free. We welcome the relentless march forward because it’s like taking the Yellow Brick Road to Oz. (In this metaphor, Oz of course represents our perfect self-actualization as godlike in every way.)
And then we get to college and suddenly we’d trade our left arm to slow time down. College is idyllic. In this case, our parents were right. You were right in high school if you were a nerd like me. Hollywood got this one oh so right. For the first time since infancy, the world is self-contained again. Unless you have to put yourself through school, your sole responsibility is to wake up in the morning, go listen to an expert, and occasionally submit a paper or a report or prepare a presentation. Tough life. Clubs and organizations are hosting events every night so there’s never a shortage of food in your life. If the stoners in high school knew about college, they’d be racing the nerds to get there too.
I graduated in May. I did my undergraduate work in three years. My last year was rough because I knew I was cutting my time with the most amazing, brilliant, and hilarious people I had ever met short. But in three years, I managed to lead a pretty good life. I learned a lot. Sure, there was the testable material, but I also learned so much about myself and life and others that I wouldn’t trade my college experience for anything.
Seeing as how it’s back to school season, I wanted to share with you the fourteen things I believe should be experienced by every undergraduate while they still have the chance. They are presented in no particular order.
Disappointment. Have you ever had that annoying friend who is perhaps a little too realistic? They constantly “keep it real” and encourage you to do the same. Fuck them. Get your hopes up. Be passionate about something even if it is silly. You’re in college. Your entire undergraduate existence is a safety net. Short of flunking out or committing a slew of crimes, you’re going to be okay. Be head over heels in love with a concept or a paper or a person. But instead of brushing it off if it blows up in your face, deal with it. Don’t tiptoe around to avoid disappointment. Embrace it because in the real world disappointment is usually followed quickly by consequences. Use college to learn how to deal gracefully with disappointment. Learn to laugh in its face and you will be a happier, stronger person later. You may even avoid it in the future.
The Stereotypical All-Nighter. It’s okay to occasionally put off studying for a major exam. At least half the other people in your classes will have done the same. Make friends with these people. Go to 7/11, find a nice fluorescently lit hole and don’t come out until you can recite the first twenty Presidents of the United States backward by their wife’s hair color for that tyrannical Poli Sci professor… the one who will scare you out of “pre-law.” This is something you should experience because it will teach you the value of taking notes, reading the book, and asking questions in class. Or it will teach you that you can skive off all semester and just cram for the exams and still emerge with a high B. Either way, it’s a worthwhile experience.
Heartbreak. This one almost doesn’t even need to be written. You’re going to fall in love at some point in college. No one can live for years with hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of people their own age and not fall in love. The trick will be if you fall in love with a person who is in love with you too. Since timing is the most important element of the whole damned thing, the universe will be cruel before it is kind. You will fall in love with the wrong person entirely. You will cry so loud at night that your roommate signs you up for an online dating service. But that’s okay. In fact, it’s good. Heartbreak has a way of teaching you about yourself. You will figure out what you’re looking for. And on the other side of heartbreak is humor. You will be able to reflect on what it was about that person that made you swoon. You will figure out with absolute certainty what traits you find admirable and what traits you find repulsive about a person. But it won’t be possible if you don’t fall in love and it won’t be possible without a little heartbreak.
The Much-Talked About One Night Stand. So you’re at a frat party and the quarterback is flirting with you. You’re not a slut if you go to bed with him. You’re not a bad person if he doesn’t buy you breakfast the next morning or want to meet your parents when they’re in town for Family Weekend, either. Hooking up will happen. It will happen around you and if you’re unlucky, it will happen on you. Your participation is by no means mandatory, but I hope you are at least open to the experience. One night stands provide us with invaluable opportunities to laugh at ourselves. And if you trust your friends enough, they’ll laugh at you too. One night stands may become regrettable the next morning. They may become regrettable next semester when your one night boyfriend or girlfriend puts on twenty pounds. Or they may never become regrettable and you may even share friendly conversation until you graduate.
Blackout. This is another predictable item on such a list, but let’s roll with it. If you’re like me, you didn’t drink until college. I got picked up by a group of seniors near the end of my freshman year. I became their project and—I suspect—their legacy. If they could corrupt me, I could corrupt future generations. Their debauchery will mark my university for years because of the freshman and sophomore friends I made. Drinking to the point of oblivion (in a safe, secure environment with people you know and trust) can be liberating. Throwing your hands up and admitting you’re a human being and can only take so much is acceptable. Using alcohol as a reward for a job well done instead of a coping mechanism is ideal. If you catch yourself needing to drink copious amounts, your university has counselors who can help. Point being, however, that blacking out will teach you how and when you can have fun and how much it will take to get you there.
Genuine contentment. Did you ace that paper? Did the event you organize get fifteen thousand people to attend? Did your significant other cook you dinner? Did your professor offer to cite your senior thesis? Good on you. This is what it’s like to feel at peace. I hope you experience the absolute perfection that is a day going your way more than once.
A Real College Protest. So maybe you’re not an anarcho-feminist with radical environmentalist tendencies and an arsenal of critical theoretical tools to silence your opponents. But those people will exist at your college. And when they’re not leading the revolution, they are the nicest people you will meet. They will be much more excited about protesting the local grocery stores than you, though. They will invite you. You will turn them down 99% of the time. But just once… go. Walk a mile in their shoes. Live a day in their life. Experience the revolution. You can tell your kids about it when you see the protest organizer as the Green Party’s Presidential candidate in thirty years.
Talking to Your Parents as Friends. Okay, there will always be boundaries. You may not want to know the conditions under which you were conceived. You may not want to know that your father now needs Viagra. But I hope before you graduate, you get to talk about finances or religion or politics or music with your parents in such a way that you forget for a split second these were the people who frustrated the hell out of you in middle and high school. I hope you get to see them for the cool, self-sacrificing, selfless, and brilliant people that they are.
Taking a Class for the Hell of It. I feel that everything written about college includes a line about underwater basket weaving. Seriously, if they offer such a class, take it. Take a Mistresses of Great Britain seminar. Take a class on the Politics of Mimes. For three hours a week, forget the plan you have for yourself. Forget that this one class has nothing to do with your major. Forget that it will contribute nothing to your GRE, GMAT, or LSAT score. But it will pay off at cocktail parties in the future, I promise.
Speaking to a Crowd of More Than a Hundred People. I had the honor of welcoming the Class of 2015 at my university last August. I figure between the students, the families, my fellow orientation leaders, and the staff of the University, there were about three thousand people in attendance. As an O-Leader, I had to be up and loving it by about 6 am. From 6.01 am to the time of my speech at 3 pm, I wanted to puke. Everywhere. All the time. I didn’t know I could do it until I did it, though. Public speaking reminded me that people really believed in me. My fellow O-Leaders were enthused. They were genuinely happy for me to have that experience. It made me feel special. Our Dean of Students (he was running the show) put his hand on my shoulder and told me I’d knock ‘em dead. Public speaking is a different animal than giving a presentation. Find a reason to get under a spotlight. You’ll panic, but you’ll figure out what you mean to other people. And it will change you for the better.
Volunteering to Feed the Homeless. Odds are you did some kind of community service in high school. You probably thought it would give you a leg up in the college admissions process. But after a semester or two, you’ve noticed the admissions criteria aren’t always so stringent. It can be a little discouraging to be surrounded by people you feel are lacking intellect or moral fiber. So, my suggestion is to actually seek out those who are lacking. Get out of your headspace. Find an organization that provides meals to the homeless and volunteer. It will remind you that 95% of your daily drama is manufactured. Experience for an hour, a day, whatever the time may be, what it’s like to lack the basic comforts we take for granted.
Arguing With a Professor. You will have professors who piss you off. You will either have a professor who is far more liberal than you are (which is the most likely scenario) or you’ll have the token conservative whackjob who tells you in an ethics class that abortion is murder. Professors are people, too. They can be wrong. And more often than not, they are actively trying to goad their students into having an emotional or intellectual reaction. Engage them. Argue. Be vocal about your disagreement if you have one. Professors tend to take their duty very seriously. They’re there to educate you, to turn you into critical thinkers. So, critically think aloud.
Loss. This may read like “Disappointment” or “Heartbreak” and you would be right to point out the similarities. To lose is to experience both the other two. But I’m talking about the kind of loss that keeps you in bed all day. This will involve the mourning of a person. They needn’t die. You may lose a friend from high school because of time and distance rather than disease. Change in college is radical. You will lose as much as you gain if you’re not careful. But I hope you experience the agony that is loss because you will never have such a large number of cheerleaders in your life. You can still call upon your parents, you have your friends, the staff, and the resources of your university. You can get through this. Ask for help.
Clarity About Your Life’s Purpose. Don’t give into the nihilists. Every first year philosophy major will be turned into heartless, soulless fiend after reading too much Nietzsche. They will be the exact opposite of the friends who keep it real. They will make shit up and they’ll try to drag you down with them. Life matters. What you do matters. Who you spend time with matters. You are here to do something great. Don’t let any C- on a paper convince you otherwise. Take no drama from the philosophy majors. College is your dress rehearsal for changing the world. Your major will not determine the impact you have on others, the planet, or history. Your drive, your ambition, your attention to detail, your risk-taking will give your life purpose. Dive into it. Like I said, college is basically consequence-free if play between the safety cones of the law. If you change your major fifteen times like everyone anticipates, that’s fine. If you never change it, that’s fine. But I hope you discover for yourself your life’s work while you’re in college. You deserve a roadmap going forward.