SMITH: It’s time to adjust our understanding of our collegiate years

We need to temper our descriptions of college life for incoming students

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Instead of framing “the normal college experience” as a two dimensional time of happiness, as students, we should embrace a more nuanced version of student life 

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

In one way or another, every incoming college student has heard the platitude that “college will be the best four years of your life!” This kind of statement doubles down on the idea that college years hold intense happiness for any undergraduate. While family and friends share these cliches in good spirit, they only serve to mislead first-year students from a more holistic reality of University life. In order to be better supporters of fledgling undergraduates, we need to equip students with a more realistic vision of their college years — years that can possess great challenges in addition to the joy that so often is the focus of conversation. 

On a base level, the shift from home and high school to college life is seismic. Landscapes shift, basic skills like laundry and meals fall onto the student, transportation switches to walking and buses, academics ratchet up in intensity and new social networks have to be built. It’s overwhelming for even the most well-off students.

Unfortunately, the above example paints the portrait of a fortunate undergraduate — one who is able to cope with these many changes. However, for some students, the list of stressors continue. First generation college students on campus feel stigmatized by their education status by peers and faculty, carrying breakaway guilt from leaving a familiar community for a elite educational institute.

For others, entering college marks or continues a landscape where no one looks like them. The University is an overwhelmingly white and wealthy institution, where many racial minorities and/or students from low socioeconomic backgrounds fail to relate to peers and faculty that come from radically different backgrounds. 

Just last year, two major student leaders commented on this disparity, with former Honor Committee Chair Devin Rossin commenting both in his convocation speech and an interview with The Cavalier Daily, about how he felt the need to order polo shirts on eBay to fit what “the prototypical U.Va. student should look like.” Student Council President Alex Cintron echoed this same frustration this past spring in a presidential candidates debate, noting how so many students at the University fail to understand how hard it can be to afford the seemingly ubiquitous Bean Boots seen around Grounds.

Other students find mental health a serious challenge during collegiate years, an issue that only has been growing over the years. While the free-form and demanding structure lends itself to acute stress for the majority of students, disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder often emerge in the same age range of undergrads. 

As supporters of young students, we need to temper our descriptions of college life for incoming students. While even students who face adversity will still have enjoyable experiences over the course of their undergraduate years, the sweeping declaration of that college is “the best years of your life” only make student’s additional struggles feel like extra failures on the path to success. For Cintron and Rossin, who both exemplify high achievement at the University, an upper class wardrobe felt exclusionary to see around Grounds, yet essential to own in order to fit in. Their efforts to speak their truths on this issue slowly has eroded away the invisible disparities between students whose seemingly happy years took an enormous toll.

Overall, I understand that the sentiment of “college is the best years of life” is usually meant as well-meaning encouragement. But as a student that has grappled with serious mental health issues over my entire tenure at the University, I wish someone would have told me something more realistic before I departed off to college. Because when I’d cried on HelpLine for more times than I can count as a first-year, I wish I hadn’t fixated on the guilt that I wasn’t living the happiest years of my life.

Students should use their time at University as a time of exploration. Instead of framing “the normal college experience” as a two dimensional time of happiness, as students, we should embrace a more nuanced version of student life — one that encompasses a wider emotional spectrum of experience. The real normal is taking the time to mature as an individual. For many other students struggling with conflicted collegiate experiences, it’s time that the narrative of college shifts to accommodate both the struggle and success of student life. 

Katherine Smith is a Senior Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at k.smith@cavalierdaily.com

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