The midcollege crisis: a survival guide

Millenial Meltdown

Freshman move-in day two years ago was as exciting, nerve shredding and memorable as all the John Hughes movies promised it would be. Proverbial to the last drop.

The lines of freshly minted Golden Bears flanked by bemused moms and dads pooling into the residence halls to unpack “Scarface” posters and printer ink and photographing all the profanity carved underneath the top bunk for posterity — and Instagram — it felt like the beginning of an adventure. And with a firm handshake and a big hug for dad, the requisite sass from sister about how she’s turning your room into a yoga studio-commercial nail salon and an even bigger hug and kiss for teary-eyed, half-empty-nested mom, the journey into adulthood and all-nighter-hood and dining-hall-overindulgence-hood and who’s-going-to-do-my-laundry-hood, among other hoods, was inaugurated.

Fast forward exactly two years, and I found myself in a starkly different frame of mind. I organized a reconnaissance mission to the Units — officially to return an ill-advised maroon knitted beanie to Bancroft Clothing, unofficially to scout out the new freshmen for general hotness and student-to-lanyard ratios — and immediately regretted it.

All the wide-eyed earnest energy could have powered a family-sized sedan, and if the fashion choices of the incomers were any indication, the global Cal gear industry would be celebrating a very decadent month of revenue indeed.

Their youth, the uninhibited brightness of their future, their joy and their meal plans: All of it repelled me.

So here I am, now a junior at UC Berkeley. I have a Linkedin account — no bites yet, guys. I have a fridge full of dinosaur chicken nuggets. In two years — three, if Netflix continues to add Disney movies to its instant streaming library — I’ll graduate with a liberal arts degree, which means I’ll be fighting off competitively salaried job offers with a cattle prod. I even received $30 worth of iTunes gift cards in the mail from my grandma for, get this, Labor Day.

I should be ecstatic. But like a middle-aged general contractor who has a left-ear piercing and drives a Mustang, I am in crisis: a midcollege crisis. Official terminology: crisisus midus collegius.

It’s not an uncommon malady. Suddenly, there are more last-minute essays, C.R.E.A.M wrappers and Berkeley squirrel droppings behind you than in front of you.

And it’s terrifying. Terrifying because of the rapidly approaching inevitability of entering the “Real World.” The hit MTV reality show where everyone lives in a Spanish-style mansion and exchanges strains of the human papillomavirus, you ask? No, the other less-fun, more-clothed real world. The one your parents like to broach delicately during discussions of your double major in Japanese stage acting and sociology. The one that you have, by now, been conditioned to contemplate with some combination of horror and pathological denial. Nothing good happens in the real world. Second mortgages and office capture-the-flag tournaments happen in the “real world.” Air quotes happen in the real world.

The other half of the enchilada is the unavoidable beleaguered and melancholy feelings that arrive when we’re halfway through what has been — somewhat ominously — baptized the Best Four Years of Our Lives.

That’s a lot of pressure.

Part of what makes freshman year such a landmark in the collegiate itinerary is the complete absence of expectation, minus the expectation to make mistakes. Try new things, see new things, learn new things and, with any luck, add some new things to our personhoods. And learn new words, like personhood. The road ahead doesn’t feel limited or garnished with any unpleasant caveats, and choices are made with the impulsiveness that comes with that kind of latitude.

But once you’ve driven past the midway point, all the flexibility and indulgence that so characterize the early years seem to fade away, leaving a lot of expectation and a much-narrower window for breathing room and experimentation in its stead.

Not to mention all the fear this crisis engenders. Fear you’ve already experienced all the intriguing, novel things college had in store for you. And the fear that comes with knowing you only have a finite amount of time left to enjoy them.

Fear. Expectation. Misery. Netflix. Sadness. Pressure. Lots of nostalgia, too. And maybe a little nausea. Nostausea?

It’s not actually as bad as it sounds. Of course, college is an incredible, indispensable four years. Many of us will reflect on them as some of our best — especially if, like me, those reflections will be from the vantage point of a part-time barista waiting in suburban San Diego for Martin Scorsese to walk in, buy an espresso con panna and discover him. But as unpalatable as participation in the real world tastes now, being halfway done with college could be looked at as being halfway closer to the next huge adventure. I think Dumbledore described death in similar terms.

Yes, the freshmen have their lanyards, and their fresh faces, and their dining-hall salad bars. They have their four years. But we’ve been there and done that. The real world we’re so heartbreakingly close to is scary, but so was college on that big first day. And look how incredible that’s turned out to be — read: dinosaur chicken nuggets and iTunes gift cards.

We don’t need to pine for the naivete of underclassmenship. We’ve got knowledge, and experience and memories in the bag.

And if two more years of this crazy college thing aren’t enough, cue up some Disney movies on Netflix and take a third.

Jacob Leonard writes the Thursday column on the plight of the young. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @leonardjp.