People love saying it. Older adults, on hearing that you’ve just moved into the dorms or pledged a sorority will smile warmly at you, getting this faraway, dreamy look in their eyes. There are more movies glorifying college than one could count, and the romanticized ideal is often the same: a gorgeous, grassy campus, attractive young people everywhere you look, genuinely fascinating classes but also a fair share of parties and, most importantly, lifelong friendships. But that expectation (that pressure, really) can be suffocating to live with and deeply disappointing when it doesn’t live up to the ideal.
Maybe it’s because you end up working during most of your free time, or because somehow you haven’t managed to find a relationship in 3 years, or because the major you thought would define your career is turning out to be all wrong. Maybe some of your friends have changed. Nothing is worse than having put all of your hopes into one thing, only to have it fail to live up to your standards. The worst is turning around to tell your parents, or the friends who are not having the slightest bit of difficulty, and just having them blink back in sympathy and confusion.
There were times in college that I did not love in the least, and it killed me to think that I was wasting “the best years of my life.” I resented that phrase, but blamed myself for not having a better time. What could possibly be unsatisfying about being surrounding by people your age all the time? In the beginning, especially, I didn’t know what subject to study, which conflicting advice to take, who to trust. It was trying in a way that I never could have anticipated. And yet even complaining about it seemed ungrateful and weird.
But in an almost predictably clichéd way, it did get better. Every year, things started to click into place, classes got significantly more interesting, friendships solidified. It wasn’t a smooth, even path. There were setbacks and self-doubts riddled throughout. But it always seemed to be growing, shifting into something new.
What I did not expect was how great the couple of years after graduation was. Paradoxically, the fact that I had no expectations (in fact, the worst—everyone just said it’d be hard to find a job), gave me a huge sense of liberation. For the first time in my life, no one had any plan for me, and it felt like this guidebook had abruptly come to the end of its pages. I just worked my restaurant jobs, sometimes cramming my schedule with shifts, sometimes barely picking up any (who could tell me not to?). It was intoxicatingly fun.
Every time I’ve gone back to the neighborhood where I lived during college, I’m overwhelmed with the familiarity–the scent of the main street, especially, filled with cheap Chinese and dive bars. And the funny thing is, I don’t actually remember a lot of the bad times—the brain has a way of glossing over that for us. I don’t remember a lot of the specific good times, either, unless I really think hard about it. But for whatever reason, I do have a very good feeling that comes to mind. It feels something like…being vaguely excited all the time, even if I wasn’t happy in the moment. Of having my friends around all the time, even if we weren’t at our best. Of spending time talking about music, and art, and books, even if I knew they weren’t going to lead to a job.
What I wish someone had told me is this: Forget the ideal. It’s not going to be perfect. Some of your friends will change, some of your classes will feel useless, and many people you date will make you question the state of society. But when you look back on it, it will seem like so many shards of memory that shine brightly and warmly in your mind: that one conversation you had on the stairs with your roommate, that musty café where you spent hours ‘working,’ the first day back from Spring Break when the cherry blossoms would bloom and everyone would be suddenly more talkative and more attractive. And you will recognize that there was something unique about it that you don’t have or feel anymore, even though you’re arguably happier now. Maybe it wasn’t “college,” maybe it was just being young. But, despite yourself, you’ll feel excited for other people starting it. And you’ll wish the best for them, the slightest ring of nostalgia in your voice.
If you still need more encouragement, read this article. My sister sent it to me my Freshman year and I’ll never forget it.