The College Experience
The other day, a friend of mine said to me, “You spend a lot of time in your columns discussing high school culture. What about college culture?”
I hadn’t realized that I seem to dwell on high school that much. Maybe there’s some deep psychological significance behind it. Maybe not. I don’t think any of us will ever forget high school, though some may try. But we are who we are partly due to high school.
I think last year I was too focused on the little details and trying to keep my head above water to really understand the special atmosphere unique to college. Freshmen must hit the ground running and never look back; sophomores have the luxury of being able to look at freshmen with a knowing smile and a year’s experience behind them.
Starting college made me feel oh-so-mature and grown up. After all, I was on my own, in Boston, no less. I could stay out late, I could walk around the city by myself, I could even leave home without quarters in my pocket for phone calls. I could stay up late, I could sleep in until 2 pm. I didn’t have to make my bed. I was da bomb.
It’s funny -- after completely immersing myself in college life for nine months, it was easy to forget the existence of normal civilization. College students hardly see anyone under the age of fifteen, especially little children. World news seems so far away. We’re in our own little universe of parties and problem sets.
Returning home for the summer was an awakening. I relaxed for a week before starting my internship. Yet there were already some startling reminders of the real world. I had my own room; no roommate(s) for company and conversation. My house was amazingly clean. The food at dinner was delicious, and it was free! Dialing 9 to reach the outside was unnecessary, and although every call came from outside my house, I only heard single rings, not the double ring of off-campus calls.
The shock was even greater once I started working. Almost everyone there was significantly older than I was. Yet at work we were peers, and members of the real world. Members of the real world had to be at work at 8:00, a stretch for a college student. Many people in the real world owned a house, were married and were raising children, not to mention having a career. They came home and cooked dinner, and went to bed early.
This summer I realized simultaneously that I was eighteen -- and that I was only eighteen. Freshman year, I deluded myself into thinking that I was completely grown up and mature. I’m not. I may be ready for college, but I am not ready to be completely on my own. College is a completely different culture than anything else. A few thousand students roughly between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five live together in what amounts to our own little city. Crowded together into doubles and triples, we are brought together by our physical closeness, our similarities, our differences, our hatred for problem sets. We let down our guard to those around us who see us as soon as we wake up, at our crankiest and most irritable, and who like us anyway. We share the bathrooms with strangers who soon become friends. We laugh together, we cry together, we sleep through class together. We live in College Standard Time, about four hours behind everyone else. We never have quite enough money, and we get sick of cafeteria food, so we subsist on 25-cent Ramen noodles and boxes of oatmeal, and drink way too much coffee. We order pizza at 1 a.m. We hang out in our dorm rooms with unmade beds, CDs playing, posters on the walls, beanbag chairs and inflatable couches, until hours of the morning at which the rest of society is tucked into bed. And we love it.
When does the transition come from college student to member of the real world? Does it start in college, or is it only a few years after Commencement? Do we suddenly wake up one morning and realize that we have Grown Up? We may have to go to bed and wake up early for a job, but when do we stop minding? What happens to our beanbag chairs, and the posters that once hung on our walls?
There is a Blue Mountain greeting card which shows a man sitting bolt upright in bed, and it says “Twenty-six years after college, the mere smell of Ramen noodles sends Ralph into hysterics.” In a few years, we may wonder how we dealt with the not-really-clean bathrooms and kitchens and the bland food. But we will always remember college for the memories, the friendships, and the overall experience. College, like high school, will always be a part of us.