Six years ago, when my sister left for college, my parting gift to her was something along the lines of a “College Survival Manual.” It was this probably eight-page little book, where the pages were the just folded-up and ripped quarter-pieces of 8 ½ by 11 paper stapled together. I don’t know where this little book is anymore, or whether it still exists, but the advice in it was fairly mundane and probably not very good either, considering I was a rising freshman in high school trying to advise my sister as to how to be a good freshman in college. Anyway, I guess this isn’t quite the point. The main connection here is that on the other end of the timeline, when I was a rising freshman at Tufts, my sister returned the favor and gave to me a College Survival Manual as well. Hers was markedly smaller than mine, with her pages being an eighth of an 8 ½ by 11 paper, instead of a quarter. (She was always more compact and organized than I was. I wish I could show you samples of our handwriting from years ago.) Another key difference between my manual to her and hers to me was that hers contained legitimately important information about college. Being that she had just graduated, she was hot off the college press and full of tips and tricks and excellent advice. And to be honest I’m not entirely sure where that little manual she gave me ended up, but I do remember one, ridiculously important and true bit of wisdom that she gave to me in it: she told me that college, in its essence, is a weird and unique mix of having all the time in the world and having no time at all.
Naturally, 2014 me thought this was odd upon reading. How can that juxtaposition possibly exist? College is school, just in another place. You still have classes, homework, tests, the usual, so how can the distribution of time in college be any different than the distribution of time in high school?
Boy, was I wrong.
Let me break down for you what it feels like to be in college. The first moments take forever. Move-in itself goes on for eons. Everything is hot and stressful and you have to gauge whether you and your roommate are going to get along, and you have to meet the people in your hall and in your orientation group and you have to shower and you have to learn how to fold a fitted sheet (or, actually, you don’t. I still don’t, but in the moment it seems like you do. Anyway:) and it is a lot to handle. Your parents driving away from campus drive away in slow motion. You get back to your dorm, finally alone and terrified out of your freaking mind and turn the key to your room, and then you look up and you’re halfway through junior year and you think “holy crap.”
And OK perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but I honestly don’t know whether it is. I don’t know how to put this into words. When you’re in college, nobody is denying that there is a hell of a lot of work that needs to get done. And you have to do it, and sometimes when it bores you or it’s a beautiful night out and all you want to do is lay on the quad, it can take forever. When you look ahead as a freshman, thinking about the day you graduate and the sheer amount of experiences you’re going to have in between your present and that day, you obviously think that there’s a lot of time to be spent in college, and there’s no need to rush. And of course there is. Consider this: I’m 20. Four years, the length of your average university timeline, is a fifth of my life so far. That’s no nominal amount of time.
But then on the other hand, they do say that time flies when you’re having fun, and college is objectively fun. Or perhaps a better way of saying it is that college is objectively different, and different, new experiences are (at least to me) fun. Right, so you’re making new friends and you’re having crazy adventures with them and you’re learning inside and outside the classroom and you’re enjoying the last years of your life when you really can consider yourself both physically and emotionally young, seeing a new world day after day after day and you can see how you can kind of get swept away in everything and how the time can just slip past you.
Did you ever read that Poe poem, A Dream Within a Dream? It says, among other things:
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
High school, if my memory serves me correctly, was fun, but not great. It was interesting, but more often than not boring and repetitive. And of course YMMV when it comes to high school, but what I can guarantee you is that college, as a whole, will be way less boring and repetitive than the best high school experience ever could be. In college you will be freed of virtually every arbitrary responsibility that you had in the past. In high school, you couldn’t leave school unless you were allowed to. In college, nobody cares. You can leave if you want, whatever. You can not go to class in college, if you really want. Bad decision, but the principal is not going to call home if you skip class. It’s up to you. That’s what makes college so amazing and so refreshing, and that’s probably why it shoots by so fast. Your day-to-day, minute-to-minute experiences may not always be a blast, but overall, you get a level of liberty and exploration in college that you’ve never gotten in the past and you’ll never get again.
I’m trying really hard here to not sound like one of those adults who says “hey, you have to enjoy college, because it’s the best time of your life. I’d kill to be in your shoes, back in college.” Oh, shut up. If you want yours truly’s humble opinion, I genuinely hope that college is not the best time of your life, because I hope that upon leaving college, you find something to do with your time that you love and that drives you and keeps you up at night. Don’t put yourself back in that repetitive box that you experienced before college. I hope that everybody who graduates from college does something with the rest of their time that scares them, that gives them energy, that makes them genuinely happy. And I guess what I’m saying is that I hope that every new year that you get is the best year of your life.
But I digress - back to my sister’s college manual: she was dead right. Being in college is almost terrifyingly fleeting. I feel like about 20 minutes ago I was in orientation, and here I am now more than 50% of the way done with college, desperately clinging to every single day of my study abroad experience, because I’d be willing to argue that a study abroad day passes by 1.5 times as quickly as a regular college day does. But that’s a different blog post.
So when you get to college, strap in, and keep all hands and feet inside the ride at all times.