To all the colleges I loved before: A personal essay

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This past Valentine’s Day, I sat down and watched the third installment in the “To All The Boys” film series. I thought it would be cute and easy to watch — and it didn’t disappoint. But by the time I was a third of the way into the movie, I realized the crux of the plot was going to be Lara Jean choosing between UC Berkeley and New York University.

As a senior rounding out my final semester of college, my response to this was mainly an eye roll, but there was a part of it that irritated me in the way that nestles under your skin and doesn’t let you forget about it.

Listen, I like Lara Jean a lot. I think she’s really cute and very smart, and I want her to be happy. That being said, I am tired of the teen movies with characters written as smart and driven getting to choose between a handful of very exclusive and prestigious universities.

While it annoys me now, as a high schooler, it was extraordinarily damaging. When I was 15, I started watching “Gilmore Girls,” and I absolutely adored Rory Gilmore. I thought she was living the dream: She had a really lovely relationship with her mom, she was always dating cute boys and she was brilliant (a journalist, no less). And sure enough, come senior year, she gets a mailbox full of thick envelopes, even as her rich, smart and ambitious nemesis gets thin ones. A good portion of that season depicts Rory deliberating between Harvard (her lifelong dream school) and Yale (her grandfather’s alma mater and driving distance from her fictional hometown, Stars Hollow).

Come my own senior year, the voices of middle school teachers and well-meaning relatives still rang in my ears: “You’re so smart! You’ll have your choice of colleges.” While a kind sentiment, and one that proved to be true, my senior year did not look like Rory’s at all.

I did have my pick: I got into a few CSU schools, a few UC schools and one private college. But I was waitlisted at all of my top choices and rejected from UC Berkeley. So I did have choices to make, but the basis of that choice was far less about whether I wanted my mother to be able to drive to campus unannounced or if I would be betraying a long-held attachment to a certain Ivy League school and more about which school offered me financial aid (a question that pretty much immediately eliminated said private college) and then, distantly, if I could picture myself as happy at that school.

That second question is flawed, to say the least, but it’s also the one we see most often in teen college movies. Lara Jean, who happily would’ve gone to Stanford just to be with Peter, now has to decide if she’ll be happy at UC Berkeley when it becomes obvious to the audience that she was “meant to be” in New York.

I kept looking for that feeling, the sense of certainty and belonging that I’d seen over and over again in movies, but it just never came. I toured UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara — the schools I was deciding between ultimately — and found that they didn’t actually seem that different. They were ranked about evenly for my major, were both far enough from home that it would be a completely new experience and the campuses distinctly lacked the rolling green hills and ivy-covered brick buildings that I had always imagined as the backdrop of my college experience (in no small part because of Rory).

When decision time came, I told myself I was so excited to go to UCSD, but I said it with the kind of emphasis of a person trying too hard to be convincing. I eagerly waited for my sweatshirt, so I could advertise my school pride and externalize the enthusiasm I desperately wanted to feel.

Two years down the line, and I transferred to UC Berkeley. The reasons I left are long and complicated, but I would be lying if I said the fact that UC Berkeley was more prestigious and well-known (Troy Bolton went here; it was in “The Graduate”) didn’t cross my mind.

When decision time came, I told myself I was so excited to go to UCSD, but I said it with the kind of emphasis of a person trying too hard to be convincing.

The truth is, I really do feel like I fit in better here. I love living in Berkeley, I love the school and I’ve made some of my best friends here. But I’ve also asked countless people why they decided to go to UC Berkeley and they told me, “It was the best school I got into.” Lots of those people now love it, but I bet when they first toured or were sitting in front of that screen deciding whether or not to accept their admission, their minds were doing what mine did at UCSD: This isn’t where I saw myself being, but what choice do I have?

I’m glad Lara Jean didn’t go to UC Berkeley. Having a boyfriend who goes to Stanford is not a good reason to come here (and frankly is a little offensive — Go Bears), but I was still envious of the look in her eyes at that NYU party.

I’m not saying I think teen movies should be more realistic because isn’t the point of watching them getting to live vicariously through someone else’s beautiful and romantic life? But I just don’t know if the agony of endlessly waiting for the moment when it clicks that you’re where you’re supposed to be is worth the momentary bliss of seeing it fictionalized on screen.

Let’s get rid of throwing Harvard, NYU or UC Berkeley around as a movie shorthand for “this character is smart and driven.” Let’s get some more brilliant and driven protagonists choosing between UC Irvine and the University of Oregon. Let’s get some brilliant and driven protagonists going to community college because they want to, not as some kind of punishment or joke. The fact is, getting into Harvard (and even UC Berkeley) is not reflective of intelligence or ambition; more often than not, the only reliable predictors of admission into prestigious universities these days are money and luck.

What’s more, there’s really no way to know what going to any given university is like until you’re there, so all we can do is try and figure out where we’ll be happiest, knowing full well that it’s a fool’s errand. The universe isn’t going to drop rooftop parties in our laps, so we’ll just have to make our own and believe that a night at UC Davis or Grinnell College or CSU Monterey Bay can be just as magical as one at NYU or Harvard.

Contact Paige Prudhon at [email protected].