While observing large groups of incoming freshmen gleefully exploring UCSB this past weekend, my mind was brought back to my own first visit to campus. It was a sunny April afternoon during my senior year of high school, and I was beyond excited to tour the campus I had heard so much about. My tour guide whisked us around the school with effervescent descriptions of dorm life, activities, delicious dining commons food and concerts. In fact, the moment I decided I could actually picture myself attending the school was when he showed us Storke Plaza and advertised that Childish Gambino and Drake had both performed there.
My short visit to the campus I would later call home seemed to confirm all of the fantastic expectations I built in my head about college life. Like most young people with their sights set on a higher education, I fell head-first into the popular myth of the College Utopia.
During their last few years of high school, college-bound teenagers are bombarded by the same enthusiastic fervor every time they discuss their future plans with a curious adult. Every reader who has or is currently attending a university knows what I’m talking about; middle-aged family friends are all seemingly united in the consensus that their years spent in college were the best ones of their life. They all seem to remember nothing but the best of times. Movies like “Animal House” sensationalize the college experience even further.
In addition to hearing these enthusiastic narratives, incoming freshmen can scroll through their own Instagram feeds to view perfectly edited snapshots of older friends at parties, Greek life events, concerts and a plethora of other exciting possibilities college can offer. These rave reviews and glossy social media posts are the stories new students draw upon when they form their expectations of what college will be like.
The stories that don’t get told, however, are the day-to-day realities of college life that aren’t worth sharing at a dinner party or uploading to Instagram. No one wants to tell an excited teenager there will be nights when they are sitting in the library with drooping eyelids and thoughts addled from exhaustion, on the brink of tears but unable to give up just yet because their term paper is due the next day. Adults are quick to tell the tale of the wildest house party they ever attended, but they won’t tell you about the nights they spent in their room crying and wishing they could be back home.
Once they actually get to college and establish a routine, freshmen students may be shocked by the volume of mundane or frustrating experiences that come along with all the exciting adventures they envisioned. This can cause them to feel isolated, wondering why they have been unable to carve a place for themselves in the utopia college is meant to be.
Adults are quick to tell the tale of the wildest house party they ever attended, but they won’t tell you about the nights they spent in their room crying and wishing they could be back home.
As I’m sure many of you have already discovered, college is not a utopia. It’s a place and a set of experiences that exist in the real world, not the fantasy world adults and media have constructed. Being on a college campus does not immunize anyone from the stress, sadness, frustration or loneliness that are all facets of the human experience at some time or another. It is inevitable that hardships will come your way no matter what phase of life you are currently experiencing.
It can be an exciting time to challenge yourself and experience new things, but sometimes college is simply not all it’s cracked up to be. And that’s okay.
The problem with the idealized portrait of college life in America is that it causes students whose college experiences don’t exactly mirror what they’ve seen in movies to believe the fault must lie within themselves. If they are not having the time of their lives and making new friends every day, they must be doing something wrong that needs to be fixed. Furthermore, they might be afraid to voice these concerns to their peers for fear they are the only one going through this dilemma.
If my words so far have resonated with you, rest assured that you are not the only person who feels this way. In fact, I believe it is more common to experience a difficult transition into college life than a seamless one. It is equally common to feel frustrated or sad just as often as you feel satisfied or carefree. These troubles are not limited to new students, either; mounting responsibilities and academic pressure can lead to increased stress for students as they advance through their college career.
Hardships are not an anomaly, but the norm. They are equally as common as the parties and fun events that appear to comprise the full sum of everyone else’s college experience.
Attending college and experiencing those wild, fun-filled four years has seemingly become an essential facet of the American experience (for those who can afford it, at least). In my opinion, college is the most overly glamorized period of life in our society today. I’m not saying college isn’t fun; in fact, I would probably agree with the statement that the years I’ve spent here have been a few of the best in my life. I am extremely privileged and grateful to be able to attend this university and experience all the benefits it has to offer.
In my opinion, college is the most overly glamorized period of life in our society today.
The fact remains, however, that the experience I was told to expect from my college years set me up for disappointment when I discovered all of the unsung responsibilities that college entails. Wouldn’t it be better to let high school students see a realistic portrayal of college life that doesn’t deceive them into thinking they are headed into a state of drunken, carefree bliss for the next four years? I know we want teenagers to be excited about all the good things ahead of them, but the inflation of these benefits and erasure of any hardships end up harming them in the long run.
When my younger friends ask me about my college experience, I am always quick to describe the I.V. party scene, studying on the beach, the activities I’ve joined and the friends I’ve made. But I also make sure to tell them about the nights I spent alone in my freshman dorm room scrolling through Instagram, aching from the dual pains of FOMO and homesickness. I tell them about how many times I’ve gotten sick after finals week because my body couldn’t handle the stress and lack of sleep. I tell them the good most definitely outweighs the bad, but hard times are inevitably going to come their way.
I don’t think this approach is negative or discouraging; in fact, letting them know that hard times are normal will be comforting later on down the line. I wish someone had done me the favor of informing me that college is not like the movies and that there is nothing wrong with that.
Laurel Rinehart wants everyone to get real about college.