As a graduate student, I’m stuck in this liminal spot between being part of “the college scene” and being incredibly glad I am no longer really part of the college scene (not that I ever really was, but that’s a story for another post). When I logged onto WordPress today, I noticed a sophomore who is in love with her university talking about how hard it can be to be three hours from home. Yet here she goes offering sage tips to all those poor college freshman who just hate to be away from their families/homes/loved ones. It seems to speak to a certain social class and home dynamic that we’re comfortable assuming is the way everyone in college feels.
But I’m more concerned about those students who fall through the cracks. I was one of those students. And every semester, I watch a student or two start to slip through the cracks. Since I teach at a major university, the class I teach might be one of the few classes with fewer than 40 students–maybe fewer than 100+–that my students take in their first two years. My students tell me about lectures with 400 people. By comparison, the university I attended had no large lectures. I think my Intro to Econ class might have had 40 students in it total and that was my largest class (and it felt huge).
The signs vary from student to student. Certainly with the wave of suicides at Cornell earlier this year and with the number of students who committed suicide at the beginning of this academic year, we can tell that it’s easy for college students to slip through the cracks. After all, it’s the first chance most people have to become autonomous. It’s the first time away from the structure (or lack thereof) at home. It’s the first chance to become someone new for a lot of students who think they are tired of who they were–and who believe that becoming someone new is as easy as just pretending hard enough and long enough.
The trick to this is, that’s not all it takes to change. And if you go about it the wrong way, pretending to be someone you’re not is at the best tiring. At its worst, it’s entirely self-defeating and humiliating.
I went to a Halloween party on Saturday. To get there, I had to drive through part of campus and I saw these undergrads dressed in similarly skimpy outfits (women) or outfits meant to highlight either brains/brawn (men). The plastic red cups so popular at college parties abounded. At 8 p.m., students were already holding each other up as they crossed the street (I should mention it was also the day of a major home football game). And I couldn’t help but wonder how many people–how many of my students or students that could be mine–were sitting at home because they couldn’t make themselves jive with the college scene. And I couldn’t help but wonder too, how many of my students would drink too much on Saturday night (or any night) because they’re trying so hard to fit into the college scene and they think that’s what people are supposed to do.
I wonder how many of them hate it.
It’s not hard to see a student slipping. None of the “usual” signs. Grades usually stay fine when a student starts to slip. Sometimes attendance drops. Sometimes not. Usually it’s just that they stop talking in my class. Usually their eyes start to go flat and they start to email me more (or stop emailing me altogether if they’ve been one of those rare students who emails me a ton of questions). Usually if I ask what’s wrong, they make an appointment to talk to me during office hours, to tell me about how college is going for them. Usually the answer: not well.
But I can’t catch them all.
And tips like “make your room feel like home,” tips like the one I saw on the blog post when I walked in, created by someone who loves college don’t help these students. If anything, it causes them to feel more alienated. I’ve heard them talk about how they feel like they don’t have friends here. Hell, I remember saying the same thing myself. I had a football player a year ago who wanted to transfer because he was having a rough time on the team. He wouldn’t talk about what was rough. He was willing to talk about the racial slurs he heard off the field. He transferred, ultimately. He almost failed my class because I didn’t notice when he started to slip.
Every time I go to the part of campus where most of the undergraduates live/party/eat I’m reminded of how glad I am not to live in a dorm anymore. My students tell me stories about awful roommates and dorm mates by this point in the semester–I come off hard-ass at first and it takes them a while to warm up to me again–and I’m grateful not to share a small room with a complete stranger. I’m grateful that I don’t have to sign up for a shower time. I’m grateful that whenever I want to sleep, I can pretty much guarantee it’ll be quiet–and when I want to stay up late, I’m the only person affected. I’m grateful that I don’t have to eat on campus and that I don’t have to sleep in a lofted bed anymore. And right now, while my students are busy getting mono from making out with each other and (root)beer pong, I’m grateful that I don’t share the germs so prevalent in dorms.
College life sucks.
Maybe the real world isn’t much better–but at least the suckiness is different.