My first two years at the University of Michigan were incredibly difficult — not necessarily academically (at first), but on a personal level. I was struggling socially. I felt somewhat lost in 300-person, intro-level lecture halls where reading the slides and binging on textbooks the night before a blue book exam was enough to secure a top grade. I was insecure around the people who, with such ease, seemed to have so much fun going out to fraternity parties and bars regularly — something that made me extremely uncomfortable and often landed me alone in my dorm room, armed with my computer and my family’s Netflix login. It didn’t help that our football team sucked.
There were, of course, bright moments. I drank for the first time and came to terms with the fact that it’s OK to do that (and even like it) every so often, provided that it’s calculated and not out of control. I befriended one of my psych professors, who likely doesn’t know the extent to which her kindness and eagerness to help me succeed buoyed me. I slowly solidified concrete friendships with people on this newspaper, in my classes and even some who I’d met by chance during the first weeks of school. It wasn’t all bad — far from it, actually. But it sometimes felt like the bad outweighed the good.
By sophomore year, though I didn’t admit it to myself, I was struggling with depression. It was hard to get out of bed some mornings and easier to sleep all day. I felt homesick. I considered transferring schools at one point. It was a culmination of feeling isolated in a place with so many people. I know that all of this doesn’t really feed the widespread enthusiasm that returning to one of the most glorious schools on the planet usually entails — so here’s the upside.
I certainly found that I was not alone in even my darkest struggles, and I want you to know that you won’t be either. Don’t be afraid or ashamed if college isn’t what you expect it to be. Embrace it. Of course, recognize and celebrate what goes well; but, if there is suckiness along the way, know that it’s completely normal — and rest assured that it will get better.
If you feel alone, lost, unsure of your future, existentially confused, angsty, depressed, exhausted … well, join the club. Know that it’s a big group with an infinite alumni base. Struggling feels awful while it’s happening, but it makes you appreciate the light at the end of the tunnel so much more.
Looking back, Michigan is a place that forced me to get out of my comfort zone. Its size made my drive to find smaller, engaging communities that much more important. I couldn’t have made it through without the Daily, without the Lloyd Hall Scholars Program and the Ford School. I was determined to feed my interests with smart people who challenged me and broadened my worldview, and the people I’ve met through those communities have gone above and beyond.
It is a place that gave me a platform to simultaneously enjoy an immersive liberal arts education and pursue my professional interests during the year. For example, interning for “60 Minutes” in Washington D.C. through the University’s Michigan in Washington program was a unique and life-changing opportunity that I wouldn’t trade for the world.
It is a place that built upon my understanding of diversity and inclusive language, and my ability to engage others in dialogue by truly listening before I respond, not just pushing my own agenda.
It is a place that humbled me by exposing me to students who dazzle with their intelligence and high potential to change this world for the better (yes, folks, the “Michigan Difference” is a real thing out there). This is certainly not a place to rest on one’s laurels.
Freshmen (and even sophomores), I am in no position to tell you that all four years of college will be the best of your lives. They might not be. But I can tell you that it’s going to be OK. All of this positivity is borne of, and strengthened in contrast to, the initial struggle to find and understand myself. That struggle persists (a fact of life to which any senior can attest), but I am undoubtedly better for it and grateful for the perspective it has given me. You will be, too.
This is the beginning of the end. You blink an eye, and suddenly you’re having conversations over drinks with friends about job prospects, rent, the economy, politics, etc. Sure, it’s just cheap sangria, but you start to have these out-of-body experiences in which you hear yourself talking and realize that you sound like an adult.
As that happens, you understand that college is where you really grow up and come into your own. The ensuing contentedness makes the struggle so worth it.
I guess the lesson here is, before you know it, you’ll blink, and it’ll be more bittersweet than you ever could’ve imagined. Maybe you don’t realize how much fun you’ve had until you’re nearly done having it — but that just means there’s always something to look forward to.
Michael Sugerman can be reached at email@example.com.