“Get ready for the best four years of your life.”
Those words began when I received my acceptance letter from UChicago and were impossible to evade in the final months of senior year. Teachers and family members would reminisce on their collegiate glory days, tell me about all the opportunities I must take advantage of at an elite university, and worst of all, promise that college would be the place I’d “find myself.” After the longest summer of my life (thank you, quarter system), I teemed with excitement when it was finally my turn to experience it all: meeting new people, living away from home, taking classes I was genuinely interested in, getting lost in the library, going to college parties.
I’m grateful to have experienced a lot of those things in my first quarter here. But my unreasonably high expectations, I’ve found, have been hard to satisfy, leaving me disoriented, slightly disappointed, and above all, worried that I’m doing something wrong. Aren’t these first few months supposed to be the most exciting of my life thus far?
Since coming here, I’ve had pretty much every iteration of the infamous freshman plague—fevers, common colds, strep throat, and a sinus infection. All my exciting plans were suddenly on pause; I wanted nothing more than to be cooped up in my dorm after a day of classes, too sick to even dream about going downtown or exploring the rest of Hyde Park.
And as I sat miserable, cold, and alone in the pharmacy awaiting my antibiotics, I wondered why no one told me about the ugly parts of college. No one told me that I’d be sicker than I’ve ever been, that I wouldn’t automatically be best friends with all my housemates, that balancing academics, self-care, and a social life is somewhat of a physically and mentally exhausting puzzle.
Like most things in life, I believe college is what you make of it. Thankfully, the wide-eyed first-year in me is not jaded enough to dismiss outright the prospect of an enriching college experience. But it does take work, and a little bit of discomfort. It means going out of your way to befriend people, joining RSOs, seeking out help in class when you need it. And as frustrating as it feels to be in that weird state of feeling like an outsider, I think it’s important, every once in a while, to not know what to do with yourself. This uncertainty has actually forced me to be more introspective and to better understand what I’m looking to get out of my college years.
Depictions of college filtered through TV and movies, as well as nostalgic stories told by adults who undoubtedly peaked in their 20s, have fed us, since we can remember, a utopian image of college. As a result, it’s easy to think that feeling bored, disinterested, and unreasonably stressed out at times is simply abnormal. But that perfect college life, full of effortless friendship and crazy parties every night, is a grossly reductive, superficial account of what is actually a jarringly new experience for the average 18-year-old.
It wasn’t until I thought about what college actually entailed—moving away from home, going to school with thousands of people, being more academically challenged than ever before—that I started to be easier on myself. For many of us who had the clear goal of getting into an elite college throughout high school, it’s only natural to feel unsettled without a path automatically there for us to follow. And paving this new path, or not paving one at all, isn’t something that happens in one quarter, or in one year—it happens organically through an accumulation of experiences, big and small. These may or may not be the best four years of our lives, but they can be formative in their own unexpected, unspectacular way.
Zahra Nasser is a first-year in the College.