Shattering our idea of the college experience: A personal essay

Illustration of freshman
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My first day at UC Berkeley was absolutely overwhelming. I was a junior transfer moving into freshman dorms, and I was far from pleased about it. My mother, with her bad back, clutched pillows, while I navigated the precarious pile of everything I owned on a dolly ill-equipped for the bumpy terrain between the parking garage to my building. 

My patience wore even thinner, as I encountered other families similarly struggling to keep everything together moving in the opposite direction in the narrow alley. It was barely noon, I was already wanting to go home, and I was far from ready to concede that this was it.

In the trips between the car and the room, I felt the chilly fog of a Northern California morning dissipate into a warm summer afternoon. I found myself waxing nostalgic. I grew up in the South Bay but spent the last two years in San Diego, where the weather varies far less during the course of a day, and where my friends had frequently joked at my tendency to bring a jacket with me whenever I left the house, regardless of what the temperature outside promised. 

On our last trip, I shrugged off my hoodie and looked around the room, trying to imagine what it would look like to spend the next nine months there and wondering, not for the first time, if I’d made the right choice. 

I occupy a very small niche here at UC Berkeley, in that I am part of the 6% of my class of incoming transfers who transferred from another four-year university — to be more specific, another UC. This boils down to the reality that I willingly uprooted my life to get the same degree from a different institution. 

The reasons I did this are complicated, and frankly, I give a different answer every time someone asks. These days I generally say it’s nice to be closer to home, which is true to a degree, but I can’t say I didn’t love the city of San Diego. I suspect the answer closest to the truth comes down to something I’m not entirely proud of. As much as I adore the friends I made in my two years at UC San Diego, and as much as I had some fun times, I felt like I was missing something fundamental about college. 

I felt left out of the college experience.

You know the one. It’s that picture that comes to mind when family friends talk about their college days with misty eyes or the sort of raucous fun that Hollywood continues to immortalize with films such as “Animal House” and, more recently, “Pitch Perfect.” It looks like red Solo cups, smells like cheap beer and feels like the humid air of a frat house stuffed to the brim with people writhing, bumping into each other and hopping to music too loud and lights too dim. 

It’s that picture that comes to mind when family friends talk about their college days with misty eyes or the sort of raucous fun that Hollywood continues to immortalize with films such as “Animal House” and, more recently, “Pitch Perfect.”

For two years, even as I tried to tell myself that I wasn’t into parties and wouldn’t have gone to football games even if we’d had a team, I couldn’t shake the feeling that that wasn’t entirely true. 

I’ve been here for two months, now, and my friends at other universities are beginning to want serious answers about how I’m adjusting. I feel like I have a clearer picture of what the classic college experience looks like in practice, and I feel conflicted, to say the least.

I have managed to do nearly everything I set out to at the start of the year. I’ve joined organizations that more closely match my interest and are geared toward the humanities, a task which proved Sisyphean at my previous college. I’ve been to football games, and I’ve seen the 7:30 a.m. game day parties, which I frankly didn’t really believe actually happened until seeing it with my own eyes. And, perhaps most importantly, I’ve been out on weekend nights. I’ve seen those parties I only imagined, and suddenly the picture I’d been constructing of a “real” college experience shattered.

Of course, I didn’t expect to see the glamorized Hollywood version of a college party, and there were parts of it that met my expectations, but largely, it felt empty. Perhaps this is a side effect of living on a floor in a residence hall largely occupied by freshmen, but I felt too old, like I was experiencing this two years too late, and this feeling cheapened the experience. 

Perhaps this disillusion comes from me being a transfer student now, and transfers are often left out of the Hollywood version of the college experience. Beyond that, I’m a transfer in a very small minority of students, and unlike most of my peers, I’ve just moved back from a new place rather than having left home for the first time. My parents have visited more weekends this semester than they did the entire time I lived in San Diego. 

Or maybe the issue rests with misguided expectations. My older friends, parents, relatives, teachers and pretty much anyone I know who has graduated from college often tell me that their university years were the best years of their life. A terrifying fact to contend with as I round the second half of my college career, but one I believe. 

There are some absolutely wonderful aspects about being in college, particularly as a student who lives near campus. All my friends live in walking distance, most even in the same building. I get to spend most of my days in classrooms filled with people as genuinely interested in the material as I am. When I go home, yes, there’s work to be done, but it’s work I can usually do in groups of friends, all of us sharing in the pleasure of complaining about tasks that we all know will get done by the end of the day.

I worried I was missing out on stories that I would someday tell my younger siblings, friends and relatives to explain why my college years were the best of my life. 

Part of the reason I left my old college was to hunt for some kind of mythical college experience. I worried that I was spending the best years of my life locked in doors in one of the most beautiful places in the world, when I could be out partying on Friday nights. I worried I was missing out on stories that I would someday tell my younger siblings, friends and relatives to explain why my college years were the best of my life. 

I was afraid I wouldn’t have anything to tell them. I know now that whether or not I’d left UCSD, that wouldn’t have been true, but I’m glad I got to experience both because now I know that the college experience is nuanced and complicated and exciting but also absolutely terrifying. 

The college experience that middle school me learned from the likes of “Pitch Perfect” isn’t real — at least, I’ve never seen it. But that doesn’t mean that there’s anything less significant about what really happens in these hallowed halls. 

Luckily, I still have two fleeting years left. I can’t say for sure, but in 10 years when I’m looking back on my college days, I suspect what I’ll remember fondly are those weekday nights in study lounges, ignoring open books as we sift through greasy bags of takeout and groan about the mounds of homework we’re putting off. I suspect I’ll remember the Friday nights when I stayed in and played cards as much as the nights we wound up at a frat house yelling at each other over red cups of cheap beer. I suspect the distinction won’t matter much in a few years, because I suspect I’ll miss all of it. 

And so, on days like today, when it seems like there are too many books to read, too many assignments to do, too many midterms on the horizon and never enough time, I try to think about what my college experience looks like. I don’t think it would make for a very good film, but I think it’ll make for pretty great memories.

Contact Paige Prudhon at [email protected].