A beloved younger cousin of mine started his freshman year of college last August. At his graduation party the prior summer, his parents had set out a poster board with a handful of metallic Sharpies so that we could each sign our names, a congratulatory note, and a bit of advice we had for him.
Some of the advice was humorous, like the quips about not eating yellow snow, and that his younger sister was planning to take over his room once he moved out of their house. Other blurbs encouraged him to look up from the computer screen every now and again, and to remember to attend classes in between the never-ending kegger parties. Although I wrote a sentence or two on his card, I waited to offer him my deeper, more meaningful advice later that night, after our other cousins had fallen asleep.
He and I have a tradition at our family get-togethers of spending at least one evening, after everyone else has fallen asleep, talking for as long as we can. We trade humorous stories, as well as aspirations and fears. It’s a lovely bit of bonding to which I’ve looked forward every year since I was twelve, when we first started our tradition.
Before embarking on an undergraduate college experience, many of us have similar ideas of what we expect to happen. Loved ones, acquaintances, and the media all praise those college years as being amongst the most enjoyable times of one’s life. You’ll go to lots of great parties, they say. You’ll have lots of steamy sexcapades, they say. You’ll feel like you’re on top of the world, they say. It doesn’t get any better than your college years, they say.
What they don’t say is that college isn’t always fun. No one warns you about the inevitable loneliness you’ll feel at some time or another.
There are times when you’re alone, yet you desperately crave company. There are times when you feel like an unattractive, unloved loser. There are times when you wonder if “the college experience” is really worth it. There are times when you resent yourself for feeling just plain sad, with or without a readily identifiable reason.
If you’re lucky, those unhappy times occur much less frequently than the awesome ones. But, not everyone is that lucky. I know a handful of kids who felt many more downs than ups, yet the majority of us around them never knew the battles they regularly faced.
The problem is that by not talking about the dismal experiences we all inevitably have, when they do happen, you feel even more alone. You feel alienated, ostracized, and rejected, as if you’re the only one not enjoying yourself in a sea of “normal” people enjoying their “normal” college experiences, and you’ll pine for that “normalcy”. Although normalcy is an illusion, many of us fail to realize at the time that other people are masking their socially undesirable feelings, too.
I warned my cousin that night of this hurdle buried somewhere in his future, which is a hurdle about which I wish all incoming freshmen were told. The sad times will hit, but if you share them with a few trusted others, you’ll all feel a little less abandoned. Depression and other mental battles often emerge during the college years, whether or not you’ve dealt with them before. But, it’s important to remember that we’re all in this together, even when we feel most alone.