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The Greatest Secrets of College Life in America

The Greatest Secrets of College Life in America

Hello friends! While I was in China, I had the privilege of meeting David Cole, a writer based in Kentucky. Besides being a witty friend to me during the entire trip, he was also kind enough to share a bit of his experiences in college with me. I am currently sitting at the cusp of one of the biggest changes in my life— entering college. I know that many of you all are also about to enter the real world with me, so I asked David to share some of his wisdom with you all on here. Besides writing about the differences between college and high school, he also does some pretty amazing narrative work, which you can find here. Along with this, he shares his more journalistic writing here. If you’re looking for a bit of inspiration, go check it out! You can also follow his Instagram here. I really enjoyed reading his piece below, and I hope you will too.


by David Cole

If you’re reading an essay about the transition from high school to college, you probably understand the certain little song and dance that the writer has to do. There’s a lot of grandiose statements about how your life will change, how you’ll discover a lot about yourself, about forging friendships and relationships that last a lifetime. But here’s the thing: we each have our own experience. Some of us come out of four years’ worth of schooling with some kind of clear vision of what we’re doing and where we’re going next, and some of us do not. Some people will not have any clearer a picture in four years than you do right now.

And that is, believe me, okay.

College is a defining moment in the life of the modern American, more so than it has ever been before. Besides the fact that the 21st century demands a bachelor’s from almost every position imaginable, transitioning into full-on adulthood has become a prolonged process compared to what our own parents had to go through. At 18, my mother was married. By 24, she had already been across the country multiple times as a long-haul trucker. Me? I’m fumbling around in the dark and proud of myself for socializing more than once a week. Your path is your path and this world you live in is different than the one folks older than you lived in.

What I’m getting at here is that whomever you’ve looked to for advice about college has always had to provide it with an asterisk. A little disclaimer at the tail-end that says “But that’s how it went for me.” This is no different. I’m going to tell you some things I learned and hopefully they’ll help you in some way. But you may have to do some stretching to get there. And some day, you’ll get to do the same thing for somebody else who is 18 and stressed out. That’s the circle of life.

What is the biggest difference between high school and college?

In a word: freedom. In several words:

Up to this point, your life has been school. You’ve had your subjects picked out for you and a set schedule that you share with everyone else your age. Some variation comes in high school, if you go to a school that lets you choose courses, but largely even this is fairly strict. What you do after 3:15 has usually been involved with school as well--some club or activity for people your age. All that structure is about to go out the window.

The thing I see college freshmen struggle with most is time management. I have the same problem every time I enter a new “stage” in my life. When I start each job, everything I learned about time management must be relearned. The same is true of my friends now in graduate or professional school programs. Even the soon-to-be doctors have trouble regaining their grip on time.

And that is okay.

Your personality is going to dictate how much of a hurdle this is for you, but it will be one regardless. At some point, you are going to realize that the structure that was made for you up to now was a comfort that is not available any longer. If you go into college and enter an “Honors” program or the like, you’ll find that they attract students who are both ambitious and addicted to that structure. I recommend that, even if you are the sort of person who wants to be in a program like that, you take care to make sure you make your own class schedule. It’s a difficult thing to do and, when you inevitably end up hating it, it is good to have yourself to blame. That’s how you learn.

When you pick your classes, consider that you have four years to do what is required of you both by your college as a whole and the degree that you have chosen or will choose. You don’t have to take every core class in your first year or two. I was still taking cores in my senior year. My professors balked at the concept, but I found it nice to have a class designed for freshmen at the same time I was taking two professional-level English literature courses. After working for a week on my thesis, it was easy to crank out a two page rinky-dink paper for Poli Sci 205 and be able to relax a little bit.

Find your time to relax. It may become fleeting. If you’re like me, you’ll have to work while you go to school at the same time. This can seem incredibly daunting, especially coming out of high school. But it is doable. Look into student employment at your university. There are always positions available at larger institutions and usually the scheduling of your work hours is flexible because you are expected to be a student first, employee second. The two will conflict at times, but not nearly as much as an off-campus job will.

Stop to breathe. Sit on a park bench for an hour or two, without your phone, and just exist in that space.

Outside of your class time, you’re going to find yourself with time to kill. Modern dorms have moved away from the “I live in a shoebox” model that I was lucky enough to be a part of. If you get a private room, don’t avoid your roommate. Try to bridge the gap to that person first and foremost, then start to branch out into your larger campus community. College towns surrounding campuses tend to offer all sorts of cool events that you can take advantage of. Do things that you aren’t sure you’d like. Go to an art show that you're Fine Arts department is putting on, even if you secretly make fun of the art. Try out for a play. Most theater programs put on full-scale productions and don’t require cast members to be in the department itself, just a student. Drink some boxed wine in an older friend’s apartment off-campus (safely, mind you) and have adult conversations with them since, like it or not, you are one of those now.

Don’t marry yourself to any particular thing during your first year. Keep trying weird stuff. Take classes that sound interesting and go to club meetings that seem weird. Even if you drop the class or only go to one meeting, it will probably be a story. Look for opportunities to be a part of a story. That’s what makes the college experience one worth experiencing.

What do you think are some common misconceptions high schoolers have about college?

Okay, look: college is hard. It will kick your ass at one point or another. But everybody like me who has already been through it tends to make it sound harder than it really is. Think of it like the old “I walked to school in the snow, and it was uphill both ways” stories. Yeah, things were tough, but geez.

If you expect to be a successful college student, that is someone who maintains a respectable GPA, socializes, and maintains some form of personal identity, then you’re going to work your ass off. Compared to the way high school rolls, it isn’t the same. A lot of people make it as far as their junior or senior year avoiding the challenges of college life and living a sort of “high school+” lifestyle. Do not do this. While it is possible, you’ll find that a lot of what you’re supposed to learn in college is a consequence of the classes you take and not the subject. You’re going to learn survivability. You’re going to learn drive. You’re going to learn to truly respect the hustle.

But the keyword there is “learn.” You will learn. It will be difficult, but you will do it. How exactly won’t be clear until it has passed, but trust me, it will work out. Things that are hard are, invariably, worth the struggle.

And that is okay.

What advice would you give someone who is about to go to college/enter the real world? What “life lessons” did you learn while you were in college?

I combined these questions because they are intrinsically linked. This is the real meat of what I have to tell you, it’s the basis of everything I’ve already told you. Some of you reading this are going into college, some of you aren’t. Some of you are going to triumph in ways you’d never imagined, some of you are going to fall into great sadnesses that I wish the world would spare you. But, most likely, no matter whether you’re going off to get your degree or not, you will experience both.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase “growing pains.” This is what you’re about to go through. Sometime you’re going to be up at three in the morning, staring at a Word document that just won’t fill itself up, wondering how in the ever-loving world you’re going to get ten more pages full of words in six hours. Some other time, you’re going to be lying on the floor, staring up at a light like it is the sun itself, so lost in your own mind that you’d swear it was. At some point, you will be staring into the eyes of someone who will see something in you that you didn’t know was there. And at some other point, you will ask yourself how you will ever go on without that someone around anymore.

Or you won’t.

You have finished high school and unless you choose to remain sheltered in your hometown, refuse to turn to the wider world that surrounds you, you are about to experience an endless stream of experiences. Each one will define and redefine parts of you, form you into the person you are. They will shape you into something that is unique, something that the world has not seen before, and guarantee that you will be missed when you eventually must go.

But here’s the thing, my friend, that isn’t because you’re going to college. It’s because you’re maturing. You’re getting older and nothing can stop that, but the beautiful thing about that is that this stream of experiences I’m talking about? Nothing can stop that either. And that is okay.

It is all going to be okay. So long as you do not totally give up, retreat into yourself and keep from facing the world that is coming toward you, you will be okay. And even if you find yourself in a situation where you must retreat into yourself to survive, know that you will come out again, and when you do you will be okay. In time.

I believe that the intention of this essay being written was to provide practical advice for those going into college. There are boundless, countless words written on this subject. No matter your field of interest, if you even have one right now, there is someone out there who has spelled out what you need to know for your first semester. Truth be told, this is all silly. College is made out to be a lot of pomp and circumstance, that somehow you are trapping yourself into a specific path that you will walk for the rest of your life. All I want you to walk away from me with right now is the knowledge that this isn’t the case.

Some of the most fascinating people I know are doing things so wholly separate from what they studied that it is comedic. I know people who intended to be doctors and are now somewhere deep in a foreign land, speaking foreign languages and teaching foreign children. I know people who wanted nothing more than to live a simple suburban life with picket fence and all, but now live in hostels on a never-ending journey from one place to the next--by choice. The reason these people have fallen into dreams perhaps even grander than those they started with is that they remained flexible. They took their classes in other subjects and rounded themselves. Ultimately, that’s what your early 20s are for: rounding yourself.

The point of all this rambling, again, is to tell you that you are going to be okay. That is what you need to hear right now. In all practicality, college will welcome you with open arms and you will find your place there in time. But what you need to know, right this second, is that this will happen. That you do not need to sweat over every decision you make right now as if it will control you forever after, like you are some puppet crafting your own strings.

One of the greatest writers of our time, Yusuf Islam, once sang:

Life is like a maze of doors
and they all open from the side you’re on.
Just keep on pushing hard boy, try as you may,
you’re going to wind up where you started from.

Everything isn’t open to you, but everything is within your power to open. You just have to reach out and push. But if you push too hard, you don’t end up going anywhere. Remember this as you approach the first doors you will have to open without the guidance of your family or friends, because college is when many of you will see them for the first time. Trust yourself to choose the right ones, to find your own path. Because you can.

And it will be okay.

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Rural Roads

My Trip to China

My Trip to China