Is College Really “The Best Four Years of Your Life?”

“I met my best friends in college!”
“Oh my God, college was the best four years of my life.”
“Savor every moment you’ll never have a time like this, or friends like these again!”
“I don’t know where I’d be without my college friends.”
“I wish I could go to college again!”
“College was SO FUN!”

college student on computer
I’m guilty of saying everyone of these phrases to my daughter. (Twenty20 @agalokos)

Is college the “best four years” of life?

Do these phrases sound familiar? Have you said them to your high schooler or college-student sons or daughters? Have you heard other people say them? Have you seen variations of them as headlining phrases about launching your child off to college? I’m guilty of saying every one of them myself, (although I often say I wish I could go back to college with my 53 years of life experience but with a 20-year old’s ability to stay awake past 10pm).

I was the biggest cheerleader in the world for my daughter through her college application process, her orientation, and her launch onto the wonderful campus of my alma mater. I knew that once she was free of high school and all the baggage that went with it, she was going to soar and find the lifelong friends and sense of belonging that had eluded her in high school.

Or was that me I was thinking of? No matter. I hugged her goodbye on move-in day and drove home with the emptiness of missing her and the anxiety of hoping she would love college as much as I had. Hoping that these years would indeed be the best of her life.

The years have flown and she’s a junior now. An opinionated, talented, funny, bright junior. Here is where you’d expect to hear that she’s blossomed into something bigger and better than I could ever have imagined, and that she LOVES college right? Well you’re mostly correct. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

I’m here to talk about the things she’s taught me about college—no strike that — the things she’s reminded me of about college. Primarily that college is hard – it’s really hard. I don’t just mean academically, I mean in every possible way that comes with living, studying, working, playing, eating and drinking with, people in close quarters for concentrated periods of time.

College can be lonely, it can be stressful, it can be boring, it can be exhausting — for everyone. Even if the smiling faces from our children’s social media feeds portray college as one big party – sooner or later the rubber hits the road and we get that text or phone call : “I’m homesick,” “I’m sick,” “I’m overwhelmed,” “I’m buried,” “I don’t know if I can do this,” “I don’t know if I should be here,” “I’m so lonely.”

Those are tough words to hear, aren’t they? And I wonder if we are so eager for our kids to love college as much as we did, that we forget that we often felt lonely, overwhelmed, and homesick too.

Maybe while reminiscing and extolling our college adventures we could also work in a few of these phrases:

  • “You’ll feel lonely sometimes. That’s normal. Everyone feels lonely, even if they don’t look it. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone and tell them you need company. They probably do too.”
  • “College workloads can feel overwhelming a lot of the time. Don’t forget your professors are there as resources too. Office hours can really help you when you’re struggling.” (I like to modify this one with an anecdote about a sophomore year English Professor who jokingly asked if I was planning to move into his office, I was there so much.)
  • “It’s ok if you don’t meet your lifelong best friend in college. Not everyone does.”
  • “Partying is fun, but it’s not everything, and drunk people can be really obnoxious. It’s ok to walk away.”
  • “It’s ok to miss home when you’re at school, and it’s ok to miss school when you’re home. This is a time of change and those feelings are normal.”
  • “These are four years of your life, but they don’t have to be the best four.”

It’s dawned on me, at the ripe old age of fifty-three, that maybe telling our 18-22-year olds that college is the best four years of their lives is both setting the bar too high and undervaluing all the life lived after college. That’s why I want my daughter to know the whole of my story.

Yes, I met my best friend in college at the age of 19, but twenty-eight years later at the age of 47, I met another best friend and both friends make my life better. Yes, I had some amazing, silly, wonderful times in college with people I’ll never forget. But I’ve also lived a rich and fun-filled life in the 31 years since I graduated. I have college friends who’ve been with me for the whole ride, and others who drifted away — and that’s ok.

In fact, today, some of my closest friends “from college” are people I didn’t even hang out with then, but upon encountering them years later (well into my ‘real life’), I realized that we had much in common and they quickly became very dear and important to me. Yes, I had great friends in college, but I was also really, really, sometimes cripplingly, lonely a huge part of the time. And it took me until much later in my life to realize that I (ironically) wasn’t alone in this feeling.

It’s important for our kids to know that life doesn’t begin and end at the campus gates — that waiting beyond them is a whole world of possibilities and roads and avenues leading places they don’t know about yet, where they will meet people they don’t even yet know exist. For them to know that someday they’ll be on a deadline and they’ll remember the advice their favorite professor gave them and that will help them organize their work to get the job done. They need to know that their years in college are as much about learning about themselves and their needs as they are about academic subjects.

But most of all it’s important for them to know that any tough feelings are normal and will pass. Nothing can be wonderful 100% of the time — not even college.

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Katie Collins Katie Collins is a native Mainer who has called New Hampshire home for the past 29 years. A nonprofit development professional by trade, Katie also has over 25 years of experience in community and professional theater and in 2013 was awarded NH Theater Award for Lead Actress in a Drama or Comedy. She resides in quiet domesticity with her adorable wife, with occasional visits from her talented daughter, a college junior . Katie is a lover of musical theater, the original Star Trek, cheeseburgers, old Carol Burnett show reruns, and weekly lap swimming at the local YMCA. She tries very hard not to take herself too seriously.

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