College: The best years of our lives?

You’ve all heard it. Whether it came from your parents when they dropped you off at Orientation, from the welcome speech to your entire new class, or from an advertisement for dorm room supplies, we’ve all been told at some point that our time spent in college would be the best years of our lives. However, as I sit inside on a beautiful day with a stack of textbooks beside me, listening to one roommate going crazy trying to pick a career path and the other stressing about paying off her student loans, I can’t help but wonder why this image of a four-year utopia is so widely accepted.

For many students, the concept is far from true. In a 2009 nationwide survey, the National Institute of Mental Health reported that almost 30 percent of students claimed to be “so depressed that it was difficult to function” within the last year. This depression can develop from any number of factors, including homesickness, trouble fitting in socially, or financial burdens.

Many students cite schoolwork as the main cause for anxiety and stress. At the College of William and Mary, every student knows that the rigorous academics mean inevitable stress at some point or another. This atmosphere can bring us down, at times contributing to depression. That is not at all to say that going to a school with high academic standards will lead directly to misery; the point is that right now, many of us are more weighed down by cramming and disappointing grades than we have been or will be for the rest of our lives.

OK, so the phrase “best years of our lives” is too broad. Any one of us, regardless of our general enjoyment of college, would be lying if we said that our time here has been free of stress, conflict or occasional sadness. Since some students don’t enjoy college and best is too general a word, we need to think about and remember the reasons this concept persists in our culture — and there are many.

Freedom is the first thing that comes to mind. It doesn’t matter if your parents were controlling at home — there’s no feeling quite like realizing that you can stay out all night, eat ice cream for breakfast, or take a weekend road trip without your parents even knowing, let alone judging and scolding you. There’s also the independence and responsibility, which are as equally exciting as they are scary. There is no report card being sent home to mom and dad, no teacher checking up on you every day. You work hard for yourself alone.

For me, however, the most valuable part about these four years is that we haven’t yet gotten swept up into the working world. From here, we can go anywhere. What’s better is that we have this whole time to figure out exactly where it is that we want to go. Many of us, myself included, moan about the general education requirements: “Why should a Neuroscience major have to take a Philosophy course? He’ll never use it.” Maybe he won’t, but the point is that we are, whether we like it at the time or not, exposed to a variety of subjects so that we can eliminate things that don’t interest us while pursuing those that do. Undergraduate courses shouldn’t be treated as vocational training; we have graduate school and beyond for that. What makes these four years great is that we don’t have to immediately choose a lane and sprint forward. We can veer all over the place, occasionally bumping into things, gradually straightening out along the way. This time in our lives may not be the best in every aspect, but if you think about it, you can understand why your parents give you a hug and tell you so before they let you go.


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