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Aliza Polkes Headshot

I Love/Hate College

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Today was my last first day of school.

At least, it was my last first day of school as an undergrad. When I walked onto campus this morning, I tried to remember what it felt like to take this same walk two years ago, when I first started as a sophomore at Columbia. Even more difficult was trying to remember my first walk across Founder's Green, when I started as a freshman at Haverford College.

Do I finally belong here? I wondered.

A clichéd question, but a pertinent one none-the-less. There is the assumption that with time; with experience; with seniority, comes the ability to say - in a way that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago - here I am. I've made it.

The question of "belonging" is a particularly significant one to me. I'm a transfer student. Well, I was a transfer student. It's no longer the way in which I introduce myself, as was the case sophomore year, when I felt as though my transfer status had to be worn like a badge of shame. I wasn't a freshman but I wasn't really a sophomore. I hadn't spent the previous year bonding with my fellow classmates over Literature Humanities, a required Columbia course for all freshmen, or comparing the advantages of living in John Jay to living in Carman, both exclusively freshman dorms. I remember thinking that this was a part of my Columbia identity which would always remain incomplete - a constant reminder of my initial failure to find my place at the right college: the school which guidance counselors, older students, movies, books, parents, and peers had promised would be the place where I would spend the best 4 years of my life. I would always, I somewhat gloomily surmised, be Aliza the transfer. Aliza who would never really belong at Columbia, even if I proved myself with clubs and good grades and friends.

Now, two years later, I suppose it would be nice to wrap up this piece by being able to say that my line of thought was naïve; that I have, in fact, found my place, and that I finally belong, with all vestiges of my shameful 1st year "mistake" having disappeared.

Nothing I've yet to experience in life is quite so black and white.

It's certainly not that way for college. Do I belong at Columbia? Have I finally gotten it? I don't think those are the right questions to be asking. If my experience has taught me anything, it's that college is volatile. For any feeling of absolute "belonging" there will be ten thousand moments of feeling ungrounded, purposeless. I don't say this to try and suggest that college is not an experience to be enjoyed, or one that does not improve as the four years pass. Instead, I feel like college is a collection of shifting pieces, so constantly in flux that it never gives one the chance to definitively deem the experience "good" or "bad".

It's college. You make mistakes. You gain and lose friends. You skip lectures to sleep in; you wake up early to hear a professor speak. We come, we study, we party, we leave. Do any of us really belong? The best we can do is find the good parts. Because those good parts can be really, really good.

As I neared my classroom this morning, I saw a familiar face: we stopped, waved, and briefly caught up, making plans to meet later this week. Did I belong at Columbia? Had I finally made it? Was I finally an example of someone who had done college right? I don't know. But in that moment, I was happy.