The first year of college is like a suspension of time and reality in which you learn to ride out extremes. You learn who you really are by your position amongst people who are on academically and statistically even ground with you. All of the prior years in school are futile in preparing a first year student for college. These four years are a social psych experiment disguised as an education based on book learnin’ from high school. The first, and most important, thing I learned at UVA was that I’m not smart. I was thrust into mediocrity the day I arrived in Charlottesville. And I have to tell you, that was fine with me. Luckily the majority of students realize within the first few weeks that school isn’t everything. Only half of the actual benefit of college is understood while one is a student there. Those benefits involve karaoke that’s so bad it’s good, student discounts, stories that start with “allegedly I,” football games, and bonding with people whose last names you never find out after four years of being good friends. What can compare to the giggles you get over people whose names have been replaced by elaborate monikers to distinguish them from the rest, like Pledge Dave, Hot-Not-Soccer-But-Actually-Lacrosse Matt, and Hairy Theta Delt Guy?
Thankfully, college is the gift that keeps on giving after graduation. Forget the benefits of a college degree in the work world. I’m talking about every time you see your school’s team win a close game, going back for homecoming, knowing that someone is a decent human being just because they have a UVA license plate, and the knowledge that you’re part of a population that, since 1819, has found a way to leave a legacy (or stain) on the serene landscape of Central Virginia.
By far, first year is the greatest of the four years at school, but that’s simply because it’s the only year you can never recreate, no matter how hard you try. There’s no way to reinstate the fear, excitement, innocence, and freedom of being away from home for the first time. Not only are there no parents around, but everyone is the same age and within walking distance.
The only thing a student can come armed with is a willingness to resign to naiveté. No one can give you adequate advice on going off to school; however before my parents left me that first night, my dad offered me three recommendations: 1. Never drink anything that was mixed in a trashcan, 2. Fix myself up and study at the med school library often, and 3. Make myself look pretty and approachable, and go sit on the steps of the law school. My parents had invested a lot in me during the past 18 years. As my dad once told a boyfriend of mine at dinner, “After all of the dance lessons, hair appointments, and clothes I’ve paid for, I think that it’s about time I got a return on my investment. Don’t you agree, son?” He didn’t. It’s okay. I’m quite a handful. I didn’t follow my dad’s first piece of advice, and I thoroughly rebelled against the last two sagacious bits. I’m still trucking along just fine, well, other than that nasty addiction to trashcan punch.
My first year of school mostly consisted of practicing with the cheerleading squad, stealing things from the guys’ suites below us, going fratting in too-tight black pants, and gallivanting about Charlottesville knowing that anything stupid I did could be absolved by the phrase, “I’m a first year, hehe.” One of my more challenging experiences was learning how to live with not only a roommate, but eight other suitemates where there was no kitchen, no free laundry, and no privacy whatsoever. Surprisingly, it was great. Not do-it-again great, but it was appropriate for the time and situation. I learned to live without shame. For example, the journey to the laundry room could be a tricky mission. I had a strange paranoia that I would drop my underwear on the stairs without noticing on my way to the laundry room. That, in itself, wasn’t the terrible thought. What’s terrible is the return trip upstairs to see the fallen undies. Nobody wants to be the one to claim ownership. So, what do you do? Do you pick them up, chancing that someone will witness you plundering stray underwear from the ground? Or, do you leave them there, not only losing your drawers, but having to pass by them repeatedly until the laughing cleaning guy hoists them up with the end of his mop? I lost sleep over that for the first month of school; however, when I adopted the mentality that whatever doesn’t kill me will make a great story, I loosened up. I’m now known for sporting undergarments on my head and answering the door in a towel (sorry Crystal and Jeff…). I call that personal growth.
Isn’t growth exactly what first year is about? We learn that there are other people in the world besides us, and that they are nowhere near as judgmental as you think they’ll be. The first year of college is the formative time when you can free yourself from the shackles of parentally-instituted decorum, learn that no one will take care of you if you don’t take care of yourself, and find that a family isn’t necessarily the people related to you, but those who will be there to listen to your ridiculous stories and eat cheap pizza at 3:00AM , even if you do occasionally drop your underwear on the stairs