Why promises of “the best four years of your life” set students up for disappointment
I spent a lot of time this summer watching videos of parties and football tailgates put out by “I’m Shmacked,” the irksomely named online video series that chronicles the exaggerated-for-entertainment social lives of universities across the country. As kitschy and redundant as they were, I found myself watching quite a few of the clips, drawn in by how exciting the parties seemed and how elated the students at them were.
These videos, with students drunkenly screaming about their love for their educational institutions, were attention-grabbing because they gave me a feeling I had rarely had since high school—that the college years were marked by boundless excitement, happiness and possibility.
Seeing the “I’m Shmacked” videos was not the first time I had felt this way. The videos reminded me of a time when I thought of college as a utopia. I remember listening to Asher Roth’s “I Love College” and watching movies such as Animal House and Van Wilder throughout high school. These representations of undergraduate life led me to romanticize college as one big, happy time. This idealization went beyond visions of huge parties and personal freedom. I had the impression that my college experience would be one of the highest points of my life.
I was not alone in feeling this way. As I was applying to universities, spokespeople at each one gushed about how wonderful and perfect life at their institutions was. I was told again and again that when I stepped onto the campus of the university I would choose to attend it would “just feel right,” as if university life could suddenly give me complete fulfillment. And to some extent I believed it. It seemed fully possible, as a senior in high school, that there might be nothing bad about the “best four years” of my life.
Although my time at U.Va. has been excellent, it has not lived up to the notion of college life I had in my head going into my first year. How could it? Movies, music and anecdotes from my friends and family all created an ideal for what college is supposed to be: perfect. Glamorizing the college experience is all too common. But it often leads to disappointment.
For instance, it was a reality check for me to attend the annual “block party” my first year. Instead of the friendly celebration I had expected, I was welcomed with apartment doors slammed in my face and jaded police officers screaming through megaphones at droves of students crammed onto Wertland’s sidewalks.
Similarly disenchanting was when I had expected riveting debates in my 9 a.m. discussion Friday mornings. In reality, I found myself and the other students lethargic and tired, save a choice few who were exceedingly eager to regurgitate the sections of the reading they had diligently highlighted the night before. This is not to say that these experiences ruined my time thus far at U.Va., just that by expecting an ideal, I set myself up for disappointment.
If you spend your time in college looking for the best four years of your life, you will not find them. You cannot force perfection. The notion that your college experience will automatically be a happy and hopeful one ignores reality. On top of the likelihood that you will struggle greatly with stress and newfound responsibilities, life will not wait for graduation. Emergencies and tragedies will occur no matter how much you feel part of a collegiate bubble. It is very easy to forget the world around you when you are convinced you are, or at least should be, living a dream.
I do not mean to say students should not value their education, or that the friendships and fun they enjoy are shallow, or that college students are spoiled and willfully ignorant. I simply wish to point out that unduly romanticizing your college years will leave you chasing after an experience that is too good to be true, and one that does not present a complete outlook on life. Furthermore, pursuing such a fantasy might stop you from appreciating how rewarding your experience is, as good-but-not-great times may fall by the wayside.
Spend your time at the University taking life as is instead of inflating your hopes and then despairing when life falls short. Perhaps college really will be the best four years of your life, or perhaps it will be just fine. It might even be terrible (but I would not wish that on anyone). As any fourth year can tell you, the years here go by faster than you can imagine. If you constantly search for an ideal instead of taking the time to appreciate your experience as it happens, you may be surprised when college ends before you are ready. But if you step back and let your time in college develop into whatever it may, you may find something different—and arguably better—than any glorification of college might have you expect.