One of the strongest memories I have from the summer before I left for college was cleaning out a closet full of about a decade's worth of accumulated junk. I think it took me the better part of a week to sort through an impressive array of stuffed animals, various trophies of participation given to all of the equally untalented athletes on my various elementary school teams, and every greeting card I'd ever been given (I may or may not be a hoarder, jury's still out).
To any other normal human being at any other time in her life, that hodgepodge of random items would be all but meaningless, but to my sentimental, nostalgic, recent high school graduate self, every single item evoked an emotionally charged memory. At some point, I ended up crumpled on my bedroom floor in despair, clutching a birthday card created on Microsoft Word 1998 in Comic Sans font (vital details: every word was a different color and the paper bordered with irrelevant clip art). "Marissa wrote me this for my 10th birthday," I sobbed, referring to what was obviously a hastily assembled birthday card from my best friend. "I WILL NEVER FIND ANOTHER FRIEND WHO UNDERSTANDS ME EVER AGAIN!"
That may have been an emotional low point of the summer, but the fact remains: Even if the product of 90's-era cutting edge technology doesn't exactly inspire sobbing, the months that hang between high school and college are seriously challenging. Some people feel like they should ready themselves for a new chapter by pulling away from their high school friends. Others experience extreme nostalgia and are more willing to forgive any negative memories about their childhood and high school in favor of an idealized view of the past. And then there's the strong contingent who felt acutely out of place and uncomfortable in their high school, hometown, and everything associated with both and are methodically counting down the days until they can escape (and to that contingent, I say welcome to the sisterhood). No matter how you feel, the bottom line is that being in a state of in between, in a drawn-out transition, is incredibly difficult. But there are steps you can take and information to arm yourself with to make that transition productively preparatory:
1. Don't be that kid in your class's Facebook page.
Part of being a young adult in this brave new digital world is accepting the fact that the very existence of major life events is questionable if not documented on social media – and that includes joining your school's freshman class Facebook group. But beware: whether it's posting links to pretentious thought pieces then picking fights with anybody who disagrees, ranting about the patriarchy, or transparently emphasizing that you're LIKE TOTALLY READY TO PARTY SEE I'M FUN AND LIKEABLE BE MY FRIEND PLEASE (all scenarios I've witnessed firsthand) almost without fail, there is at least one kid in these groups who manages to single themselves out. Just remember that this is the very first impression your entire class will have of you—and it's amazing how, although most students can barely remember what their professor said 5 minutes ago, even as seniors everybody remembers THAT kid from the Facebook group.
But, at the same time, acknowledge that this is your first chance to get to know your future fellow classmates. Although you should probably wait , to full on let your freak flag fly until finals, when the full range of human and even animal behavior is not just acceptable but expected, it's actually a good idea to reach out. I know of people who found great friends due to a shared interest expressed on their class's Facebook page—people they may not have encountered otherwise. Also, it's great to show up on campus with a plan to meet up with some people or to look out for somewhat familiar faces—it makes the transition that much easier. Just make sure you don't greet people like you know them if you're only acquainted with them by surreptitiously viewing their profile without any real contact. It's an easy trap to fall into but a very, very creepy one.
2. What to expect when you're expecting…a roommate.
I suspect that it is a universal (and perverse) hobby of college upperclassmen and graduates alike to terrify rising freshman with cautionary roommate stories of horror. The summer before my freshman year, it seemed like all I had to do was mention the fact that I was about to start college and aforementioned upper- classmen/graduates would inquire about my roommate situation. Apparently, admitting that I didn't yet know my roommate was basically an invitation to terrify me with stories of the ill-adjusted human beings assigned to live with whomever I might have been talking to. So, believe me, I was prepared for the worst.
While I thankfully never woke up to my roommate hovering above my bed whispering, "I just like watching you sleep" our relationship also fell short of the idealized vision I had of us spending long nights plotting future world domination over jars of Nutella. We were never best friends, but we respected each other's space and requests, asked about each other's days, and occasionally shared amusing anecdotes and, in retrospect, I consider myself pretty lucky. One of the most astonishing and almost impressive things I remember from my freshman year were the stories of other people's roommates who somehow made it through 18 years of life without getting some basic memos about how humans interact with each other.
As it turns out, having a courteous, respectful, and somewhat professional relationship with your roommate may actually be the ideal living situation.
I think the bottom line is this: Whether you love or hate your roommate, having one at all will be a valuable (if at times painful and challenging) life experience. Learning to live with somebody who is basically a complete stranger inevitably teaches you so much about yourself. You learn your limits and the boundaries of your patience, sure, but also self-awareness and the ability to compromise (ideally). At the very least, you get a few interesting stories out of it.
3. How to be an Underclassmen
I'm going to give it to you straight: Upperclassmen generally find freshmen annoying. In most cases, this is not a hostile opposition or an active form of continuous hazing, but rather an impatience for their general newness. My personal theory is that awkward, confused, and generally terrified freshmen often evoke upperclassmen's memories of their own awkward and confused freshman terror, and they're too busy to deal with feelings, so they channel those feelings into antifreshmen sentiments. Or they're just jerks. It's definitely one of the two.
The best way to deal with these prevailing attitudes about freshmen is to first of all accept that they exist. They are unfair and often uncomfortable, but it's just generally how the hierarchy of college goes. Once you've accepted your relatively low status, own it. I don't mean belittle yourself or treat yourself like you are lesser than anybody else due solely to your age and newness. That's bullshit.
What I mean by accepting your position is don't posture— don't pretend like you're anything other than what you are. Be humble. Ask for help. Don't act like you have all of the answers. It may seem like acting like you already fit in will help you adapt, but I've found the opposite is actually true: People in general, as well as upperclassmen specifically, are much more amenable to those who are upfront about their shortcomings or about needing help rather than those who overcompensate.
But at the end of the day, the top thing you should keep in mind when making this transition is to acknowledge that attending college is an incredible opportunity – from a perspective of individual privilege, of course, but also for you as a woman. To put my uber-feminist hat on for a second, it's important to recognize that applying and going to college may very well be the first time young women, in a society that regularly objectifies and demeans us, are asked to invest in ourselves, to make a choice that will benefit us and revolves around our own self-fulfillment.
Honestly, it can be hard to fully realize this personal opportunity when we're bred to please others. We're raised to feel that we must eat, dress, and generally exist in a way that leads others to perceive us as worthy based on bullshit gendered standards of beauty and propriety. We're taught that our good grades aren't so much an indication of our personal knowledge and passion but of how "competitive" we are to attend a certain school. But if we continue to attempt to be flawless ideals, if women approach the college experience with the pursuit of a "perfect" college experience in mind, how are we ever supposed to know what we truly want beyond ridiculous expectations that ignore the fact that we are ultimately not perfect mothers/wives/moguls-in training, but authentic, flawed humans?
A lot of freshmen enter college buying into the popular theory that college is the opportunity to invent a new persona for themselves, but I'd argue that it's far more beneficial to approach the college experience as the first real opportunity to get to know who you've always been—but have been encouraged to repress. I think it's by becoming acquainted with that true self, by establishing an identity complete with self-confidence, self-esteem, and assertiveness, that we will feel secure and know where we will best fit and how we can make the most out of our college experience.
Because you are a special snowflake, I can't tell you exactly what to do to find this true self. But our society does a good enough job of actively objectifying and sexualizing women and breeding us to believe that there is no deeper self to invest in beyond our bodies, which only exist to please and/or attract men (because, according to dominant narratives, LGBTQ individuals don't exist), without us giving in and helping them, so for the love of God, please experiment, force yourself out of your comfort zone – anything to attempt to destroy the hold that ideal may have over your self-conception. And what better venue to try to figure this out than one that's pretty forgiving and full of a bunch of diverse options and influencing forces, both academic and social?
This piece is an excerpt from College 101: A Girl's Guide to Freshman Year by Julie Zeilinger. republished with permission.
Julie Zeilinger is originally from Pepper Pike, Ohio and is a member of the Barnard College Class of 2015. Julie is the founder and editor of The FBomb, a feminist blog and community for teens and young adults who care about their rights and want to be heard. Julie has been named one of Newsweek's "150 Women Who Shake The World", one of the "Eight most influential bloggers under 21" by Women's Day Magazine, one of More Magazine's "New Feminists You Need To Know," and one of the London Times' "40 Bloggers Who Really Count." Her writing has been published on the Huffington Post, Forbes and CNN, amongst other publications. She is also the author of A Little F'd Up: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word. Follow her on twitter: @juliezeilinger.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.