The wonderful and abysmal experience of being in control of your life

Trying to become an adult involves a lot of shattered hopes


Before I started my first year here, the idea of college was almost mythical. Every parent, grandparent, teacher and graduation speaker had something different to say about the experience. I heard about how much harder it is, how much I’d learn, how it would change my life forever. After a while, I started to see college as comparable to falling into a black hole of adulthood leading to a vast and staggering assortment of new experiences and difficulties. My old self would be burned away and replaced by a paragon of new maturity. The adolescent would die, and the adult would rise. Maybe a puff of smoke would be involved, too — who was to say.

Orientation didn’t do much to amend my somewhat outlandish expectations. Speech after speech on the life-redefining nature of the next four years caused my mental image of college to grow more and more extreme. By the time first semester began, my eagerness to experience all the things I’d been hearing about was at an all-time high. In fact, I felt so certain life-changing moments would occur any second during my first few weeks here that I didn’t pay much attention to what was going on right in front of me. 

After the first month, however, I finally started to realize something — pretty much everything I’d been told would happen in college was a lie. Well — I don’t want to insult the excellent morals tacked on to the ends of immeasurable orientation speeches, so instead of a ‘lie’ let’s call the idea that college is the most difficult, wondrous and important part of life an ‘exaggerated truth.’ After all, I did indeed find classes to be harder, and I do think I changed a bit during my first year. Still, the mythical, transformative magic of college — and my expectation I would change entirely — failed to materialize. Instead, a different kind of change emerged, a change I think isn’t repeated nearly enough by orientation speeches.


Which, in my experience, is both wonderful and abysmal.

Freedom might seem like an obvious part of college. After all, you’re not living with your parents any longer, so you of course don’t have to live by their rules. The problem is, you don’t have to live by any rules. You can theoretically do as much — or as little — as you want. Soon into my first year the University, I realized even though college didn’t seem to be changing my life in any significant way, for the first time ever, I was in control of it.

I used this power poorly.

Eating. Sleeping. Going to class. All these things were up to me, and as a result my behavior spiraled. Nothing improved until I dealt with it. My room became a wreck, and only I could clean it. My clothes became dirty, and only I could do the laundry. My detergent bottle then exploded because I’d never done laundry before, and only I could wash the suds down the drain. For the first time ever, my life was in my own hands. I just wasn’t great at holding it.

The further into the year I found myself, however, the more I started to take care of things. When classes got harder, I met with professors. When I got the flu, I dragged myself to Elson Student Health Center. I even learned how to do my own laundry. Ground-breaking. No miraculous, phoenix-like transformations occurred, but at an incremental pace, I was becoming more adult-like. In the absence of any life-changing moments occurring at random, I took the active route and started to attend more clubs and meet new people. Nobody I met changed my life, but a lot of them taught me something or made me smile.

And in the end, a lot of what I heard about college ended up being the truth. The “exaggerated truth,” perhaps, but still the truth. My life did change during my first year at the University, it just changed really gradually and involved a lot of mistakes. But the four years we spend here aren’t important just because ‘it’s college,’ they’re important because you have control over them. Not everything goes smoothly, and bad decisions are easily made. But they’re still your decisions. College might not change who you are, but it does give you a change to decide who you are going to be. 

Tom Pollard is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at

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