It is a crisp 50 degrees in Ann Arbor today and life feels like a time warp. Campus is in a haze as the last few days of the semester stretch out, with only moments separating us from the budding four months of summer ahead. I feel like it was a lifetime ago that I was moving into my dorm room, stuffing all my clothes into their respective dresser drawers and sticking my posters on the wall — but also like it was just yesterday. As the end of my freshman year comes to a close, I find myself reflecting on my first year of college, tracing my journey from the minute I stepped onto campus to right now, as I write away in the Hatcher Graduate Library
For as long as I can remember, college has been my biggest dream — the light waiting for me at the end of the treacherous tunnel. I have clutched the prospect of college tightly in my grasp since I was old enough to even understand what college was. To me, college was the key to freedom: a chance to start fresh from the mundane life I lived in comparison to the media representation of college. This perception was built notion by notion over the course of my entire life, inspired by the depiction of college I saw in the media. Whether it was Rory’s time at Yale in “Gilmore Girls,” Harriet’s memories of college in Emily Henry’s new novel, “Happy Place” or Becca’s a cappella experience in “Pitch Perfect,” I had grown up with the expectation that college would be the best four years of my life. It would be a time of exploration, where I would have the ability to narrow in on my passions, and also a time of connection, where I would find my forever friends, the type of friends you take yearly vacations with or ask to be a part of your bridal party. College would be my time to thrive, with four years of fun, prosperity and soul-searching ahead of me.
When I first arrived at the University of Michigan, gazing at the East Quad entrance, all I could feel was excitement. As I moved into my dorm, my expectations consumed me. Was I going to meet my forever friends soon? Was I going to bump into the love of my life as I strolled through the Diag? Would I have the time of my life at my first college party? Not a single tear was shed as my parents drove away into the sunset because I had made it. I took a deep breath and as the fresh Michigan air filled my lungs, I was in disbelief that I was finally here, ready to start the next chapter.
The day I moved in was the infamous Greenwood block party; I remember picking out my cutest outfit, ready to conquer my first night in Ann Arbor. But when I arrived, all I saw was chaos. It felt like there were a million people crowded together on that one street and suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. The incessant buzzing of conversation all around me was only drowned out by my thundering heartbeat as I desperately clasped on to my roommate’s arm so I wouldn’t be stranded in the horde of people present. Every step I took, I ended up bumping into someone as the smell of alcohol and body odor filled my lungs, further disorienting my overwhelmed senses. As I took in my surroundings, my brand-new purple Converse sticking to the beer-stained floor of the porch I was standing on, I pushed down the overwhelming emotions rising inside me, determined to enjoy myself. Yet, no matter what I did, I couldn’t help but feel so out of place. I knew in that instant I didn’t belong, that being in college was not going to be how I imagined. I was a nobody from the middle of nowhere Indiana, thrust into a new place hundreds of miles from home, surrounded by complete strangers on all sides. The reality of my situation washed over me as all my hopes and dreams came crashing down. What was I doing here?
I think a lot of people romanticize college, and if I’m speaking honestly, it’s hard not to put that kind of pressure on these four years. It’s one of the first times we get to establish ourselves without the identities of our family and childhood looming over us. We have the ability to figure out what is important to us, blocking out all the white noise as we find what we love amid the new opportunities suddenly available to us. Everyone tells you that college will be the best four years of your life, so going into it, that was my expectation. But adjusting is difficult. It’s hard to be alone — to pick up pieces of yourself and use them to attempt to construct an identity. To come to a place that is different from what you have known your entire life is an incredibly uncomfortable experience, and it is normal to struggle with the reality of that. But what I didn’t expect was just how much I would struggle with it. For someone who had been dreaming of college since forever, it was disappointing how quickly those dreams slipped away from me as I grappled with making a place for myself here.
Every morning, before getting ready for my MATH 115 class at 8:30 a.m., I stared at myself in the mirror, my eyes tracing the frizzy curls I had haphazardly thrown in a bun and the toothbrush hanging out of my mouth. I would brace myself for the dreaded day ahead as a lump began to form in my throat and a knot began to tighten in my chest. College was absolutely not what I expected. Instead of being a land fresh with opportunities — flush with moments that had the potential to be the beginnings of lifelong friendships — it proved to be an extremely lonely place without anyone to share my thoughts and feelings. It seems a bit confounding that one would feel isolated on a campus where there are 50,000 students, but it goes to show how easy it is to get lost in the sea of people here. There were no debriefs in the dining hall or fun study sessions in the UGLi; instead it was just me and my thoughts as they accompanied me to class, to the quietude of the Law Library and to my dorm at the end of the day. All my days started to blur together as I struggled to adjust to the workload of my classes, take care of myself and strive to find any sort of social network. Yet, it was to no avail. No matter how hard I tried to search for people, my people, I was left with the empty promises of connection and the heartbreak to deal with after I realized that yet another potential friend had slipped from my grasp.
It seemed surreal to me how quickly my life had changed. To cope with this dizzying whiplash, I lived in the past as a means to escape my present. I longed for what I had left behind, reminiscing about friends who knew me better than anyone, ice cream runs with my little sister and my parents just down the hall from me instead of a state away. I cried at least 10 times a day and found myself in the midst of a depressive spiral, with the only thing I looked forward to being the instance I drifted out of consciousness as my head hit the pillow and my eyes fluttered closed. I built up the idea of college in my head for years and it came crumbling down moment by moment, leaving me to deal with the destruction and rubble left in its place.
As I would walk through the Diag, “Michigan” by BROCKHAMPTON playing in my AirPods, or as I would watch an episode of “New Girl” in my dorm with my stuffed frog for company, a thought began to form in the recesses of my mind. Over the course of a few weeks, this thought slowly formed into a coherent conclusion. I was miserable, an undisputed fact. Sadly, I wasn’t partying every day of the week and I didn’t have any friends to get brunch and discuss my hopes and dreams with and I had absolutely no romantic endeavors whatsoever. I wasn’t the somebody I thought I would be at the University, based on the somebodies I saw Rory, Harriet and Becca to be, but rather a nobody. But basking in my misery was only worsening it. I reasoned that holding onto this preconceived notion about how college was supposed to be was counterintuitive to my happiness and that maybe I should just let my expectations go and take each day for what it is, rather than comparing it to my grandiose daydreams. This change wasn’t a sudden switch, but rather a gradual accumulation of events that are still occurring to this day. Instead of concentrating on the negative things going on in my life, I attempted to take every moment one step at a time. One of the best things I ever did during that period of my life was join a Wolverine Support Network group. WSN is an organization that promotes mental well-being by fostering an inclusive, supportive community on campus. Part of how they achieve this is by offering free peer-to-peer support groups every week as a private safe space for anyone to receive support if they need it. Those weekly meetings, where I would go for an hour and share what was going on in my life, pulled me out of my funk. It gave me something to look forward to and it made me feel like I wasn’t alone in my struggles. One of the biggest things I took away from my WSN group is that there is solidarity in hardship: I’m not the first person to feel like this about college, and I definitely won’t be the last. My hope with this column, born from “Breaking down in the Hatcher stacks,” is that it makes you feel less alone and it gives you the opportunity to be vulnerable about your feelings.
I’m tempted to end this column with a joyous ending, recounting how I overcame adversity and how there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. But that wouldn’t be honest. The truth is that I still don’t like college. I still have days where I awake to my alarm and feel disappointed that I’m in my dorm room rather than my lavender-painted childhood bedroom. But I also know now that college, just like any part of life, is a journey filled with highs and lows. I understand that those lows will not last forever and that every day is a conscious choice to focus on the temporariness of my hardship. My first year of college taught me that life may not match up to my expectations, but that’s okay. What’s more important than expectations is the ability to focus on the present, to be able to ground yourself in your reality, but also recognize that everything will be okay if you let it be. Rather than thinking about my misery, I think about the brown sugar latte awaiting me on my way to study or my WSN group awaiting me at the end of a long Wednesday. Maybe I haven’t met my forever friends yet, maybe I might not find the love of my life in the Diag, and my first college party was definitely not the best experience. But that’s alright. I think next year will be better.
Statement Columnist Ananya Gera can be reached at email@example.com