Things You Should Know About College

Holy crap, I'm an alumna now.

I graduated as part of William & Mary's Class of 2015. I did some really cool stuff (like bringing Yuri Lowenthal '93 and Tara Platt to school) and learned a lot in my time there. I don't think I changed a lot as a person-- I came into school already pretty emotionally and psychologically mature and so what college did for me was to grow into myself-- a person I had long felt I had found. I did not need to "find myself" the way a lot of people do in college-- which is neither a good thing or a bad thing-- it's just they way things were.

Anyway, I'm here as a freshly minted grad to tell incoming students, future students, grads, and anyone else some stuff I think you should know about college (and life afterward).

Coffee does not replace sleep. When I needed to stay up (ex: when I accidentally over-netflixed my Sunday) and finish an assignment, or prepare for a test, I would get this thought into my head that I could find a way around needing sleep. I am the type of person who gets a little loopy when sleep deprived, and so to me this becomes a totally rational thought alongside my elaborate fantasies of becoming a mermaid in legends of old that lures sailors to their doom. Coffee will not replace sleep. Sometimes it won't even fend it off. You are just a human. And you are talking crazy if you have convinced yourself that time is an illusion and sleep is an unnecessary institution designed to keep us from discovering the alien forces shaping human history. (Real thoughts I have had at 4am on a second consecutive all-nighter.)

There are more important things than your grades. This is not my "blow off the thousands of dollars someone is investing in you to have an 80s movie style college experience" statement.  I'm the child of immigrant parents. I will never ever make that statement. But for a lot of people, college is an exercise in survival. Between the big life changes, to the tendency for many mental health issues to arise in your late teens and early twenties, and a lot of your beliefs/routines/identity being challenged, college can be a really hard time. You are more than just your education, and you need to find and nurture yourself in ways that aren't just academic.  You may be faced with a moment when you will have to choose between your grades and your well-being. And if that ever happens to you, please, please, please put yourself first. Please know that if a friend needs you, you can probably spare an hour from your studies. There might be people who disagree with me on this, but you are not going to care about your GPA at 50, you are going to wonder why you decided not to be with your family after a loved one's death because you had a group project to work on, or thinking about how things might be different if you had reached back when your friend started opening up to you about their eating disorder. Maybe you are at the end of your rope and you just shouldn't push yourself over the edge. You aren't always going to know when these moments happen, but if you are fortunate enough to recognize these moments as they come, remember that grades are not everything.

You do not need to study abroad to validate your college experience. Things I believe you should do in college: learn about capitalism and patriarchy and race as flawed but powerful systems that influence humanity on a global scale. Become friends with people who are different from you. Learn how to say no. Find yourself (or more parts of yourself) if you haven't already. Get a handle on how to manage your money. Have a few dishes you can cook well. Learn how to spot a toxic relationship (romantic or otherwise) and how to excise it. One thing that people push a lot when you are starting university is this apparent need to travel the world. I think a lot of people get pressured into either making a decision because it seems so absurdly important, or feel like they've really missed out on something essential to a "complete" college experience if they weren't able to go abroad. I have met incredibly worldly people who can talk about far-reaching issues like colonialism and poverty who have never gone abroad but have studied these complicated systems, and I've met people who have studied abroad and come back with stories of interesting sights and foods and fashion, but very little by way of actual enlightenment. The rest of the world is not an exotic adventure for you to Eat, Pray, Love your way through. It's a real place with real people who live through real issues, and sometimes if you spend your funds experiencing it before you are able to truly see it, you'll find yourself becoming one of those touristy students who thinks that they can Columbus their way through the world on superficial connections and believe it was a "life-changing experience." If traveling is important to you, don't worry. If you can't swing it in college (on top of tuition and books and loans), you can still travel later. And you might travel when you are better equipped to make the most of it-- financially, intellectually, emotionally, or otherwise. There are more important things than traveling, and there is a lot of time in your life when you can travel.

Learn to say no. This is so important in life. This is one of the most important lessons you can learn. You might want to make others happy. You might want to convince yourself that you can say yes-- but we reap what we sow and sometimes it's better to not commit to things that won't pay off. Say no to staying out late if you know you're going to regret it. Say no to situations that make you feel uncomfortable. Say no to parties when you need to study. Say no to friends who try to convince you to blow extra funds on unnecessary burgers. Say no to clubs you just don't have the time for. You are so much more than your ability to say yes to others. Sometimes your yeses to others can be nos to yourself-- no, I won't have a low-stress week because this party this weekend is going to put me behind on my paper. No, I won't be able to afford that camera I wanted because my friends want to see a movie at  theater almost every week. Make more room for the moments when the things you say yes to align with your wants and needs by saying no when they don't.

If you have sex, please be safe about it. That means use adequate protection. That means know what consent is (and what it isn't). That means get tested regularly. Please get to know and understand your body before you put it into more complicated situations. If you did not receive a comprehensive sex education before, get one now. I highly recommend the resource Scarleteen because it is accurate, non-judgy, and inclusive.

Become a critical thinker. Life's about more than multiple choice questions. Learn to pick things apart and put them back together, conceptually. Learn to be comfortable with the nagging feeling that you haven't unpacked everything, that you haven't figured it all out. Chip away at big blocks of questions little by little, careful not to damage whatever masterpiece lies within like a sculptor. If you come out of college with a thorough understanding of your field but without the tools to face the complexities of the world, you will be the kind of person who can only travel a few courses, and will find yourself lost at sea if you ever get knocked off track. The only way to be truly in control of your life is to have the critical thinking ability to make decisions for yourself in a way that is right for you.


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