College freshman get a lot of advice, usually tempered with love and some sobering words about the job market. But somewhere in those late-August speeches, you are almost always told that college is The Best Four Years Of Your Life. And we all know, without being told, what that means: we see the same beer-soaked bacchanals and apartment-sized dorm rooms and homework-free seminars where you sit under a tree with your tweed-clad professor and spitball about Camus. Even the most studious matriculants, somewhere in silent reading rooms of their subconscious, must harbor a fantasy like this.
But this is, as it turns out, a fantasy, a simulacrum pieced together out of old photos and Animal House and the first season of Felicity. You, all of us, are or were seeking a platonic ideal of college and of youth that never existed. I certainly was.
My senior spring of high school, in the final throes of my decision-making process, I did an overnight at an unnamed women's college. I asked my hostess if you could have a normal undergraduate life there, if you could go to parties, have male friends, in short, have fun.
"Well," she replied. "You won't have a typical college experience, but you will spend four years figuring out what it means to you to be a woman."
I promptly narrowed my choices to University of Michigan or Georgetown. I didn't care if I never knew my cervix from my Steinem, I was going to chase the dragon of the "typical college experience."
This concept of what is typical or fun or acceptable is not just a societal trick. We reinforce it for ourselves, in real-time, huddled around our laptops, crafting an online narrative of The Best Four Years Of Our Lives. I remember, or rather "remember," the night I blacked out about an hour into the in-retrospect-ominously titled Hot Pants and 40s party. I somehow took 189 photos that night then posted them to Facebook the next morning in a carefully edited parcel.
This story seems emblematic of the worst aspects of the early college mindset. The documentation, the hard evidence that you were young and free ends up mattering more than the experience ever will; you catch yourself checking to make sure you're having fun. I'm still guilty of this. I scroll through my timeline like it's microfiche, the archived primary source of my youth. "I must have been happy," I think. "Look at all these pictures of me smiling."
In summation: These are not the best four years of your life. (Or three years. Or six. I don't know how many APs you took or how many core classes you'll fail.) Or rather, they are the best, but not in the way that you think they will be.
College is a dress rehearsal for adulthood in many ways and contains lots of the same triumphs and failures on a smaller scale. Students always talk about life after school as "the real world," as if life on campus is somehow fake. It isn't. It all counts. It is not a discrete, magical, perfect part of your life and should not be treated as such. Every class will not be perspective-altering. Every friendship will not last. I loved my time at school fervently but I was ready for it to be over. College has its peaks and valleys, just like everything else.
This might sound depressing but I hope it doesn't. To enter college admonishing yourself to get all your brilliant thoughts and friends and fun in now because it's all downhill from here is bleak, at best. And at worst, you are dooming yourself to failure before you even begin, unable to live up to a set of expectations based on a fiction.
So, class of 2016, if I may heap some more advice on your over-advised ears: Do what you want, not what you think you should want. Do not worry that you are missing out something that never existed in the first place. And if you want to spend four years figuring out what it means to you to be a woman, go for it. Tell me how it was.