When I was in middle school, I thought I would “arrive” once I got into high school. When I got into high school, I thought I would “arrive” once I reached my senior year. When I reached my senior year, I thought I would arrive when I went to college. And now I’m in college.
If the high school version of Jared Shank was right, then I’m here. I have arrived. This is what all of life is all about, and all those people that told me to enjoy these four years like they were the best ones of my life were spot on. But for their sake and for my own, I hope that they (and high school Jared) are wrong. Before I tell you why I hope they’re wrong, I’ll tell you some of my views on why people treat college like it’s the bright and shiny Mecca to which all other life stages point.
1 – All of your friends are right here. Wanna go play tennis? Walk a few feet down the hall and ask your buddy. Wanna study with someone? Everybody you know uses the same library. Wanna play video games? Well, unfortunately that one won’t work: this is Chapel Hill. Video games are for B students.
2 – Every aspect of your life is right here. Work? Lots of jobs for students in the area. “Extra-curriculars”? Pick a list-serve, any list-serve. Sports? Part of your tuition pays for the campus gym – have fun! School? Duh.
3 – Anything you need is right here. For once in your life, not having a car is not the same as not being able to do anything ever. The dining hall, plenty of restaurants, school supplies, book stores, theaters – all within walking distance.
Don’t let the sarcastic undertones fool you: these are good things, convenient things, even life-enhancing things.
But they are not all things. The college life is missing a great deal, and I believe it can be quite harmful if people aren’t careful. Granted, I’ve only lived through three semesters of college so far, so my knowledge is limited, but I think the things I’ve learned so far – primarily these two – are worth noting.
The first thing that can be particularly harmful is complacency. People become incredible complacent when everything they need is just a few steps away. This isn’t so bad with the simple things like groceries and supplies and things you can buy – being able to get stuff quickly is one of the things I miss about on-campus-living. Where complacency does its dirty work is in relationships. I didn’t realize how much effort it took to maintain a healthy relationship until I moved off campus. If I want to spend time with someone, I can’t just walk down the hall anymore. I have to call that person, see when they have free time, think about what we want to do, and so on. It’s inconvenient, even with my newly acquired iPhone super-powers. And all this is coming from some kid who lives in an apartment ten minutes from the building that all his other friends live in. Imagine what it’ll be like when we all get jobs and have families and move to different towns, not to mention when we have to make friends with people that aren’t our age. It will not be convenient. It will not be like college.
Now, some might say, “Everywhere should be like college, relationships would be so much easier.” But is that the goal? Were we placed here to be involved in the easiest relationships, sacrificing as little as possible? On the contrary, relationships are founded on sacrifice. My mom and dad didn’t choose to have me because it was convenient. For the past twenty years, the two primary relationships in my life have been marked by sacrifice; by outpouring of energy and time. And because of the intensity of sacrifice between my parents and I, those relationships are the strongest and healthiest of all, flawed as they are.
College friendships are fun, but they set up an expectation in us that is backwards. Instead of going into the world expecting relationships to be difficult and demanding, we are conditioned to believe that what is easy is what is normal. We are ill-prepared for one of the most important human functions. That is unhealthy.
The other main shortfall of college living also has something to do with relationships. A typical college student (at least at Chapel Hill) has nothing like an integrated community. I don’t mean we aren’t involved in anything. Carolina students are known for their activity in local non-profits, campus clubs, charities, and other organizations. The problem is that none of these environments overlap. We have our friends from this class, our friends from that class, our friends from work, our friends from church, friends from this club, friends from that group, and so on. But very rarely do our groups interact or overlap. We don’t talk about music with our friends from psychology class – they wouldn’t understand. Our work friends don’t know what’s happening in our study group, nor do our church friends know what happened at our campus ministry this week.
We naturally adjust to fit each environment, and because our environments don’t overlap, there’s no one to confront us and say, “Why were you acting like that there when you act like this here?” No one can convict us and tell us who we really are. For a moment this sounds attractive – we can create our own image wherever we go, and everyone will like us. But eventually we forget where the mask ends and the face begins. We forget which reality is real. We don’t know who to trust when they say, “You are this and not this.”
In a culture where going to college in your late ‘teens and early twenties is the norm, it’s no wonder so many “tweeners” are having an identity crisis. We’re taught that we can decide who to be; we can write our own story. We accept the idea because authority sounds nice, but we never stop to think about how enormous that pressure is, let alone how unable we are to deal with it. I’ve realized that for me, it’s just too much. I’m done trying to write my own story. I need someone else to tell me who I am and who I’m not – someone who knows me and sees me in every one of my all-too-disconnected circles. This is the need of every college student, and of every person. I expect the best years of my life to be when this need is met the most – college seems to meet it very seldom.