A woman in Mississippi—not an academic herself, from what I can tell, but an incoming student—posted a call on Twitter a few days ago: “Please quote tweet this with your best advice for someone starting their freshman year of college on Monday.” I follow mostly academics—it’s supposed to be a professional networking thing—and we all had a lot of opinions about this. I read through the tweets, wondering what to post.
A lot of the things I would have said were already shared: Read the syllabus. Do your homework. Don’t feel like you have to be friends with the people you meet on the first day. Keep your eye on your drink, and your friends’. Get to know your professors. Don’t date people who aren’t kind to you. Go off campus regularly. Intern somewhere. I could’ve simply shared the clip from John Mulaney’s comedy special, where he describes college as a game show called “Do My Friends Hate Me or Do I Just Need to Go to Sleep?” (You need to go to sleep).
It’s good advice. But it’s also all, more or less, the same advice: don’t get in your own way.
I spend a fair bit of time with first year college students. I am sometimes envious of them. Not because I want to be eighteen again—I’m glad to have moved beyond the desperation I felt for many of my college years. But I do miss the intensity of it. When I was eighteen, the world thrummed with meaning; everything mattered so overwhelmingly it seemed like the world ended and ended and ended and then began again. The phrasing of a text message from someone I was almost-dating could end it, or start it over. The drama of finding roommates for the following semester. The choosing of a major. The search for a summer job.
It was exhausting to be that alive. But I wish I had appreciated the vividness. I wish I had been able to see all that overwhelming meaning as a gift.
College is a heady time for a lot of people. The world gets bigger. You learn a lot of things and meet a lot of people and do a lot of new stuff. The things you learn and people you meet and stuff you do all shape you in tangible ways. So, it all matters. It all means something. I knew this instinctively. I cared about all of it.
The problem was that caring so much, about everything, all the time, sometimes made me small. I approached every crossroads as a referendum on my identity: going to church on a Sunday, and where. Saying yes, or no, to a date. Encouraging or discouraging someone who might ask for one. Minoring in Religion (I did). Going to the Grand Canyon for January term (I didn’t). Spending a Friday night at home, or at a bar, or at a friend’s, or which friend, and did they really want me there at all, and was this friendship a passing ship, or something real? Where did I fit in these various groups of friends? What role did I want to play? And what did that all say about who I was?
“The unexamined life is not worth living” and all that—the universal slogan for liberal arts education. But should one spend too much time examining one’s life—you might later find that you weren’t as alive to it as you could have been.
All this to say: I sometimes got in my own way. I kept trying to define things I should have explored.
I am not sure if this cautionary tale is much use to the woman tweeting from Mississippi, or to my students, or anyone else’s. I am not sure there was any other way through and out of it. I am confident that I, as a first year student, was told to “try new things” and “be open to new experiences” and that someone, somewhere, tweeted in the August before I started college telling us incoming students to “explore.” Some things you don’t learn any way but the hard way. That might be okay. That might be the point, actually.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.