For many people, the sole purpose of attending college is to have their own taste of the “college experience.” Frat parties, game days, and a huge community that feels both like a small town and a huge city at the same time can be appealing. Others seek the quieter, less rah rah atmosphere of a tiny elite liberal arts college.
It is a challenge to pin down just what really constitutes the “college experience.” I myself am conflicted on how to feel about the college experience as an entity. Some say it’s the best kind of education you can get, not just in terms of academics, but also in terms of the life lessons you receive and the opportunities you have to learn more about who you are. Others emphasize the ridiculousness of such an expensive four-year party that yields nothing but a degree that simply isn’t worth what it used to be.
The college experience is akin to the American dream in its mystical elusivity and the fact that it seems to only exist in fictional media and stories you hear from other people. But the thing about the American dream and the college experience is that they are never quite what you envision them to be. Society has long put pressure on certain ideals and goals, deeming them to be realistic and attainable when they are usually the exception, not the rule.
In dissecting the notion of the college experience, it is clear that some of the most perpetuated expectations—having the best four years of your life, meeting the person you’re going to marry, figuring out what you want to do with your life—can be harmful. The fact is, it is becoming increasingly common for young people to go through life based on a more relaxed and nonlinear timeline. Taking longer to finish school, switching career paths multiple times, and marrying at an older age are all becoming more normalized for millennials and Gen Z. On the other hand, college still has the potential to provide students with meaningful experiences that are important to one’s growth as a person. As my dad has told me multiple times, the best thing you can get out of college is a couple of really great close friends and at least one teacher who manages to change your perspective on life.
Another aspect of this debate centers on whether or not college is, in fact, “necessary.” One side argues that a degree, along with the skills and networking that accompany it, are a prerequisite for securing a job and thus, “being successful,” after graduating. The other side of the argument claims that a college education is no longer, and never was, a necessity and that you can really do whatever you want without formal secondary education. Elite college degrees are also inherently classist because of the huge price tag that comes with both applying to these schools and attending them. A high-caliber university degree is thus a status symbol disguised as a top job qualification. So, while it might be meaningful to meet close friends and a mentor, handing over thousands of dollars every semester just for this to happen seems like a stretch.
A university experience has also been cited as one of the most significant factors that can influence an individual’s political views. Someone who comes from a relatively sheltered upbringing and then attends college in a big city might find that this idea rings true and that college has helped them to develop their own personal beliefs. But how does this affect work when most of the students who attend a university are already pretty liberal before they get there? Do they just get more liberal? Perhaps. But, it is more likely that there is no liberalizing effect in the first place. More likely, we continue to skew the whole idea that college liberalizes a person with our majority liberal populations.
In addition to having a reputation for liberal politics, Wesleyan, as a private university, also has a reputation for attracting students who attended private institutions prior to college. In classes, they’re the ones who took Italian poetry and classes dedicated solely to sonnets instead of Honors English. This also contributes to a certain degree of privilege that permeates throughout a school’s culture, and being fortunate enough to attend such a university is a privilege in and of itself that I recognize. Most of the kids from these upper crust East Coast private schools have long-standing connections to each other in some way, whether it’s through attending the same Hebrew school, being neighbors, or summering on the same island.
This kind of familiarity ruins the illusion that college is the point where one packs up all their stuff and moves into a new place for a fresh start far from home. How can one expect to gain new insights about oneself and their place in the world when college is not a new chapter but simply a continuation? Furthermore, the private school culture persists and is fed by an administration who grants admission to such a school based on certain expectations. It is, of course, possible to get in by attending public school. However, the private school to private college pipeline exists and not just in one place, but across the country. So what is gained from attending a school like Wesleyan?
My answer to this question has to do with the fact that I have always loved school. And not just the part where I get to see my friends. I truly love the academic parts. I love picking classes, taking notes, being given feedback on my work, and feeling like I’m actually learning something. After my first day of school in kindergarten, I stayed to ask my teacher when we would start to get homework. I attended public school for grades K–12 and was always one of the only kids who did the assignments on time and raised my hand to participate in class, even in what were supposed to be “advanced” courses. School also sometimes feels like one of the only things I’ve ever been good at. For me, this was one of the draws of college. Forget having to go out and get a job and find a place in the real world; just give me more school and more structure. College was also another reason to put effort into school. Besides the fact that I wanted to do well for myself, good grades in high school were supposed to lead to admission to a “good” school later on.
When I first started as a first year, I was pleasantly surprised that everyone in the classroom actually wanted to be there as much as I did. Unfortunately, a slight twinge of imposter syndrome also crept in, and still rears its head from time to time. This may be the result of coming from a learning environment in which I was afraid to practice an accent in class for fear of getting mocked by my peers. Now, I’m in a place where all the other students in my French class have perfect pronunciation because their private school language programs expected nothing less. Therefore, for me personally, the college experience has so far been somewhat worth it because I’m finally in a place where I can get the most out of an education. I’m in a place where I’m not only learning from my teachers but my peers as well.
This is not the only thing that makes college seem worth it for me. I’ve met so many people that I know I’ll stay in contact with for years to come. I’ve also already learned so much about myself. With this in mind, I am perhaps being slightly hypocritical here in criticizing the whole college experience while also benefiting from both the social and educational perks that it provides. Even though there will always be parts of my own college experience that I wish I could change, I am still subscribing to the entirety of it.
That’s pretty much what it comes down to. There is no way of quantifying whether a college experience will be worth what one puts into it without taking the individual into account. What I gain from a university setting is dependent on me and my values as well as those of the university. There are still people that will look at what I’m doing and what I’m getting or not getting from it and deem it a waste of time and money. Some say that you can make your four years into whatever you want them to be, but I have not always found this true in the realm of college experiences. The more appropriate conclusion to make is that if you set yourself up with clear goals and align these with what you know about the university you’re attending, you are better prepared to have your ideal college experience. Of course, it also helps to be lucky.
Emma Kendall can be reached at [email protected].