10 Things I Wish I Someone Had Told Me About College
Join me in a flashback to June of 2006.
It was a simpler time. Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” was the number one hit single. Brandon Routh was Superman in a movie that received more than a 27 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating. Nickelback was sadly still a thing. Donald Trump was leading a reality show and not the free world.
And then there was me: an awkward 17 year old girl poised to graduate high school with a scholarship to George Washington University in DC. Painfully shy during classes, I had only a handful of friends that I mostly had known since elementary school. The boy who I was in love with friendzoned me for three full years, but that didn’t stop me from claiming the seat next to his in our mutual study hall every day, just so he’d talk to me. But I had finally made it through, and was ready to cross that stage and grab my diploma to set off for bigger and better things. I thought I knew it all; was ready for whatever adventures college life had in store for me. I’d have a super cool and trendy roommate who would give me makeovers and be my wingman. I’d join a sorority to make lifelong friends! I’d read New York Times bestselling books while sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, planning on changing the world with just my determination and smarts.
Boy, were my expectations completely off. And I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong in my whole life.
My point here is that when you’re 17 or 18 years old and about to embark on your first foray alone, you can never prepare yourself. You can go to Target and buy every single item on their “essential college needs” supply list, but it’ll never tell you what you truly need. Only experience can, and therein lies the irony. As an incoming college Freshman, you have no experience (unless you’re a time traveller, in which case please contact me and take this giant history nerd with you). You may think you do, but you don’t. You may think you know everything there is to know about yourself because you’re coming of age in an era that makes you feel overly confident and unarguably right about everything; an era that has evolved rapidly over the past 11 years since I graduated high school.
Tough love time: you’re not right about everything. You never will be. No one ever is.
I’m not in any way qualified to give life advice to anyone, let alone impressionable youths. But I am standing on the other side of a college degree with lasting memories from those four years of undergraduate studies to share my experiences. And before you think that I’m another adult trying to tell you what to do, I’m most certainly not. I’m 28 and my life is far from perfect, but it’s mine and I wouldn’t change any decisions that led me to where I am today. But hey, as any gruff soldier in any over-the-top war flick would say: I’ve seen some things, man. And these are the things you’ll need to survive being a dorming undergraduate that no one will tell you.
Always buy a plunger
Yes. This is my first tip for little birds ready to leave the nest because on no supply list in any chain store ever will you find plunger. It’s one of those things that you don’t even realize you need until it’s way too late and you get a text from your brand new roommate in the middle of the afternoon that says: “I just clogged the toilet. Help!!! I don’t know what to do!” Now, maybe this is TMI for you, but the truth can’t be sugar coated and sometimes you need to be hit in the face with unpleasant imagery to learn a lesson. That’s certainly what happened in my case. And I’m sure if you spoke to the unfortunate maintenance guy who was called to our dorm room to fix the toilet, he’d tell you the same thing. I’ll never forget him exclaiming “holy hell!” after walking into the bathroom of our suite. And I’ll never forget my roommate simply saying “whoops,” going home the following weekend, and coming back with a brand new plunger. Moral of the story: avoid making campus maintenance hate you by bringing a damn plunger.
Don’t be ashamed to cry
In the weeks leading up to the day I was set to leave for Washington, DC, I knew I had made a huge mistake. I kept telling everyone that yes, I wanted to leave home and live in a city and explore. But it was a lie. When I accepted my place at GW, I honestly thought it was the right decision; but looking back, I was more awed by the fact that I was smart enough to get into a university of that caliber and that’s what guided my ultimate decision. But like a true stubborn ass, I held my doubts in because I didn’t want to be wrong or scared. Then came the morning my family and I packed up the minivan and set off on our 5 hour drive. As soon as we turned off our block and onto the highway, I burst into tears and didn’t stop until I had cried myself to sleep. It didn’t end there. The whole semester was basically a non-stop emotional rollercoaster complete with a stress eye twitch that lasted the entire time until I put in my papers to transfer to a university closer to home. The point is, it’s okay to doubt yourself. It’s okay to let your emotions get the best of you, and it’s certainly okay to let others see what you’re struggling with. Even if your situation isn’t remotely similar to mine, we all internalize our fears and doubts and some people (like me) don’t want to admit to them or to weakness. You’ll be leaving behind everything you knew for 17 or 18 years. It’d be abnormal if you weren’t terrified at least a little somewhere inside.
Make Amazon your best friend
Seriously. This one is one of my most important tips. The university bookstores were created by goblins that want to steal all your riches to fill their underground vaults by overcharging for textbooks. And the professors are no better, because I can almost guarantee that they’ll tell you that you can grab the books they assigned at the bookstore. DON’T TRUST THEM. You’ll probably fall into the trap that all college newbies fall into: paying full price for something you can get used on Amazon for $1.40. It took me a year to learn that university bookstores are the pits of hell filled with overpriced everything. So here’s what you do: 1.) Get your syllabi. 2.) Pull up Amazon dot com. 3.) Search each book assigned by your professors and find the cheapest used version you can. Who gives a crap if the seller says that the pages are waterlogged? So what if there’s mild wear and tear. There’s no front cover? NOT YOUR PROBLEM. You’ll never open that damn book again in a few weeks and the bookstore won’t buy it back for more than $5 anyway. Save money. You’ll need it because you’re a college student now. You’re eternally poor.
After my disastrous first semester away, followed by what I like to think of as a transitional semester at my new university in Queens, I was placed randomly with a new roommate starting my Sophomore year. Yes, the same roommate without a plunger (I’m going to refer to her as Molly so all identities, shoe sizes, future descendants, and Social Security numbers are protected in the writing of this post rife with embarrassing stories. Also, I chose Molly because that was her dog’s name, not because I love drugs). Molly and I hit it off immediately, and she would eventually be one of the defining people in my life to really bring me out of my socially shy shell to be the person I am today. Somehow, on one of our first nights after we moved in together, we both discovered our mutual love for musicals; specifically for Andrew Lloyd Webster’s classic tale of sex, drugs, and rock and roll: The Phantom of the Opera. This bonded us, and as I happened to have the DVD in my possession, we decided to pop it in the ol’ DVD player, order a pizza, and enjoy the evening. This became a tradition every year we’d move back in together at the start of the next three academic years. It was something we shared, and something we both looked forward to. Bottom line: while it doesn’t have to be bonding over the sultry crooning of Gerard Butler, you and your future newfound friends should create your own traditions. You’ll always be able to share them. You’ll always have Paris. (Bonus points if you 1999–2000 babies get that reference).
Take a fun elective
First, I want to make it clear that I am in no way insinuating you should waste your potential scholarship money or parents’ money or your own money if you’re putting yourself through school. Now with that disclaimer out of the way, you have to take a fun elective. Something totally out there that you never thought you’d sign up for but it sounded like a good time or an interesting topic. College is stressful. Majoring in any subject is stressful (except Communications — sorry, it’s a universal fact. I don’t make the rules). You need a mental break somewhere between your core and major required classes. Peruse the course catalog. Find out that your college offers jewelry making or wine tasting (both of which I tried unsuccessfully to register for 3 semesters in a row). Take something that’s outside your comfort zone but will make you a more rounded person. When I had an extra spot in my schedule, I registered for American Musical Theater, which shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise since I just confessed my guilty pleasure for Phantom. Seeing as I majored in American History with a minor in Government and Politics, American Musical Theater was most certainly not in the curriculum, but it wound up being one of the most fun and memorable classes I took. I loved the professor so much, that I took her Opera class the following semester. If you had told 17-year-old Jenna that she would be taking a class about Opera, she’d have thought you were a complete liar. Take a change of pace. Have some fun in the middle of it all.
Suitemates (and roommates) can really suck
Molly and I lived together for three years. Each one of those years, we got into three separate heated arguments with completely different sets of suitemates. People have no problems leaving their garbage on the floor for days until it smells; they think cleaning anything is unnecessary and that it’s totally cool for dirty dishes to crust themselves to the sink and counters. Some people are always super loud at all hours of the night and don’t care that you and your roommate are trying to sleep and/or study. That’s where a desk fan comes in handy. Turn that baby on and the white noise drowns out anything. To be very blunt: some people just really suck. Don’t be afraid to call others out on their disgusting or inconsiderate habits if it impacts your living situation. For every Molly, there’s the anti-Molly. Example: my first roommate during my first hellish semester had an undying love for eating sardines out of the can and then throwing said empty, smelly, fishy can into the trash next to her bed that was only a few feet from mine. Back then, I was way too passive to even make a bird move out of my path, let alone tell my roommate that she was absolutely gross. Hey, if you want to eat sardines, then go for it. But I doubt anyone in the history of forever dreams about living in a sardine stench filled room. Don’t let that be you. Beat the sardines.
Social media is forever
I’m only 28, but I’m old enough to have started college when Facebook was brand new. The first time I heard about it was the summer before my Freshman year and I didn’t even trust this new fangled social media site. You could only join with an edu email address, so it was just college students at the time. The real social network. Thanks Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield! Luckily for me, Facebook was the only social media platform when I was an undergrad. There was no Instagram, no Twitter, no Snapchat. There weren’t even iPhones yet until I was a Sophomore, and even then no one had one. We all lugged our digital cameras around with us, filled up the memory chip, and patiently uploaded photos to our laptops. But — and I can’t emphasize this enough — content on the internet is ETERNAL. Maybe you really get into anarchism when you’re 19 and advocate all about overthrowing the man, man! But then you decide a few years later, once you’ve outgrown your more radical ideas, that you want to go into the politics or business. Guess what the first thing your potential employers or political affiliates find after a simple google search? A Treatise on Fuck-You to the Government by You Youson. You can’t ever escape it, just like you can’t escape those photos of you doing a kegstand. So you might as well just start figuring out how to explain your publications.
Stress is temporary
You will have some absolutely amazing times, and then you’ll undoubtedly go through a period of time where your hair starts to fall out, your eye twitches, and your anxiety wants to consume you whole. Don’t let it. Believe me, I know better than anyone that it’s easier said than done because I struggle with an anxiety disorder that knocks me flat on my ass sometimes. Dealing with stress and anxiety while trying to maintain your grades, friendships, scholarships, or workload can get messy. But it always passes. The clouds do clear and you’ll get through the day, then the week, then the month, then the semester.
Take time to be silly
Coming off the heels of my last paragraph, being silly and having fun is vital. Fun is a stress killer; it slays the dragon. Find yourself friends who will be willing to sit on your dorm room floor every night for months so you two can make a scrapbook together. Find friends who decide spur of the moment that you’re all going to jump in every single fountain on campus and streak across the quad the night before graduation. Be the friend who isn’t afraid to throw a mozzarella stick across the room for a good joke. Get drunk with your best friend on cheap fruity wine (when you’re 21, of course) and record funny songs on your roommate’s laptop. Draw ridiculous mustaches on you and your friends faces just to make someone laugh on their birthday. Have a sleepover with an abnormally tall and thin gay guy who loves to spoon and talks in his sleep. Like I said before, stress is temporary; college is short. Laugh your ass off with great people.
Don’t forget your family
Maybe you’re going far away. Maybe you chose a school closer to home. Maybe you’re not going away at all and are commuting for classes. Regardless of your situation, don’t forget about your family. They’re the ones who will be there when you need to be picked up from campus spur of the moment. They’re the ones who will trek hours away with a car filled to the brim with crap to move you into your new dorm. They’re the ones you’ll inevitably have to go to when you’re flat broke and need to get home for the holidays. Even if your goal was to choose a school as far away from everyone as possible, you know deep down you love them. Yes, you’ll change as a person in college and maybe that’ll take your family some adjusting to understand. But understanding that there’s an adjustment period is the single most important thing to remember. Don’t be judgy. Don’t come home with your nose stuck in the air like the worldly and sophisticated young adult you think you are. Communicate with each other. Respect your differences. Hug your parents.
As cliche as it sounds, the four years fly and before you know it, you’ll be sitting at your desk at your 9–5 job wondering how the hell 7 years have passed since your graduation. You’ll still have your best friend in the world who you met during those four years, and the two of you will talk everyday about everything under the sun because they’re your confidant. You’ll glance through your social media accounts and mentally tally up how many of your old college buddies are getting married, or buying houses. You’ll look at an Instagram post of an old friend with her new firstborn baby and think Wow, I remember when she wore nothing but a bra, gladiator skirt, and painted on abs at that one Halloween party when she dressed as Leonidas. You’ll think back fondly on the memories you created with them and wish them the best. But most of all, you don’t want to regret anything. Sure, we all make mistakes every day. But I’m talking about the big regrets. I wish I had transferred when I was miserable instead of wasting four years. I wish I had taken time to know this person better. I wish I hadn’t switched my major.
And for God’s sake, remember ABOVE ALL that you’ll have to pay back those loans you take out. Loans are the enemy. Bad, bad loans.