Thursday 22 March 2018

An idiot's guide to surviving college

Picture posed
Picture posed

Rachel Lavin

'There is an expiry date on blaming your parents," said JK Rowling at a commencement speech to Harvard graduates in 2008. "... the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you."

This is the most liberating and terrifying realisation of every college student. I remember the eagerness with which newly arrived first years waved goodbye to their teary-eyed parents so they could quickly descend into a week of partying. The following mornings they turned up in the college concourse half dressed, more interested in free pizza and exploring taking up juggling rather than the rich intellectual landscape spread out before them.

Freshers' week was a riot. First term was a lark. Freshman year was an adventure. But it would be wrong to say that it was 'easy'. College is a coming of age and comes with its own unique challenges.

Practically speaking, it seems that while we were well able to critically analyse ancient Greek philosophy, classic English literature and international politics, basic adult tasks were a challenge. It took me three years to learn how to properly feed myself and four before I could wash my clothes at the correct heat without any accidental shrinkages or changes of colour (okay, that's still a struggle for my 'young professional' self.) Paying bills and filling forms, budgeting so that you didn't spend all your food money on clothes, answering to letters and email from the college, prefaced with the startling address 'Dear Ms Lavin', all the chores I'd usually offload on to my long-suffering mother were suddenly inescapable. College students being college students have identified this difficult task as 'adulting' - the efforts of pretending to be an adult - and it is cause for serious ruminations on the college campus. How do I pay my fees? Get the landlord off our back? Fill out these application forms? Cook spaghetti carbonara? Sweet talk the library staff out of that fine? All indomitable tasks our parents, often despite their lack of a university education, have been effortlessly doing for years.

Of course, there are bigger challenges than bureaucracy and the basic clothing and feeding of one's self. Academically, it's a hit and miss for the first year as you figure out the library system and tricks to passing, let alone gaining that illustrious first. No amount of your parents' money can buy you the grind sessions or Less Stress, More Success books to gain your college degree, it comes down to simple independent hard work. Emphasis on the 'independent', all research and reading must be done independently, resulting in expectedly unique opinions, essays and exam answers. This is the biggest divergence from the mass 'learn and repeat' system of the Leaving Cert. It's all on you and it's high stakes too; pass or pay ten grand to repeat.

That said, if you have the interest and commitment, you will be able to survive. Leaning on classmates in mutual despair is often helpful and despite the hard work, when balanced with the reward of the fun to be had in college, you quickly manage to master the art of getting the highest marks you can with the least amount of work (usually achieved through a month-long, caffeine-fuelled, panic-filled cram session at the end of each year.)

Perhaps one of the most unexpected challenges of college, however, is how it tests the secure sense of self that a small community and tight-knit secondary school gave you. Both academically and socially, going to college means pushing yourself out of being the big fish in the small pond to feeling more like a small tropical fish called Nemo roaming unfamiliar waters, calling out for 'Da-ad'.

While some people talk about travelling to faraway lands in order to 'find yourself', I think college is where you become yourself. Often because you don't have much choice. The minute you walk in the door, you are met with a constant barrage of existential crisis inducing questions. Who are you? What do you stand for? What are you going to do with your life?

The one way to survive that challenge? To embrace it. Resistance is futile, especially for the over-mammy'd and under-motivated. Soak up every opportunity, every weird hobby, every interesting class, and hang out with as many people who are as unlike you as you can find. Essentially college is an opportunity to sample all the lives you could lead or people you could be. And at least if by the end of college you still haven't found exactly what it is you want, you'll have narrowed down what it is you don't want and come a little closer to what you do, all the while gaining the security of a degree.

Most of all, while taking on these mammoth feats of education, identity and laundry room washing machines, don't be afraid to return home every once in awhile for some reassurance, financial top-ups and comforts only an Irish mammy can provide. Those comforts are needed as eventually graduation day will dawn and with that the beginning of adult life. At least those college years let us bounce between childhood and adulthood for a little while longer, mastering 'adulting' into a lifelong art.

Sunday Independent

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