Freshman Year of College Realities: The Unedited, Gritty Truth
Starting college this fall? Here’s a firsthand perspective from our son Jack, who just finished his freshman year at the University of Memphis. This is Part 1 of a two-part blog. Next week, you’ll get Mom’s firsthand perspective on freshman year: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly.
As with any life experience, there’s how you THINK it will be and then there’s how it ACTUALLY GOES. We’ve left Jack’s comments unedited, so this may read a bit like a Rolling Stone interview, but we hope it will resonate with someone about to enter their freshman year of college.
Overall, how would you describe your freshman year of college?
JACK: I had a great first year and I can’t wait to go back in the fall. It’s actually hard being home this summer, because I miss my friends at college. That said, freshman year was really, really hard a lot of the time. It wasn’t at all like I thought it was going to be. And it took a long time for things to work out.
How did your expectations about your freshman year of college compare with reality?
JACK: It was lonelier than I expected. High school wasn’t a great experience for me. I figured going to college was the absolute solution to all my problems. It was going to be the life I’d always wanted. But it was super hard. The first week was great. My roommate was from Memphis. I hung out with him and his friends from high school who also went to college at Memphis. I met a ton of people. It seemed like I was off to a great start. Then things settled in and I got lonely. I met a lot of people, but I didn’t feel connected or close to anyone. No one really knew me, and I felt isolated. It takes a long time to sift through all the people to get to the cool ones. In the beginning, I hung out with people I didn’t feel that connected to because I didn’t have anyone else.
It sucks, because you feel like you’re the only one in that situation. It seems like everyone around you is surrounded by friends and already has their group. Like you missed out somehow. It seems like everyone else has it figured out. Especially if you go out of state, like I did. People all around you seem to be hanging around with their best friends, and I didn’t have that. They may be in the same boat, but that’s not how it looks.
Was dorm life what you expected it to be from a social perspective?
JACK: I thought I’d meet a lot more people in my dorm, but I didn’t. Or if I did, I’d meet them through other things and then end up finding out they live in my dorm. Maybe it’s not this way everywhere, but in my dorm, most people kept their doors closed most of the time and kept to themselves. There were often people out talking in the common areas. But I’m not the type of person to just go and inject myself into that conversation. My roommate and I got along great the first month, but then ended up not getting along. He was having some personal issues, and he actually moved out pretty early on first semester. So it was even lonelier then, but the good news was that I had the room to myself.
How did social media affect you at that time?
JACK: Social media totally sucks in terms of your sanity. Don’t use it. All you’re going to see is people at parties, and it’s not going to make you feel good. You’ll see people having fun and who knows, maybe that’s the one time they ventured out of their dorm room all semester and they quick snapped a picture of the one happy moment. But social media makes it seem like that’s what they’re doing all the time, and it makes you feel like a loser. I’d recommend only using social media for staying in touch with specific people. Don’t look at Snapchat stories. Don’t look at Instagram feeds, because it will make you feel like you’re the only one who’s feeling lonely. That’s not the truth, but that’s how it will feel.
So how did you plug in socially?
JACK: I tried anything and everything and most things didn’t work out like I planned. But a few did, and I think that’s just how it goes. So, I guess I would say you should expect the majority of the things you try to connect socially to fail. But you have to keep trying, because eventually something’s going to click.
College is all about just sifting through the bullshit to find the diamonds. Socially and organization-wise and all that, you have to just expose yourself to a bunch of stuff, so you can sort through it and find what works. Shit’s just not going to work out like you think it will. You’re going to be let down.
For example, I went to a student involvement fair, signed up for a bunch of stuff and only got one or two calls back, which seemed like a great way to deter making the effort to get involved. I mean, if you’re going to invite student involvement, you’d better be prepared to respond to those who say they want to be involved. So that was a fail for me.
Also, I went to this open house where all the fraternities were supposed to have tables set up to provide information. It was supposed to be from like 7-9. I got there 15 minutes into the event, but there was only one fraternity with their table still up, out of like a dozen. It was cool because I got to know them and hung out with some of those guys first semester, but it also sucked, because I was there to learn about all the different fraternities and only ended up talking to one.
I went to a lot of things once or twice and then stopped going, because I realized that group wasn’t for me. It was exhausting and kind of demoralizing because I thought I’d never find the right connections, but eventually I did. I felt like giving up a lot, but now I’m really glad I kept putting myself out there. It eventually paid off. It just took a while. Like forever.
You’ve said that in terms of making social connections, you think it’s harder for guys than girls. Talk a little bit about that.
JACK: Yeah, it sucks extending yourself. At first, especially if you’re a male, it’s way harder. I’ve talked to girls about this, and they agree that they’re able to be way more open with each other and happy and bubbly and whatever. But with guys, we are expected to play it cool. Meanwhile, we’re really lonely inside and just want someone to care about us. If you’re a guy, a lot of people you meet that are guys will act like they don’t care about you, because we’re guys and that’s how we are, which is stupid. It’s harder for guys to put themselves out there because the chances of rejection are so much greater. With girls, to me, it seems like it’s just so open and ridiculously easy. I’m sure I’m wrong, but to me, it seems easier for girls.
But I think the whole freshman year loneliness is common to everyone to a certain extent. I’m in Student Government Association (SGA) and I was talking to this girl who’s the president of SGA in her senior year. She knows everyone on campus now and she’s totally plugged in. She told me that the only thing she did her freshman year was go to class, eat, go to her room and study. She was super lonely her first year. Now, she’s the president of SGA. The point is, even for someone who looks like a rockstar, it took a while to meet people.
So how did things eventually turn around for you?
JACK: I think the most amazing and frustrating thing to me was how incredibly long it took to feel like I fit anywhere. It eventually clicked halfway through second semester. It was literally like a night and day difference for me between January and March. By March, I’d met one really close friend I could truly connect with and hang out with. With academics, career stuff, student organizations, social stuff, it takes a long time to really find your place. And you don’t know what your place is when you get there. It takes just about the whole first year to really figure out, ‘Oh so this is who I’m going to be in college.’ Shit takes time, G.
Most of the stuff you try just won’t work. I spent all first semester hanging out with a group of guys whose fraternity I planned to join second semester, and then they didn’t extend me a bid. So that felt like a big old waste of time, and it was painful being rejected. But I ended up joining another fraternity that did work out, and now I know that’s exactly where I’m supposed to be.
My best friend from first semester, like the only guy I really connected with, decided to transfer to another college, so that sucked. In fact, I can’t think of anyone that I hung out with first semester that I’m still hanging out with.
The turning point for me didn’t happen until about March. I met the person I’d call my closest college friend now through a mutual friend. We started hanging out most days. About that time, I also started finally plugging into my music classes and started doing shows around town. That made me feel more like I belonged and it was like, this is pretty cool. For some reason, finding one person to connect with that I felt really knew me made all the difference. It’s just sort of built on from there.
So how do you feel sophomore year will compare with your freshman year?
JACK: Second year is going to be way different. I already have friends and stuff. I’m going back to something I know instead of heading into something completely unknown. I already have a solidified system of living. Freshman year you get there and you have no one, nothing. The first year of college is just a game of waiting and perseverance. You can’t let yourself get to a point of “I’m tired of putting myself out there. I’m tired of being lonely.” Keep at it and it will work out.
The point is everyone is in the position that “Damn, college is not like I thought it would be. I’m actually on my own and I have to find ways of occupying my time that aren’t depressing.” You really have to think of yourself as an invincible squid, putting your tentacles out into different parts of the ocean and if you don’t like that part, you just pull your tentacle back. If you find some waters that are the right temperature, you leave a tentacle there and maybe move more toward that way. But the point is, eventually that squid will find some waters that are just right.
What did you learn about yourself through this last year?
JACK: That I can make a bad day into a good day and that I can be happy even in bad circumstances. I knew that intellectually before, but this past year, I really proved that to myself because I didn’t have a choice. I just did it. There were quite a few bad days, but I really learned to look for the good parts of even a bad day. I also learned firsthand that if you persevere, better days are coming. I’m also just really glad I stuck it out. Based on how I felt in October, November, all the way through even early February, I never would have guessed that by the end of March and into the end of second semester, I’d be in as great a position as I am now. I actually said when leaving for the summer that it was bittersweet, because I was excited to come home for the summer, but I was really going to miss Memphis and I was really going to miss all my friends. It took a while, but everything worked out. And I know that next year, it’s going to be even better.
What did you learn about others this year?
JACK: I learned not to be fooled by my first impression of someone, to give people a second chance. You have different types of friends and different circles of friends. College is about putting yourself into as many different circles as possible and finding the ones that you fit into.
Overall, I ended the year with a good number of acquaintances I really like, and two really close friends. They’re the people that I can call anytime and really be myself with.
If you only go looking for one type of person, you’re closing the door to a lot of really good types of people. I would not be looking for any specific type of person when I get there. Don’t automatically count somebody out because you put them in a certain group.
There have been people that when I met them I thought this dude’s a complete dork, but then when I got to know them I realized, “Damn, this person’s cool.” Or you might meet someone who comes off as anti-social, but then you find out they’re in a ton of clubs. You just don’t know. Getting to know someone takes time.
So was it worth it, all that pain, to be where you are now?
JACK: Yes, it was all worth it. I’m glad I stuck it out. And I feel like I really “grew up” in the process. So I guess I’d call it a really successful first year of college.