Mending the college narrative

Monday, April 15, 2019 - 6:12pm

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Illustration by Christine Jegarl

I have heard it all. About how there’s nothing in the world quite like walking to Michigan Stadium with your friends on game days — when jubilant music floods the streets and Ann Arbor is indisputably wide awake. About hunching over crinkled papers and half-finished lattes in the library late at night. About the fading intensity of homesickness as you find the friends that’ll speak at your wedding someday and the growing sense of who you are meant to be.

With conviction and nostalgia, my teachers, neighbors and older friends promised, “It’ll be the best years of your life.”

The best years of my life.

As the first person in my family to attend college in the United States, I was both very impressionable and cautiously optimistic about college. However, as I stood on the steps of Angell Hall and read the words “the means of education shall forever be encouraged,” learned from professors who are nothing short of experts in their respective fields and passionately sang the fight song at my first home football game, I couldn’t help but believe those words. After all, how could it possibly get any better? It truly felt like I was on the brink of something extraordinary.

However, my college experience largely deviated from what my friends and teachers had recounted. There was an unexpected and acute loneliness that pulled at the hem of my jeans just about everywhere I went. After just a few weeks of walking to class, staring at my blank phone during rushed meals in the dining hall, and exchanging empty words with my roommate, I found myself reaching for my earbuds more and more often — not for the music, but simply to drown out that dreaded feeling of loneliness.

Like most freshmen, perhaps, I decided I needed to put myself out there and get out of my comfort zone if I wanted to meet people. So I sat down and scrolled through Maize Pages religiously to fill out countless applications for clubs. One, in particular, was for a pre-medicine fraternity, founded on the pillars of service and leadership and on the passion for medicine.

The organization and its members embodied everything I wanted for my future. I pored myself over that application — citing years of involvement in various clubs from my high school career. I remember picking out my favorite yellow blouse, meticulously flat-ironing my unruly hair just to pull it back into a neat plait, and rehearsing exactly what I wanted say. But when my interviewers looked like they were trying to keep their heads from flopping over from boredom during my responses, I walked out of Angell Hall feeling more than defeated. Just a month earlier, I had stared up at the promising words at the top of that very building, filled with hope and enthusiasm.

And when the rejection finally came via email, it felt like a door was shutting right in my face — like an entire group of people told me I wasn’t enough. Alas, there I was again: trapped and pushed into a corner with my dear loneliness.

The rest of that first semester of college followed much of the same pattern. I desperately tried out for everything I was even remotely intrigued by. An Indian dance team, an a cappella singing group, more medical clubs. Each one responded with a resounding “no.

I couldn’t help but feel confused. Of all the people that had told me about what college would be like, not one had mentioned feeling inadequate or alone. For a long time, I thought I must be the only person who felt this way. That misconception didn’t change until a close friend confided in me that she would feel the same way even after a night partying with a whole group of people. Slowly, I began to see how pervasive and typical these feelings of loneliness and inadequacy really are, and a bigger picture began to unravel. Now, I can’t help but feel obligated to speak to the gaping hole in the narrative I had heard about the college experience.

The best years of my life.

Though it may look different for each person, so many people experience this period of instability. After all, college is full of change, and the road to figuring out who you’re meant to be isn’t always glamorous. Self-discovery can be a ferociously grueling process that forces us to look our scariest inner demons in the eye.

I didn’t come to this realization until I headed home for Winter Break. After a stressful round of final exams and nagging feelings of loneliness and inadequacy buzzing in my ear for the past few months, I was so grateful to be surrounded by my family. When I finally opened up to my parents about how difficult my first semester was, my dad reminded me of a story I knew all too well.

When I was just 2 years old, my family moved to the United States from India. On my first day of kindergarten, I stared with wide eyes at my teachers and fellow students — not comprehending a single word. My teacher actually met with my parents to express concern about my English language ability. Worried, my mother would sit with me each day as I forced my tongue to make strange new sounds and memorized the curves of a foreign alphabet. I remember being so frustrated that I would throw my pencil across the room — refusing to learn anymore. Ever so patiently, my mother would coax the pencil back into my hands and assure me that the language would come naturally to me soon because our ancestors in India were writers. She gently insisted I had the strength in me to thrive in this foreign place. Soon enough, I was spewing English as fluently as Samantha from next door — more naturally than my native Telugu, even.

By the time I got to middle school, I was writing poems and stories. With his crinkling brown eyes and graying hair, my dad offered, “You’re like Hanuman. You don’t know your own strength.” I smiled, remembering the ancient Hindu stories about a man that didn’t know he had the strength to lift mountains or the creative intelligence of an inventor unless someone told him so.  

My dad’s reminder of my own strength stuck with me. When I returned to campus for winter semester, I wrote his exact words on a piece of paper and stuck them to my dorm wall. I didn’t want to forget them. Most importantly, I wanted to live by them.

So, I was more kind to myself. I relished victories and failures alike, heeding that each would help me in some way. And even though I started to carve my own niche on campus, I told myself that I shouldn’t be afraid of not knowing where I fit in or not feeling like I am enough. I realized my dad was right. It is during the most trying of times that you discover your purpose and some of your greatest strengths — things you’ve always had within yourself.

Of course, success is all the more gratifying when you can appreciate and acknowledge every struggle that you fought to overcame. Thus, I choose to acknowledge the loneliness and confusion that colored much of my first semester. I know that somewhere in the future, I will be grateful for the challenges my freshman year posed and how they pushed me to discover more about myself.

Already, I am at a point where the blaring loneliness has quieted down and I am comfortable simply being with myself. I learned to enjoy my own company. It is this firm awareness and acceptance of the struggles embedded in the college experience that allowed me to embrace every extraordinary opportunity that college has to offer.

I wish more than anything that someone had told me, “You might feel alone and lost, and that’s OK. You are not alone. Treasure those experiences.” I am persistently optimistic that this thread of truth can help stitch together a more realistic picture about the college experience and remind anyone who needs to hear it, “You are strong enough.”