That monthlong period from mid-August to mid-
September is a strange one. It’s the time of year when those going away to college have to leave — leave their homes, their families, their friends, when everything that made up who they are and what they are ceases to be that anymore.
It’s a time of goodbyes, when old friendships are put on hold for a while. But like any ending, it also signals a beginning — the beginning of new friendships, new interests and new passions. It’s been two years now since I left to start my freshman year. In writing this, I’ll try to give an honest account of my experiences, and those of you leaving home for the first time can take what you may from it.
Some of you may be going to college a few miles from where you grew up, and some of you may be going halfway across the world. I go to school in a town called Ithaca, which is about 3,000 miles away from my hometown of Arcadia, Calif.
Freshman year was tough. All of my childhood friends stayed in California for college. I think the most difficult thing about going to school far away is that it feels as if you’re living in two separate worlds, each entirely distinct from the other.
One world was cold, foreign and intimidating. The other was sunny, familiar, comfortable — like anything out of the past seems to be when the present becomes frightening and confusing. I would say — and here I am, going back on my promise not to offer advice — to regard your memories with a certain degree of skepticism your first year. The tricky thing about reminiscing is that it has more to do with forgetting things than it does with remembering them. Chances are, your life was just as difficult, tedious and puzzling five years ago as it is right now. It’s strange how easily we forget that. Try to resist the temptation to do so.
When I came back for Christmas, four months later, it was a happy time, seeing my family and my friends, all of whom I had sorely missed. But it was a sobering time, too, when I realized that, shockingly, life had gone on in my absence. Like I said, it felt as if I was oscillating between two different worlds, and I found that the old world, the sun-washed one of Southern California, hadn’t frozen in time when I left it.
I couldn’t just snap my fingers, unfreeze my friends and family in their positions of mid-goodbye they’d been holding since August and expect life to resume uninterrupted.
They’d made their own lives; they had their own friends from their own colleges, and a few had girlfriends, even. We all still got along well, of course, but it wasn’t the same. Nothing ever is.
When you come home — for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, for summer break — don’t expect to pick things up exactly where you left them. The world will have rearranged itself, and life goes on, with or without you.
So far, I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture of college. But it’s not all homesickness and self-deception; I can say, undoubtedly, that it’s been the most exciting time of my life.
You’ll be surrounded by people who, for the first time in their lives, are studying subjects they’re actually interested in.
You’ll meet professors who are actually passionate about what they teach — and that passion is infectious. You’ll be forced to take responsibility for your studies, your leisure, your health and your sanity. Shouldering that responsibility is probably the most challenging thing you’ll have to do as a freshman, but it’s the most thrilling thing you’ll do, too, looking at what you’ve done, what you’ve made of your life, and knowing that you did it on your own.
Going to college is a new beginning — you’ll have to start over once you get there. For those who hated high school, this might be a blessing; for those who loved it, you can’t bring your trophies and certificates with you, and the sooner you realize that, the better. Nobody’s going to ask you how many AP classes you took or what your SAT score was, and for those of you who derive self-worth from report cards and class rankings, prepare to get the shoring kicked out from underneath you.
Join as many clubs and teams as you can — and ones you’re actually interested in, too. Don’t join the consulting club or a business fraternity because it sounds impressive; don’t join an engineering project team unless you genuinely enjoy the work. As cliché as it may sound, the world doesn’t need the next great investment banker or the next great physicist so much as it needs people who simply enjoy their lives.
I joined the club volleyball team at Cornell as a freshman, and I’ve met some of my best friends through the team. Being on the volleyball team won’t help our careers — none of us are planning on playing professionally, or expecting to meet our future employers during a game of pick-up volleyball — but we do it nonetheless, for a reason no more profound than the simple fact that it brings us joy.
I guess that’s what I’m trying to get at: Try to do things that bring you joy. You won’t always get the chance — sometimes, you’ll have to take a calculus course to meet a breadth requirement, or work a boring job that involves much of doing nothing so you can have enough money to buy books. But when you do get the chance — and you will, in college — take it.
Try to allow yourself joy. That’s what life’s about — there’s no higher truth, no deeper principle. And as you move into your new dorm room or new apartment, and as you form new friendships and relationships, try to keep that in mind.
Study a subject you’re interested in so you can work a job you don’t hate. Much of college, and much of life, for that matter, is tedious and boring and frustrating, but there are moments of joy — plain, uncomplicated joy — to be had nonetheless.
That’s all the sermonizing I’ll do for now.
Freshmen — good luck!
Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.