As I prepared to leave for college, my father sat me down for a heart-to-heart chat.
“Josh,” he said, “I’m going to tell you the most important thing about going away to school.” My dad’s own university experience had been a little turbulent, so I was curious what his words of wisdom might entail.
“Make sure all your laundry is clean when you get there. Otherwise, you’ve got no clothes to wear, and you’ve got to waste time washing your stuff right away, and before you know it, you’re out of quarters.” Then he placed a small orange pill bottle in my hand, stood up, and left the room. When I opened the bottle, I saw that my father had filled it to the top with quarters. I still follow his advice every time I move, and the bottle of quarters is one of the most thoughtful, specific gifts I’ve ever received.
Most of the “wisdom” bestowed upon me as I left for school was less helpful. As an 18-year-old leaving home, often for the first time, you hear a lot of platitudes. Maxims handed down from generation to generation. You get the feeling that some of them don’t apply anymore, and others were never relevant in the first place. Here are some of my favorite dubious pieces of advice college freshman get:
1. Take Your Time Picking a Major
You’ve spent the last year and a half preparing for this moment. You have visited campus after campus, or at least website after website to narrow your choice down from a vast landscape of possibility. You’ve analyzed based on location, class size, faculty, extracurricular activities, and myriad other metrics. You’re locked in for four years and tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars. But for some reason, you’re supposed to be clueless as to what you actually want to learn when you get there.
If you know what you’re passionate about, jump on it right away. You can get a head start finding cool internships and knocking out prerequisites right off the bat. If you don’t know what you want to do, don’t freak out, but if you do, don’t let someone talk you out of your dreams.
On the flip side, definitely explore beyond your area of expertise. College is a time to broaden your horizons. If you’re a computer science major, check out a South Asian dance performance (kudos for making it off the internet!). If you are a poetry major, take an econ class. Also, get a job at your campus coffee shop. It’ll be good work experience for your future career. (Relax, poets. I was a creative writing major. We’re the same, you and I.)
2. You’ve Got to Make Your Own Mistakes
No you don’t.
While you certainly have the option of making your own mistakes, you can also learn from other peoples’ foibles. I’ve never done heroin, but I’ve got a pretty solid notion what it would be like. Because books and other people exist.
My freshman year, I didn’t drink at all. One of my best friends got blackout drunk on his way to a theme party, to which he was wearing a leather skirt and no underwear. He passed out and had to be taken to the hospital. The EMTs refused to move him until his roommate wrangled him into some boxers. Is his life richer and more nuanced for having that experience? Probably not. He has a story now, but you know who else also has that story? Everyone else. And we don’t have pictures on Facebook of us dressed in drag making a “metal” face and throwing devil horns in the air.
Just saying, don’t live in fear, but some mistakes you can leave for other people to make. You don’t have to be as wimpy as I was as a freshman, but you certainly don’t have to be a total disaster to learn about what life is.
3. Don’t Do Anything I Wouldn’t Do
This one is usually delivered by the “Cool Uncle” type. He leans in and pats you on the shoulder: “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” It’s often accompanied by a knowing wink. There are lots of things this guy wouldn’t do that are perfectly reasonable ideas. What exactly shouldn’t I do? Stay married to my first wife? Listen to music made after 1987 (New U2 albums do not count as new music!)? Trust Muslims? You wouldn’t do any of those, but they seem fine to me.
Plus, the realm of things you have done probably includes a ton of things I would never want to do. Like seeing Crosby Stills and Nash in concert. Or having a kid in my early 20’s.
Has this advice ever been given helpfully/sincerely? Maybe from one twin to another if they were trying to pull off some sort of identity swap and didn’t want to get caught.
4. These Are Going to be the Best Years of Your Life
Oh man, I hope not. College was great. I made friendships that (I assume) will last my whole life. I got to pursue my intellectual interests and passions. I interacted with people from all over the world and learned about different cultures.
You know when else I get to do that? The entire rest of my life. Plus, now I’ve got work force experience and financial autonomy. I (sort of) have a career, which in casual conversation sounds way cooler than a “major.” Since I graduated, I’ve done more traveling, writing, and girl-kissing than I did when I was in school.
If future-me had come back in a time machine to tell 18-year-old me that my life peaked by age twenty-two, I would have freaked out and spent the next four years doing all of the available drugs and having unprotected cake (that means no sit-ups), leaving my life in shambles. But maybe that would have just fulfilled the prophecy. Time travel is confusing! You learn that if you’re a philosophy major. Or if you ever sit anywhere near a philosophy major. (In fairness, some of my friends took the drugs and cakes route and are now in med school, so…)
I’m hoping college isn’t the best part of my life, insofar as I would, at some point, like to live in a place without roommates.
So there you have it, freshmen (or “first-years” on gender-conscious campuses). Pick your major whenever you want, but take time to explore. Don’t make any mistakes you don’t want to. Do things your uncle might not. And for goodness sake, please realize that your best days can still be in front of you.
But remember, kids. Bring plenty of quarters.