What We Talk About When We Talk About College

It’s been rather quiet around here lately.

I’ve just started my senior year, and with that came a lot of reflection–what I want this last year to mean, how I can improve on the years that came before it, and, perhaps most importantly, why it is that my time at Northwestern has been so fucking painful?

I may never know the answer to that question, honestly. I have a few answers, but I don’t have the answer. The answers seem so banal when I list them, and they cannot do justice to my experience here: the depression, the social atmosphere, the pre-professional orientation, the year wasted in journalism school, the quarrels with the administration, the lack of adequate mental health services, and so on and so forth. None of these things, on their own or in any combination, can explain it.

I still remember the pervasive sense of loss I felt when I realized that I was never going to get what I came here for. That beautiful, glossy image of college that I’d been sold would never be my experience. Some days I love this school, but I will never be able to look at it with that fondness with which most older adults talk about their alma maters.

But the truth is that it’s not just me. This time is not universally wonderful. It is not the best time of everyone’s lives. For some people, it is a sad or boring or lackluster time. For some it isn’t really a big deal either way. For others, as we were reminded so horribly last week, it is a tragic time.

What we talk about when we talk about college matters. While I don’t think we should be unduly negative, we should not be unduly positive, either. Painting college as an unequivocally wonderful time–implying, therefore, that if you aren’t having a wonderful time, you are to blame–doesn’t do anybody any good, except perhaps for those who stand to gain from increased tuition revenues.

When we make college out to be the best four years of our lives and push all the unpleasant stuff under the rug, we let down students who are suffering. We let down those for whom the stress and loneliness triggered a mental illness. We let down those who suffer from substance abuse problems, and those who have been robbed, harassed, stalked, and assaulted. We let down those who can’t keep their grades up, who see their friends post Facebook statuses about their 4.0’s at the end of every quarter and think they are the only ones. We let down those who can barely afford to be here. We let down those who miss their families every day. We let down those who have been bullied or taunted because of their appearance or identity–because, yes, that happens, even on a “liberal” campus like ours.

Does this stuff suck? Yeah. Is it unpleasant to talk and read about? Yup. I don’t care.

Here are some things I went through while I’ve been at Northwestern. I’ve been depressed. I’ve been suicidal. I’ve cut myself. I’ve taken antidepressants. I’ve been so tired I couldn’t sit up. I’ve broken down crying in the garden by Tech. I’ve been harassed and assaulted. I’ve been bullied. I’ve been robbed. I’ve lost close friends. I’ve failed tests. I’ve had panic attacks. I’ve tried to starve. I’ve hated myself and the world and wanted to quit.

And then I got lucky, and I found a second family and figured out what to do with my life and got good at the things I love to do. I found feminism and atheism and activism. I got lucky. But I will not shut up about what college was really like for me, because to do so would be to abandon those who haven’t found what they need here yet, or won’t find it ever.

A few weeks ago, a writer for xoJane wrote a piece called “When College Isn’t Awesome.” She discussed her own decidedly not-awesome experience and then published the stories of others. When I read it, I found myself wishing that it had been written years ago, when I was a freshman. The author wrote:

While reflecting on my less-than-picture-perfect college adventure, I asked other folks to share their own stories of college-era emotional and psychological struggles. My hope is that some suffering student will see this post and feel less alone. Maybe she or he will even be more inclined to reach out to the student counseling center, friends, or other resources for help. Or maybe she or he will just feel less like a freak for wanting to stay in bed and cry while seemingly everyone else excitedly skips off to the football game.

That is exactly why I keep talking about how difficult these past three years have been for me. It’s not just because it’s a relief for me to share my own story rather than trying to keep it to myself. It’s also because I want others to know they’re not alone.

What we talk about when we talk about college matters.

What We Talk About When We Talk About College

9 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About College

  1. 1

    Hey, thanks for this, this balancing out the romanticized college experience. My own experience was full of pretty much everything you list, from panic attacks, robberies, mental unwellness, seriously dark times etc and I didn’t even get to go to my first choice, NU =)

  2. 2

    I found myself having the same thoughts as I came upon the end of my time in college. While most were dreading leaving the place they had learned to call home, I found myself looking to escape a place that had come to remind me of painful things I had experienced there :Broken dreams, disappointments, mental imbalance, and a sense I didn’t fit in to this community of intellectuals that seemed so happy all the time. I look back on my time there, not with fondness, but with acceptance that I needed it to grow into a better person, a more well-rounded and thoughtful individual. Sometimes, you gain this perspective from what you DIDN’T do or experience.

  3. 3

    I love the flat out honesty here, the unflinching look-;em-in-the-eye language. The truth, which often hurts, and is so often denied by anyone who hasn’t stood in your shoes and simply hasn’t a clue about what it might be like. And I honestly think that a lot of those people who tell you what a wonderful experience they had are trying to tell themselves the same thing. The pressures to succeed, to progress, to measure up to everyone else, to propitiate bored and often psychotic professors, to please the family, your ‘fans’, your buddies, and then be told that you’re too young to be depressed, it must be your fault…you need a boyfriend, girlfriend, advocate, sex, more drugs, booze…
    When you’re in the right place, you know it as surely as you know when it’s not a fit, whether it’s about a partner, teacher, job, or school. What does have value is that you have survived it so far, and that has to count as something–if not now, maybe later, much later.
    The fact that (forgive me for saying this, but hey, I’m old, I can get away with it) you write as blindingly well as you do, with such clarity, speaks well for your literary skills by themselves.

    And contrary to popular belief, college is not for everyone, I admire this kind of outspokenness, i hope other people see this, and realize that it’s not all toga parties and fond memories. Sometimes it gets terribly real, and terribly sad.

  4. 4

    I graduated from Northwestern in the 90s and the experience was roughly the same then. Since leaving, I have gained a lot more perspective on what my time at NU gave to me. There is definitely a distorting romanticism about “the college years,” and the Northwestern campus (and Evanston in general) don’t resemble that typified college experience. Plus the collision of artsy political types with entitled frat types (which it sounds like is still happening 15 years later) can make for an uncomfortable student community. But I think what makes a great college experience is the same as what makes a great class experience: you don’t necessarily appreciate it at the time (growth/challenge is often painful) but it sinks in over time. As a college professor, I do think it’s wrong that we sell college as a naturally blissful time that will guarantee your employability: college was never supposed to be that, and it’s not a marketable product in that way. It’s supposed to be about encountering the world in a critical way that prepares us to address life’s larger challenges. And I don’t think that college is for everyone, or that everyone is ready for (or needs) that experience right out of high school. Anyway, thanks for this incredibly candid and insightful post — this is indeed what we should be talking about when we talk about college.

  5. 5

    My first college experience was unequivocally shit. My second was better than the first, but if I thought life would never be better than college I’d be incredibly pessimistic about the rest of my life. I’m looking forward to the rest of life being a significant improvement over college. Here’s hoping.

    1. 5.1

      We’re handed a bill of goods and some really glossy brochures that as highschool juniors (being perhaps too young/naive/willing to believe anything) we pretty much bought at face value, having nothing but other glossy brochures to compare them to. I mean, who is going to tell you that college will be a crap time in your life? Really. And after all, for many of us, it’s the end of an amazingly long period of schooling, which these days starts at 3 and ends at 21 or 22– and the implication is also that this will be the pinnacle of your life.

      Never mind that under those guidelines, for the next 50 or 60 years you will be experiencing a lesser life than you had in college–although sometimes I think there is truth to the sardonic question for some people, “is there life after college”…but college is not and should never be perceived as the end of anything, but the springboard to what comes after.

      It may be that we are taught to expect too much, and when it the pretty cake turns out to be cardboard and sawdust, too easy to throw it all away. I think, too, if you are unlucky enough to be going through your own personal hells at the time, college ain’t gonna fix them, it will probably just make them worse.

  6. 7

    […] What We Talk About When We Talk About College by Miriam at Brute REason — “I still remember the pervasive sense of loss I felt when I realized that I was never going to get what I came here for. That beautiful, glossy image of college that I’d been sold would never be my experience.” […]

  7. 8

    I felt this way for my first 1.5 years at NU, then things started to get better, but it was hard fought. I didn’t feel like it came easily like I was lead to believe. I had to actually seek out and in some cases, create, the community I needed there. In retrospect, knowing how to do that is a major life lesson. The upside is you can go into any environment knowing you have the capacity to seek that out and survive. I struggled with severe depression my first year at NU. I felt isolated and almost when home for good a dozen times. I was lucky enough to see a great therapist at health services. I loved college, but when I think about it it’s not because of what was there when I got there but what I built for myself, and gaining the knowledge that I could do that.

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