In high school, adults constantly told me, College will be the best years of your life.
I was told that I should savor every minute of it, so that when I am older and less free I can look back fondly at late nights spent sitting on a dorm room carpet eating pizza with my large group of friends packed together like sardines, reiterating some profound idea we heard in class and claiming it as our own. So that I can remember falling in love for the first time, or getting drunk and stumbling down a dark street to a party, or finally discovering who I am, what my purpose is and how I will get there.
I went to a small private school known for its extreme wealth — where my mom was a teacher — from fourth grade until I graduated high school. The school’s substantial discount in tuition and resources compared to other schools in our district were too great of an opportunity to pass up.
I stumbled awkwardly through the rocky stages of adolescence. I joined choirs, shows, even sports teams, relentlessly attempting to find my place in a sea of navy blue uniforms and students proudly flashing their school medals on their chests as they marched down the hallways.
Though I eventually found a home at my school, I was often overcome by the feeling that I was an outsider looking into a world I couldn’t possibly understand. Wait for college, adults would tell me.
That feeling was no less apparent when it came time to decide where I would go. Though my family was able to save up enough money for two years, I would not be able to attend a four year school like the rest of my class. I went to community college, an institution my classmates would quip they’d end up at if they didn’t maintain their stellar GPAs.
And so, my friends packed their bags and headed off to their chosen universities. They would call walking to and from their classes, excitedly describing their first lectures, their new roommates, their first taste of alcohol. When they came back to visit, a powerful self-assurance radiated off of them. They looked older — they had left their childhood homes, entered the gates of Stanford, Yale or NYU and emerged as instant adults.
I, on the other hand, felt like a high schooler posing as a college student. I would attend my classes, work at the campus cafe and return home to my parents.
I knew other students by their coffee orders or if they spoke in class, but the same feeling of distance followed me. I was waiting for the best years of my life.
I envisioned my friends’ lives like scenes out of a hit early 2000s college movie, the kinds I saw glimpses of in adults’ eyes when they’d say, Wait for college. When I was in high school, admissions scouts from those schools visited often to hand out pamphlets of smiling students. They promised not only independence, but unsurpassable happiness.
I convinced myself that I was doing college wrong. I worked long hours, knew few students by name and, in my first year of college, struggled with the aftermath of an assault by a fellow student. In short, I was unhappy.
The more I drifted through my freshman year, unengaged, dealing with the trauma of my first few months alone, the more I questioned whether the life I envisioned for myself would truly make me happy: Would living away from home with a multitude of friends and strangers or undertaking rigorous academics in historic classrooms distract me from the pain I was experiencing?
When I finally summoned up the courage to share my experiences with my friends, they confessed that they felt the same way. Despite the thousands of eager young faces, the thrill of a new place, they felt alone – that everyone else was happier, more fulfilled.
The future I imagined in college was a fantasy, and I stopped waiting for it to be realized to be happy. I joined clubs, organizations, a dance group. I connected with students and professors as I handed them their coffee. I stayed on campus for far too long, until the boba shop where I studied with my newfound friends closed at midnight, and I headed back home to rise again with the sun and do it all over again.
Now that I have transferred to a university my middle school self couldn’t have imagined attending, my college experience has hardly changed. During a global pandemic, in which the “traditional” college experience has shattered, we are forced to make college meaningful in our own way.
I launch Zoom and spend my days behind my computer, looking out the window onto campus. Though it no longer rumbles with the footsteps and voices of students and professors, I do not feel alone. I have found solace in a small family of friends and a certain steadiness in accepting my college years for what they are: painful, ordinary and spectacular.