There are many college narratives of expectations unmet. For example, here at the University of Chicago, first-years are quickly prepped to expect an unsatisfactory grade on their first Humanities paper. But with two older siblings in college before me—one even at the same school I was about to enter—I felt that my expectations of college (academic, social) were reasonable. But one assumption did manage to slip past my carefully informed skepticism—one more subtle perhaps because it seemed so fundamental: I expected to be happy.
I didn’t expect to meet my new best friend on the first week or to go to the party of my life, but I assumed I’d occasionally enjoy the cozy companionship of playing Super Smash Bros in a cramped dorm room. For me, happiness had a lot to do with an easy familiarity with my classmates—a casual sense of belonging with those who would make up the new medium of my life.
One of the University of Chicago’s main selling points to incoming students is its house system, in which residence halls are divided into smaller—and presumably more tight-knit—communities. This system is one of the features of the University cited in a College Confidential article which places the us second on a list of “50 Colleges and Universities with the Happiest Freshmen.” Houses sit together at their tables in dining halls under maroon banners emblazoned with their names. Certain personality traits and types are unofficially ascribed to them by students. The system faintly evokes the charm of the Hogwarts houses—without a Sorting Hat, that is.
In light of that caveat, perhaps I should not have been surprised when things didn’t go exactly as planned with my house—but I was, and very unpleasantly so. For five weeks I forced myself to sit at my house table, figuring that my reluctance was a residue of my introversion. During the sixth week I realized that I felt that I had nothing to contribute to the stories being told and conversations being had at that table. Sitting there made me feel invisible and irrelevant, so I stopped. For the first time since that peak of confusion, insecurity, and uncertainty called middle school, I felt truly alone.
I don’t blame my housemates or the University for the ill fit—sometimes people just don’t get along. But what’s taken me longer is not blaming myself for an outcome so far from what I expected.
After my first week on campus, I began to meet upperclassmen who were unapologetic in their denouncement of the University. I had a couple bluntly tell me that they hated it here, with the silent expectation that I would too. But I had only spent a few weeks on campus—I was not ready to hate my school. These subversive narratives were not the solution I sought to the dissonance between my expected and actual college experience.
What I wanted to hear were stories from people like me—those who hadn’t immediately clicked into this campus and fallen in love with its gothic stone buildings. But even more so, I wanted those people to tell me that things were going to get better. That I would find good friends here and I would be happy. So, from my first year, I’ve held in the back of my mind the idea for an article I would write as an upperclassmen—an article assuring the scared first-years like I was that things get better. That they’re going to be okay. Because no one did that for me.
Going into my third year , I can say that, hell yeah, things got better for me. It turns out that not all friendships are forged with blood and iron during your first weeks on campus so, if you miss that boat, you’re certainly not stranded. I’ve been lucky enough to meet friends that I respect and, more importantly, trust, both in the latter half of my first year and through my second—and I expect will continue.
So I suppose I’m finally in a position to write this “it’s going to get better” article, but I will be honest: it may not.. That's especially hard to contemplate when there is such an immense pressure in TV and movies to have college be the best social experience of one's life. I know fourth-years who will likely graduate this campus never feeling a particular sense of belonging or attachment, and I know fourth-years who will likely never feel securely nestled in the crew of friends that TV and movies told them they’d have in college. And when you don’t have those things, when you’re feeling alone or not having fun, it starts to feel like that the problem must be with you.
When, as a first-year, I silently begged upperclassmen to tell me that things would be okay, what I was actually asking was for them to tell me that I was okay. There was a fear growing inside of me that my imperfect bruised college experience was a reflection of my own damaged self. So perhaps what I really wanted to hear was not that my first-year unhappiness would pass, but instead that it wasn’t so abnormal after all.
What I have to come realize is that there isn’t a “right” way to do college. There is a huge variety of experiences to be had—some will be more difficult than others but that by no means invalidates them. If you choose to be empowered by your experiences, regardless of what they are they will afford you the opportunity to learn and grow. And if that isn’t college then I don’t know what is.