Daily Nexus / Sierra Deak

I can recall vividly the exact moment I clicked the button that determined the course of my life for the next four years. I was sitting at our kitchen island at home, whole family in tow, with my high school best friend standing by to record the whole process on her iPhone 5. It seemed a bit anticlimactic to me to hold an entire celebration revolving around the online submission of a commitment form, but my heart was racing nonetheless. The years-long process of touring colleges, writing essays, filling out applications and tearing my hair out while debating my final decision was about to culminate and give way to a new process: my life as a Gaucho.

My choice to attend UCSB did not occur through any sort of cosmic “this is MY place” revelation as my high-school self had expected it would. If anything, the decision was more practical than revelational. Santa Barbara was well-ranked among the UCs. It had an exceptional sociology program, my choice of major. The campus was not too close to my Bay Area hometown but not so far that I felt overwhelmed. I had relatives living nearby, and it was on the beach, for fuck’s sake. It seemed like the best option on paper, so I signed up.

To be honest, I have never been fond of our culture’s tendency to treat finding a college the same way we treat finding a soulmate. I’ve heard so many stories along the lines of “I knew it was the place for me when I saw the sunset and felt at home!” I was incredibly nervous when I signed the dotted line and committed to UCSB without having had one of these magical realizations, but I’ve come to believe that most of them are embellished retroactively with the aid of hindsight bias. Your college experience is what you make of it. No one should have to feel like they need a sign from the heavens or an a-ha moment as a prerequisite for finding the right place.

The journey of my college experience started at a place that’s officially called Santa Catalina dormitory but is known around campus simply by its old name, FT. The two towers loomed high over my apprehensive head when I arrived. Although every building in college seemed ominous to me upon first sight, I felt optimistic that this one would eventually feel like home.

One of the biggest lessons you learn in college is how to cohabitate with people, and those people are not always going to share all of your preferences, let alone any of them.

Someone once told me that living in dorms is the best experience of your life that you’ll never want to do again. My roommate and I had met on an app that had an online-dating feel to it, for it was designed to pair students who were searching for others to live with. On paper, we were a great fit: both academically minded, similar enough tastes in music and looking for a living environment that was welcoming but not too distracting. However, once we actually shacked up, it became clear that our personalities could not be on more opposite ends of the spectrum. She was a headstrong Type-A engineering student who liked everything neatly in its place and did not shy away from conflict; I was a scatterbrained Type-B sociology major who would rather smoke weed and talk about cultural relativity and karma than clean up my mess.

The thing about college is that when you’ve grown up for 18 years surrounded by a family with its own rules and unique dynamic, it comes as a big upset to suddenly be thrown into a living space with someone who’s been playing an entirely different ball game for their entire life. I was used to a family of people pleasers who would rather suffer in silence than fight out loud; we handled conflict by quietly adjusting and only speaking up if it was absolutely necessary. I had never gotten in trouble for leaving a mess because my mom figured that as long as it was contained to my own room, I wasn’t bothering anyone else with it. As a result, being paired with someone who liked things a certain way and wasn’t afraid to say so was quite a shock to my system.  

I can look back now at the arguments we had and completely understand where both parties were coming from. One of the biggest lessons you learn in college is how to cohabitate with people, and those people are not always going to share all of your preferences, let alone any of them. My parents had drilled the fact that “the world is not about you” into my head countless times when I was a kid, but I didn’t feel that so distinctly and pervasively until college. Sometimes people are just so different that their preferences can’t be contained harmoniously in such a small space. I’m happy to say, however, that she and I stayed in touch after freshman year and are now the best of friends. I guess a bit of space was all we needed.

One thing I struggled with the most my freshman year was the prolonged sensation that I was a stranger in this huge institution. With hindsight I can admit that most of this was my fault. I went into college with this notion that everything would come so easily to me. Adults had told me my whole life that college would be the best event I would ever experience.

They all seemed so confident in this assertion that it never occurred to me that happiness in college might be something I had to work toward. As someone with a history of chronic depression and a tendency to withdraw when I get overwhelmed, this assumption did not work out well for me. I didn’t join a single club or organization, and I was in a relationship that allowed me to cling to my comfort zone of one person rather than putting myself out there to meet new friends. I remember staying in my room on weekends listening to everyone in my hall getting ready to go out and writing in my journal about how isolated I felt.

One thing I struggled with the most my freshman year was the prolonged sensation that I was a stranger in this huge institution.

I did manage to have some quintessential first-year experiences. I roamed around Del Playa with my roommate the first weekend, hoping to find parties since we didn’t yet know anyone who lived in I.V.  I waited in line for hours to buy Snoop Dogg tickets — a harrowing experience that was more stressful than most people’s midterms that year — and had the time of my life screaming out the lyrics along with everyone else packed like sardines inside the Thunderdome. I went skinny-dipping in the ocean with a group of girls who lived in my hall. We suffered through the food at Portola Dining Commons, thankful for the Lucky Charms that sustained us.

It was a strange time. Freshman year was exciting for me academically, but I look back on those days and wish I had made more of an effort. Maybe if I had spent some time getting out and exploring instead of staying in with my boyfriend every night, I would have more stories to report for this time in my life.

If I could give one piece of advice to my 18-year-old self, it would be this: Don’t hold onto someone if they’re not letting you grow. The security net of a partner who knows you, who cares more about you than the multitude of other people entering your life freshman year, can be irresistibly tempting. But you will never be able to integrate into a place without letting yourself experience that initial discomfort. I finished my freshman year feeling a lot more familiar with my surroundings but not at all like I was a part of them.

My experience as a Gaucho was about to get worlds better, but not before it got much, much worse. Fall Quarter of my sophomore year was when I learned that sometimes you really do have to hit rock bottom before you can find your way back up again.

That autumn I fell into a deep depression, perhaps the worst bout of this peculiar illness I’ve ever experienced. I spent my days either sitting in class or lying in bed, perpetually resting my body to conserve the energy I needed to fulfill the minimal requirements of a life I did not desire to be a part of. My mind was also exhausted from processing the constant stream of thoughts that life was pointless, I would always be alone, I wasn’t good enough and I would never be able to make it through 60 more years of this existence if even one more day seemed like too much to handle.

The thought of walking to the dining commons and being surrounded by a hundred happy people was mentally overwhelming, and the thought of driving to Trader Joe’s to buy my own food was physically overwhelming, so I stopped eating. Picking up the phone to text a friend, make plans and show up to those plans was an equally daunting task. I still showed up to my classes most days, but anything beyond that demanded more energy and inclination than I possessed at the time.

Like I said before, mental illness is a peculiar thing. Being in the throes of it as a college student makes the experience all the more peculiar. The perpetually close proximity to your peers in real life and on social media makes it incredibly easy to convince yourself that you are the only person who isn’t taking advantage of the beach, the parties, the activism, internships, the gym and the hundreds of other activities college life has to offer. Appearances are deceiving, however. It took me a long time to realize that the people who are struggling the most, like I was, are the people you don’t see out and about. For every happy person in their element taking an Instagram picture on the beach, there were others like me who couldn’t find the strength to get out of bed that day.

In solving the problems that had plagued me inwardly for so long, I was finally able to look outward and fall head-over-heels in love with UCSB and the Isla Vista community.

That quarter was a miserable one for me, but my melancholia gave me the wakeup call that I needed to take control over my own life and seize agency to become the busy, happy college student I had wanted to be for the past year and a half. I saw my psychiatrist back home and went back on the antidepressants that had helped me in the past, which lifted most of the heavy fog from the corners of my brain where it had settled. I started writing for the Daily Nexus and joined several organizations that connected me with people who were passionate about the same things I was. I studied my ass off to be accepted into a small seminar on human sexuality with the Baldwins, professors I had always admired at UCSB. I ended the relationship that had been holding me back from pursuing my goals for so long.

When winter came around, my efforts toward self-improvement and happiness began to pay off. For the first time I was able to say that I truly loved myself, that I had accomplishments I was proud of and things to look forward to. And in solving the problems that had plagued me inwardly for so long, I was finally able to look outward and fall head-over-heels in love with UCSB and the Isla Vista community.

In the years preceding my college journey, the picture of Isla Vista that high school had painted in my head was probably more representative of the town as it had been in the mid-1980s. This is because my aunt and uncle had both attended the school, and I grew up hearing about wild Halloweens, couches burning on front lawns, police breaking up street riots and days spent surfing on the beach.

It turns out that the home I would come to know did not match a whole lot of these descriptions. UCSB has eclipsed the era out of which its reputation was born, but the tall tales remain in circulation. I’m not saying today’s Gauchos don’t know how to party, but the atmosphere has certainly shifted to more of a “work hard, play hard” mentality. On weeknights we stay up until the wee hours of the morning studying, writing papers, doing chemistry labs or whatever the task of the hour happens to be. We go out on Friday nights and give it all we have and then go out for Saturday morning brunch at Bagel Café to give us the fuel to do it all over again.

The intensity with which Gauchos go about both their work and their play is one of my favorite things about this school. On campus, our passion extends beyond the classroom. Rallies protesting the hateful practices of our president, the harmful Dakota Access Pipeline proposal, unjust tuition hikes and many more issues occur frequently. Our sustainability program involves many students devising and implementing solutions to the growing environmental crisis that only human beings are able to confront. Issues that I had never heard of before college are given a voice and call to action here.

This vibrant energy continues as you pass through the glow of Pardall Tunnel into the streets of Isla Vista. The thing that differentiates us from many other colleges, in my opinion, is that most of our student body, restaurants, shops, live music and parties are all contained in a two-square-mile area right outside of campus. Rather than being spread out among the surrounding area unaffiliated with UCSB, I.V. is the epitome of a college town, with over 90 percent of its residents being students.

I wish I had known that finding happiness is not a prescribed path; it’s a process, and it happens for everyone in different ways.

In the past few years, I have watched myself grow from an insecure, wide-eyed girl with no idea what to expect from my college years to a happy, busy upperclassman who can barely contain her excitement for life. Moving to an entirely new place and starting a new life in college was not as easy for me as movies and social media had led me to believe it would be. But that level of discomfort forced me to make the internal changes that were necessary for me to succeed in a college environment.

Everyone’s experiences are different; some people love college the moment they hit the ground running, and others discover that a university environment is simply not the right place for them to be happy and successful. I wish I had known that finding happiness is not a prescribed path; it’s a process, and it happens for everyone in different ways.

If I told my depressed self a year ago that I would be this happy today, she probably would have rolled her eyes and crawled back into bed. This coming year I will be living in the center of I.V., right down the street from both my freshman roommate and Bagel Café. Life has thrown me some unexpected challenges, but when I really think about it, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Laurel Rinehart hopes her experiences will inspire fellow Gauchos to pave their own path toward happiness in their college career.

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