The cars are knotting up along the main drag here in Charlottesville, while I sit and eat lunch on the corner. It is back to school season at the University of Virginia and it seems like every other car responsible for the gnarling of traffic is disgorging young, fresh-faced first years for their orientation to college life. Ten years ago, I was one of those fresh-faced first years. I remember practically running from the safety of my mother's Volvo after saying our goodbyes, waiting to smoke one of the illicit cigarettes I hid from my family, excited for college and the freedom it brought. I was ready to conquer the world, no time for parents. Also, a friend of mine who was over 21 was going to bring me a bottle of Jagermeister and a bottle of vodka, so I had more important stuff to do.
That excitement proved short lived. Over the next two-and-a-half years it dawned on me, gradually, that I hated college. As I thought about it, I considered the possibility that I didn't hate college, just the University of Virginia. There were things to hate, of course: UVA has always been a preppy haven, with popped collars and rows of fraternity houses playing a central role in social life on grounds. I went to visit friends on other campuses and found that my malaise wasn't so odd, that no other place seemed like an ideal cocoon either.
So, I didn't hate the University of Virginia. I just hated college. But college was something I needed to to, wasn't it? So I doubled down on my parent's investment. I got involved. My first year, I joined the University Guide Service and gave tours of campus. I attended lectures and speeches in my free time, sucked up to professors for recommendations, even studied once and a while. I also got accepted as an resident advisor for my second year, an opportunity for free housing and a resume bullet that would look good to future employers. (Then I smoked pot in a dorm building and got caught, so they fired me from the RA gig before I even started -- not that I blame them. The day I smoked was the same day I interviewed, so to keep me was an act of cognitive dissonance too strong to ignore). All this activity didn't do much to numb the nagging feeling that what I was doing here, how I was spending my time, was a total waste.
I considered my ways out. I tried to transfer to Deep Springs College, a crazy place out in California's desert where all the students, less than 30, are on full scholarship and do graduate level coursework on top of maintaining a working beef ranch -- and they do this while completely sober and away from women. An offer of admission was not extended and I was grateful. There was no way in hell I was going to work that hard with no booze and no women with 20 dudes in some desert in the middle of nowhere.
I don't make the best decisions. Still unhappy, I finally dropped out and joined the Army. Less than a year later, I found myself in Afghanistan as a member of an infantry platoon. No booze. No women. Hard work. Plenty of desert and violence. Years later, after all that, I was out of the Army and trying to figure out what to do. I'd tried to go back to school right after my discharge and then broke my back in a car accident. After recuperating, I moved to New York City for a writing project and California for an ex-girlfriend, where I soon found myself stranded.
The goodwill of family, friends, and some incredibly generous strangers put me back on track: I moved back in with my folks, got my benefits with the Veterans Administration straightened out, and got myself readmitted to UVA -- though it took a readmission packet longer than the form I'd filled out for my army security clearance, given a spotty post-war record that included institutionalizations, a few arrests, and a 10-day stint in jail. Now I'm back and the Huffington Post has asked me to write about it for their College section.
I'm not sure what to write. In college, having people know you're a combat veteran is sort of like identifying yourself as a foreign exchange student because you clearly haven't assimilated into the host family's culture. So I guess I'll start there, putting on my pith helmet and exploring for the unique observations a 29-year-old combat veteran who is also a junior in college might have. If you're curious about specific, chime in in the comments, and thanks for reading. Wahoo-wah!