College Was Not The Best Time of My Life
A reflection on my life as a college student graduating a year early as I go into my final semester.
I remember being ecstatic in the summer of 2019. I had just graduated high school after having a wonderful senior year and finally had a solid group of friends that I was close to and cared for deeply. I was fully ambitious — my career path was planned out nicely and I was participating in various activities and jobs related to my field. Needless to say, for the first time in my life, I was optimistic about where I was heading and the future that lay ahead.
At that point in my life, the next step was college. I, like many, was super excited to have the opportunity to leave my small town and see a bit more of the world — to be surrounded by thousands of college students, to live on my own, to learn. I looked forward to making new friends, having fun adventures, and living out the career path I had envisioned for myself.
From the title of this article, you’d probably already guess that college was not as great as I had hoped it to be.
Making friends was a lot more difficult than I had imagined and the school work was tough. And despite starting off with so much career ambition, I found myself in an existential crisis as I re-evaluated what I really wanted and enjoyed. Additionally, COVID-19 hit during my second semester of Freshman year.
Everyone has different experiences in their college years. Some say it’s the best time of their lives. Others…not so much. There are various reasons why one might go to college and a plethora of paths one can take throughout college and after. The people, the school, one’s personality — there are many, many factors that go into one’s college experience. This is simply mine.
I want to preface this article by emphasizing that I’m not saying college is bad. As I said, this was my experience as a result of various factors ranging from my school, my personality, and what I did with my time there. Looking back, there are many things I would change about my approach to managing my college life that would’ve made my experience much more enjoyable.
I feel that I came into college with many assumptions about the amazing potential of college life. Unfortunately, the benefits of college don’t come easily, and in fact, require a lot of work per individual to put themselves out there with the motivation to make the most out of it.
Rebuilding yourself for the better is difficult.
“College is a chance to restart who you are.”
I think it’s often advertised that moving away from the town you’ve known all your life and being surrounded by a completely new group of people is the perfect opportunity to rebrand yourself as who you want to be.
As someone who was finally discovering my true passions and what direction I wanted to go in life, I was looking forward to having a clean slate to rebuild myself off of: a clean GPA, a new living space, complete independence over my own actions, the start of my career. There was no past action or mistake that could interfere with the new life I could have.
It is, however, not advertised as to how difficult it is to actually reboot yourself. It takes a lot of motivation and a lot of time to truly adjust who you are. Most certainly, it takes more than having goals in mind to achieve them.
I think one of my biggest mistakes coming into college is coming in with huge goals and ideas of who I wanted to be and simply assuming this new environment was the key to all that change.
Having big dreams is wonderful. However, I needed to work on them little by little. I also needed to develop a system for achieving my goals as talked about in the book Atomic Habits. Unfortunately, having big dreams but no system is a key to failure and failure equates to frustration and disappointment. This resulted in a lot of self-hatred and thinking that I simply wasn’t fit for my goals throughout my few years in school.
College can be really lonely
“You’ll find lifelong friends in college”
The ideal college experience for many is finding that one group of friends you really click with: staying up late studying or hanging in each other’s dorms, grabbing meals together, attending events, etc.
I personally didn’t have any of that. Throughout college, I had extreme difficulty connecting to people and wasn’t able to get past being acquaintances with anyone. This was a huge contrast to high school and other summer camp-like experiences where I had no trouble making friends and got along with people quite easily.
I think partially it had to do with being part of a very large school and that I’m quite introverted. I realized that I spend so much time alone at college, and could go days without speaking to anyone. At first, I didn’t mind it, but over time the loneliness got to me to the point where I started wondering why I had such difficulty connecting to people on campus.
To me, there were two main ways to find people:
Talking to classmates
To this day, I still have trouble understanding how to make friends in class. In such a large lecture room where everyone is listening to the professor, I find no opportunity to mingle. Especially in a field like computer science where much of the work is individual, the class system didn’t help cultivate any relationships. In addition to my fear of approaching people, this caused me to make zero friends in class. This meant no study buddies, no one to consult when I was confused or needed help, or just someone who could relate to my course work. I did eventually meet some people, but to me, it felt like they already had a friend group in the class and I felt too afraid to try and get closer to them.
Clubs / Activities
Many friends to whom I’ve expressed my troubles of finding people have suggested attending more clubs and activities. Trust me, I’ve tried. I joined various culture clubs, all the computer science related clubs, as well as tennis. Yet I still constantly felt like an outsider to everyone I spoke to and never felt the spark with anyone. Eventually going to those club meetings started giving me anxiety and I stopped going to many of them. I’m still in some now, but I still feel largely disconnected from the members.
To be honest, I don’t know. Sometimes I just feel like this school just wasn’t the right one for me. At the same time, I wonder how different my experience would’ve been if I had just taken a bit more initiative in walking up to a stranger and striking up a conversation.
I’m very passionate about many things and enjoy having interesting conversations, however, I never quite met anyone who matched my energy. In my experiences chatting with people here and there, conversations were always shallow and small-talk-like. I struggled to find common topics of interest.
I’ve recently realized that all my experiences above have made me feel like an outsider on campus. Despite being physically present on campus, I don’t feel a part of the school. Day by day goes by with the same routine and it feels like I'm just here doing what I need to do to graduate.
I love learning and I genuinely enjoy the material we cover in my classes. Furthermore, I think my time alone has given me lots of opportunities to rethink and reshape my goals.
One thing that’s been on my mind a lot is why am I in college? Clearly, I wasn’t having a great time in college. So what defines a “great time” for me? What am I looking for?
All these questions changed the trajectory of my career path quite a bit, and my old carefully laid out ambitious path was suddenly gone. This change in my life shattered me as it felt like I was giving up on my goals and losing ambition.
Was this giving up?
No. I had to keep reminding myself that this change was something that was needed for me. This change came from a better understanding of who I was and what I wanted.
My goal here isn’t to show that college “isn’t what it seems” or to shine any negative light on it. I simply want to present the reality of having expectations without putting in the effort to have those expectations met. I see a lot of my friends and classmates had a great time in college and I’m certain that comes with effort and initiative. I do regret not putting myself out there more over the last few years, but I’ve also come to terms with the fact that my college environment wasn’t the best for me. To my friends who are all thriving at their universities and having the time of their lives, I’m super happy for them. As for me, I look forward to the next steps after graduation. I think I learned a lot from this experience, and I look forward to applying my newfound knowledge in the future. I’m only optimistic about what's coming in the next year.
For the longest time, I was in denial. I thought I was ok being alone, holed up in my room studying and working towards my career goals. Truth is, despite how successful I’ve been in my education and career, I’m still unhappy because I allow myself to tolerate things that make me unhappy such as loneliness, toxic behaviors, slacking on my personal growth journey.
If there’s one thing you take away from this article, it’s to be real with yourself. Dig deep and find out the truth about how you feel and what you want. Only then will you be able to start developing a necessary system to achieve happiness.