Transition to College: Be Honest With Yourself

Have you ever noticed how every college brochure looks roughly the same? The pages seem uniformly stuffed with images of spirited undergrads holding textbooks and flashing pearl-white smiles at the camera. The college hunt is littered with countless such images, subtle and not-so-subtle visual assurances that yes, at this school, you will be successful and happy. The resulting message, I believe, contributes to a growing emphasis on satisfaction and happiness in college. And as a result, high school Seniors face increasingly severe implicit pressure to unconditionally enjoy their freshman experience. At least personally, this message left my Senior-year-self resolved to be perpetually, invariably happy during the entirety of freshman year. After all, if at any point I wasn’t, then according to virtually every depiction of college I had ever seen, something was wrong with me.

I started off freshman year fully steeped in this (mis)conception, and began to act accordingly. I played in my school’s notoriously eccentric marching band at every football game, went to countless dorm bonding events, and heck even took a class called “The Practice of Happiness” in Fall quarter just for good measure. And this fervent pursuit of happiness even seemed like the perfect way to fit in with my new peers, who themselves constantly radiated good spirits.

However, I was unaware at the time of a peculiar social dynamic that permeates most college cultures, colloquially referred to at my school as ‘Duck Syndrome.’ Envision a duck gliding smoothly along the surface of a pond. From the mental image alone, you might reasonably conclude that the duck’s feat is effortless. But take a look under the surface and you would witness that in reality, it is paddling like mad to stay afloat. This metaphorical effect runs deep at my school. The vast majority of students smile and laugh their way through the day while keeping private their personal struggles to juggle intense academics, demanding extracurriculars, and trying personal lives. In freshman year, my philosophy of positivity conformed perfectly to this pervasive social ruse; I legitimately believed that everyone around me was unconditionally happy, and this misperception only fortified my blind adherence to a misinformed worldview.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to imply that my freshman year was devoid of genuinely positive experiences. Far from it, in fact – I and most of my peers loved the energy and adventure of freshmen year. The problem was that by Winter quarter, I had constructed a self-image largely predicated on being happy. So whenever negative life circumstances dampened my mood, I would do remarkable mental gymnastics to somehow dredge happiness out of the negative emotional muck, all in place of actually dealing with the problem.

For example, my Fall quarter transcript featured far and away the worst grades I’d ever received, which bummed me out. But it was fine, I told myself, because grades are overrated and football season was awesome – what did grades matter against that? Even in fairly extreme cases, I just didn’t get it. One week before finals in Fall quarter, I was struck with the tragic news that a longtime friend of mine, also a freshman attending his dream school, had suddenly and unexpectedly died by suicide. I had become accustomed to forcibly deriving happiness out of everything, but there I stood face to face with something so devastating, so tragic, so fundamentally awful, that it was devoid of even the slightest scrap of positivity. For a few days I was mired in emotional tumult, but even when reality pleaded with me to do otherwise, I eventually decided that the best remedy would be to perk up and count my blessings. After all, I was still a freshman having fun at my dream school, how could I be unhappy about that?

By now, I’m sure you see the issue with all this. I spent my freshman year so preoccupied with the idea of being unconditionally happy that I abandoned the principle of being unconditionally honest with myself. Had I reflected on that a little, I probably would have discovered all the bottled-up negative emotions that ultimately, perhaps inevitably, erupted during Spring quarter in a fully-fledged tears-and-snot-covered emotional breakdown.

This, in my opinion, should be college prep lesson #1: take some time to deeply consider your expectations about college, carefully check them against reality, and then create a system to honestly check in with yourself when your new college life doesn’t meet them. Because it often won’t. Everyone’s freshman year is, almost by definition, riddled with unforeseen events that challenge the full extent of our emotional resilience. In my case, I should have admitted to the bad days, the grueling experiences, and found ways to healthily manage them as they occurred instead of simply ignoring them. Trust me, it’s a hell of a lot easier to treat a psychological scratch when it occurs than to sew up a full emotional wound. Had I adhered to that principle, my emotional struggle would have likely remained a far-off hypothetical, and my college transition would have undoubtedly been much smoother.

But now, entering my Senior year of college, I’m proud to admit that I’ve had a healthy share of good days and, just as essentially, bad days. I hold the latter with particular pride, and as cheesy as it sounds, some of those bad days have honestly been the best and most important learning experiences of my college career.

Carter, Class of 2017

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