I got my license on my 16th birthday. After months of parking lot drills and freeway merging, I received a government-mandated piece of plastic with an ugly photo of myself. Barring family-chauffeur responsibilities, car availability and the general rules of living under my parents, I finally had control over something powerful and concrete — a control that was greater than anything I had ever experienced.
In my hometown, cars were necessary to reach nearly every destination. As a new driver, my idea of freedom took on a whole new level of meaning. With my license, I no longer felt completely dependent on the adults in my life. But, even with such liberties, I didn’t fully grasp the significance of driving at the time. It wasn’t until two years and a graduation later that I learned true independence manifests itself in the shape of an open road and 4,000 pounds of steel.
On move-in day of my freshman year at the University of Michigan, my parents insisted on taking one car to Ann Arbor. They were determined to fit all my belongings into a five-seat, four-door metal box barreling down the highway. This single-car philosophy would have been practical, resourceful even, if the only passengers were my parents, myself and the mini fridge. But the second my 15- and 11-year-old brothers climbed into the backseat, I was more than ready to leave our tightly cramped vehicle behind the moment we arrived on campus.
Upon entering the circle driveway at Bursley Residence Hall, I stumbled into the crowd of wide-eyed 18-year-olds dragging over-stuffed bins to the walk-in closets we call dorms. I was so relieved to escape the make-shift luggage crate, I didn’t even consider how that car ride would be one of few in the months to come. As my family drove away, I realized that for the first time in my life, what happened next was entirely my decision. I no longer needed permission to go anywhere or do anything. That day marked the beginning of my independence.
After two semesters’ worth of daily commutes to the Central Campus Transit Center walking begrudgingly through ice-freckled air and crashing on the hardwood floors of my friends’ dorms, I can confidently say that college did not foster the independence I once expected.
Today, trapped inside a crowded coffee shop by the rebellious April snow, I can practically hear singer Alanis Morissette humming in my ear: “isn’t it ironic …” College was supposed to offer the freedoms of adult life, not ground the already-established independence I had once gained from driving. I was no longer able to spontaneously visit a friend that lived more than a 20-minute walk away. I had to rely on the U-M blue buses to attend lectures, take exams and study on Central Campus. Running errands could take hours: I had to wait at the stop and walk to my destination when the bus kicked me off. While university life presented new liberties outside of my family home, it also eliminated the existing autonomy I experienced as a teen.
While this lifestyle was manageable, despite the occasional late or canceled bus, it made me reflect on the mobility I once controlled. More importantly, this regression of independence forced me to ponder on the process of growth.
I used to think maturity developed with age. When you’re 6, you fight with your brother over the last cookie in the pantry. But when you’re 7, you let your brother have the last cookie because you know Mom will give you dessert later instead. Growth. But somewhere along the way, the simple addition of age and independence must have turned into Calculus I, because I’m 18 and I can picture my 16-year-old-self laughing at me as I trudge through the snowy April rain to the Diag for a Girl Scout cookie sale. The 20 minutes it took me to reach the Thin Mints and Samoas is just one example of how my mobility and freedoms have changed since no longer being able to drive.
I thought I had the independence thing mastered. From arguments with my brother in elementary school to passing my driver’s test at 16, I learned the chronological sequence of maturation. But, this year’s long walks through snowstorms have taught me there is more than one way to measure the self-reliance of a young girl entering the world of adulthood. I reached out to another student on campus and asked her to reflect on the liberties and limitations of her freshman year at the University.
Rising Business sophomore Anna Ho described her own personal definition of independence since entering college.
“As a 19-year-old teenager, independence, for me, is about control over the decisions that impact my future,” Ho said. “I define independence, at this age, as taking conscientious action and leaning on self-motivation to achieve my goals.”
While I may view the ability to drive as a metric for understanding my personal freedoms, Anna perceives her independence through a broader frame.
“The lack of external influence over my daily routine and schedule is a major difference between my high school and college independence,” Ho said. “As a freshman in college, my time truly became my own.”
Ho’s parents guided her actions throughout high school and adolescence. They were major players in her decisions and daily plans. College eliminated this influence and allowed Ho complete autonomy over her time and choices: when to study, when to hang out with friends, what to wear and what to eat were all up to her, free of conflicting opinions.
And while Ho certainly enjoyed these freedoms, she realized that college independence was also paired with certain limitations. At home, Ho’s mealtimes and food selections varied. But, as a freshman bound by the dining hall hours and menu, the simple luxury of being able to eat when she wanted was limited.
“I had to plan when I could eat and what activities to forgo in order to get to the dining hall in time,” Ho said. “I definitely experience more independence in college, but it’s interesting to think about how I still lack control in some areas of my life, especially when it comes to something as simple as when and what to eat.”
The dining hall’s closure at 8 p.m. can be extremely limiting to student study schedules; if you block out time in the early evening for homework, you might completely miss dinner. While these realities may appear as small inconveniences, they begin to accumulate with greater impact when integrated into everyday choices. For Ho, these restrictions acted as external influences that affected her daily college routine and confined her independence in ways she had not anticipated.
While the notions of dining hall meals and driving might seem superficial within the greater discussion of autonomy, even the smallest elements can act as lenses through which we view our growth and freedoms.
Talking to Ho allowed me to observe the ways in which college students’ independence may be measured. Making one small decision at a time is a tangible way for us to maintain and strengthen our independence as we grow up. Although I want to believe our life experiences keep us moving forward, sometimes, as humans, we can’t help but take a step or two backward in the process. If freshman year has taught me anything, it’s that character development and adulthood are not linear experiences.
In the American novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” J. D. Salinger describes the progression of adolescent years from the main character Holden Caulfield’s perspective: “I was sixteen then, and I’m seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I’m about thirteen. It’s really ironic, because I’m six foot two and a half and I have gray hair.” I don’t know when I started to relate to fictional characters and coming-of-age stories, but I, too, have found myself promptly plucking out stray gray hairs, undoubtedly surfaced by the impending doom of an identity crisis at the age of 18.
But I guess that’s just the irony of teenage independence.
Statement Columnist Reese Martin can be reached at email@example.com