Working in higher education has brought up a lot of complicated emotions for me.
I don’t have the fondest memories of my time in undergrad. Those four years were a pressure cooker of sleep deprivation, struggling to keep up with class readings, stress over assignments, and terror that the people around me could tell that I didn’t know what I was doing.
In talking with friends post-grad, it turns out there are plenty of people whose experience did not live up to what they hoped for or expected from their college years.
Before starting undergrad, I heard over and over from family friends and neighbors how much they loved their college experience. Now, working in an administrative position at a university, I hear from my co-workers how their experience in undergrad made them want to pursue a career in higher ed.
That notion boggles my mind.
I’m sure some of my peers would be surprised to hear it, but I think my four years of college were some of the worst years of my life.
Those four years left a pervasive feeling of being lost and stumbling through a maze of classes without a clear path to what I might want to do when it was all over.
If I could go back and whisper in the ear of my high school self, I would encourage her to take a gap year, or to treat college as less of a “road map” to a career and more of a playground. I would shout “dive in!” to things I was interested in, but that didn’t fulfill a “degree requirement.” And, I would say “take a gap year.”
If I were to happen upon my undergraduate self, I would whisper “everyone else is struggling too,” cross my fingers, and hope that the realization would sink in.
It’s possible that my memories are clouded, not by the experiences themselves, but by the filters that I now recognize and have a word for: anxiety and depression.
I look back on the nights when I would huddle against the back of my bedroom door, my knees pressed into my chest, and choke back sobs, and I wish I could tell that frantic, panicked girl that the empty drowning feeling both is and is not normal.
Depression and anxiety are not uncommon, but they aren’t ubiquitous. Not everyone has the invasive thought “wouldn’t it be easier if I just didn’t exist?” Some people do, but not everyone.
That feeling of wanting to sleep and only sleep is felt by thousands of people across the world, it isn’t how everyone feels most of the time, but it isn’t a feeling that comes just from “imagining” it. It is real.
If I could, I would tell her that it isn’t always possible to just not think about those things. It isn’t always possible to clear your head, or meditate, or eat your vegetables and drink enough water to make it go away. Sometimes, you need something stronger than sunshine and vitamin D to strengthen the good days.
This post isn’t quite what I was planning on writing.
I expected to write with more spite, more bitterness, and more anger towards educational institutions. I planned paragraphs about the masters degrees I’ve looked into and how terrified I am that I might enter another two or three years of school and feel just as lost and alone and uncertain as I did in undergrad.
An education is designed to facilitate intellectual growth. What I want now is to develop and grow emotionally. To strengthen my internal compass, and learn to cultivate positivity, and to keep my anxiety and depression in check.
Some good things did come from my college years – I met my husband, I made life-long friends, I have some really lovely memories of rehearsals and performances.
If I could whisper in the ear of my college-self, I would say very similar things to what I should probably by whispering to myself these days.
“Focus on what brings you joy. Don’t worry so much about the rest.”