What the First Year of College Really Teaches You

06/02/2015 03:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016
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There are always celebrations to mark the passage of time between eras in our lives: birthday parties, graduations, marriage anniversaries. And yet, when I woke up on the morning of my 18th birthday, I didn't feel a year older. The numbers that helped to define me had changed but there was no full body experience that corresponded with the official transition. When I asked my parents how they felt on their 21st wedding anniversary compared to their 20th, their answer was a mutual shrug and an agreement that they felt the same amount of love and affection for each other that they did 12 months ago to the day. Over time, you come to incorporate the new numbers into your speech. When people ask you how old you are, you say 19 instead of 18. When people ask what grade you're in, you say 12th instead of 11th. You repeat the information used to keep track of your existence and continue to mature at your own pace.

So I have no clue why I thought my first year of college was going to change everything.

Before I graduated high school, college was this magical place where I would grow into this responsible, mature adult who balanced fun and school. College was where I would find true love, my life's passion, and friends that would carry me through everything. My middle and high school years were spent yearning for the days to come when I wouldn't have to sit by myself at a lunch table, where crushes wouldn't reject me left and right. College was the Promised Land and I believed that 2014 was going to be the year that changed my life because of it. Luckily, I was right, but in all the wrong ways.

That first day at college is unlike any other celebration of time that you've ever experienced because you can feel the difference. There's a new energy in the air that tingles in your fingertips and pumps the adrenaline through your veins: freedom. No more curfews, groundings, and rules about ice cream for dinner. No more family events that you have to attend, chores that you have to finish before dinner is on the table, and arguments about where to spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon. Instead, you can do whatever you want, and for those of us who used to leave high school parties early so that we could be home before the clock struck midnight, the idea of being out with friends for however long you desired was foreign and intoxicating. We got (metaphorically) drunk on freedom. And for that first week, it was exactly how I had imagined it. I was happy.

However, it was a cold autumn evening when I realized that college was not all I had hoped it would be. With a birthday falling in September, I'm a bit younger than most my classmates. This wasn't a usual problem until it was my third week into college and I was all alone at the campus Starbucks with no scrumptious birthday cake in front of me and no candles lighting up the room. I hadn't made close enough friends from school yet and my family, along with my friends from grade school, was miles away. I remember when the numbing realization settled over me: I was on my own.

The first semester of college was everything I had dreamed of along with everything that terrified me to the core. I was able to take advantage of my freedom but at the end of the day, I had no one there who truly understood who I was. The good days were uplifting but the bad days were devastating. I had no idea how to be an adult and take care of myself. Everything was happening so fast. I visited home every three weeks, soaking in every moment with my family. I texted friends from back home and found that they were too busy to speak to me. My life had been turned upside down, just like I always knew it would be.

Throughout the mayhem, I nestled into organizations on campus and even took the time to find a job. I met hundreds of people who had majors from Astrophysics to Philosophy and I wondered how we were all going to find our niche in this world. I made the decision to work in fast food and saw the world through the eyes of dishwashers and cash registers. I budgeted my money so that I wouldn't starve and ended up spending it all on music and restaurants anyway. My bed got a bit more comfortable every night and my trips home started to lessen. My friends and I went on crazy nighttime adventures and laughed until the ache in our bones started to heal. The loneliness was still there but over time, it began to fade to muted warmth of coals in the pit of my stomach.

It was a wet Spring afternoon when I realized that it was going to be okay. I had just taken a new job offer that required me to speak to incoming freshmen about how exciting their first year of college was going to be. It was all about opportunities and freedom, emphasizing the idea that it was going to be the best year of their lives. That was the moment when I understood how college changes your life for the better: it teaches you to grow up. Everything is not going to be perfect but you come to learn that growing up is not about being comfortable where you are. Growing up is about understanding that it's the discomfort that pushes you to mature. Growing up is about understanding that the loneliness does not define you but its presence does not mean that you have failed.

Rather, its presence means that you are stepping out into the world with the knowledge that you can thrive.