Every college student is trained in the art of reflexively answering, "Good" when your relatives ask you how school's going, even if you just failed a class or went through an awful breakup. What makes me cringe, though, is that we offer the same white lies not just to the family members who will scold us for complaining about a school we pay thousands of dollars to attend, but to our peers, who are often experiencing the very same struggles. We try to impress each other by competing over who is having the most fun away from home, as evidenced by likes on Instagram or the number of new friends in our photos.
I don't want my younger cousins or family friends to think that they have to pretend they love college if they don't. I tried as hard as I could to convince myself that I felt at home among the sea of Vineyard Vines and Sperries at Colgate, and that it didn't bother me that people constantly asked me if I brought my car to campus. I didn't bother to tell them that I never even got my license, much less my own car. I no longer feel obligated to say that I like Colgate, because I don't. Despite the media representation of college life, which led me to believe it would be the "best four years of my life", filled with more red cups than books or papers... (or systems of oppression, for all of my woke friends out there) my experience has been far from perfect. I want students who go through this in the future to understand that it's okay if you don't like your school, even if you choose to stay there. It's okay to feel lonely, even if everyone around you seems to be having the time of their life.
It wasn't until the beginning of my second semester of first year that I told anyone in my family I was unhappy at Colgate. When I went home for breaks, my friends all talked about how much fun they were having at school. I didn't want them to think I hadn't made any friends, because I had. I didn't want them to think that I wasn't having any fun, because I was. Yes, my roommate's friends clearly didn't want me around, and one of them even made fun of my snoring habits in front of me, as if I had no idea who she was talking about. Sorry, Julia, I wish I didn't have a deviated septum either. Yes, I began to feel nauseous every time I entered the dining hall to eat the same three unseasoned meals over and over again. But my problems with Colgate stemmed less from these small aspects of daily life, and more from the campus culture, which I couldn't escape. What I've realized since then, is that many of my friends at other colleges were experiencing the exact same thing. Instead of admitting that college wasn't all we had hoped and dreamed about, commiserating together, and supporting each other, we each forced ourselves to pretend we were living the blissful lives our social media profiles portray.
During one of the first awkward returns from college, at Thanksgiving, a relative asked me what my favorite part of college was. He looked surprised and quite frankly, disappointed, when I said "probably my professors." I think he was half hoping I would say that time I sunk the last cup in beer pong. To this day, my professors remain the most influential and positive part of my Colgate experience. I'd even venture to say that professors alone make the most frustrating parts of Colgate worthwhile. While writing a paper for my Women and Education class, one of my favorite professors asked me about my journey to become an aspiring activist at Colgate. She asked about my first year, my adjustment to college, and what some of the rough patches were. The conversation resulted in tears for both of us, but definitely reinforced that answer I gave on Thanksgiving. In five or ten years, I will never remember whether I went out on some Thursday night, but I will never forget that conversation with my professor. Professor Morton inspired me to return to an email that I sent to my dad three years ago, towards the end of my first year at Colgate. I remember getting into the car to return to Colgate after spring break. With genuine curiosity, my dad asked innocently "Are you excited to go back?" After a slight pause, I burst into tears. I had been trying to convince myself for nearly an entire school year that I was happy.
Have fun in Vancouver! Thanks very much for your email. I guess I have been feeling a little off about school and get nervous because I'm never as excited to go back as I feel like I should be. I love it academically and I really like the group of friends I've made, but there are a lot of things that aren't that great at Colgate that a lot of people seem to dislike about it. A lot of my friends at other schools are meeting really interesting diverse people and everyone here is basically the same. It isn't a very racially friendly campus and most minority students say they are very uncomfortable. The social scene is pretty sexist... For example, freshmen boys can't get into frat parties because they only want girls there. I guess it is like that at a lot of colleges but sometimes I think I would've liked a more progressive liberal arts school more, especially after growing up in Maplewood. Honestly, most of the great people that I've met here don't seem to love Colgate as a whole that much. A lot of other people just seem to care about drinking or getting into the sorority with the best reputation and getting good grades so they can be rich like their parents. I guess hearing from Sarah about University of Vermont and the relaxed vibe there makes me sometimes wish I chose something more like that. When I applied, I didn't think the preppiness would really bother me that much but it's the entire campus climate which affects everything. There are definitely plenty of students here that are really interested in feminism and ending racism and things like that, but it seems like the majority of people don't really care. Also for example, we got one email about a student that was sexually assaulted but apparently it happens all the time. I definitely don't mean to say I don't like it here- There are a lot of things that I like, for example going to the Jewish Union, my classes, my professors, and both of the trips I'm going on. Hope that helps you understand a little.
Looking back, I'm both impressed and horrified at how accurately my first year self portrayed Colgate. Although I definitely didn't have the language to express what I saw or cared about, as evidenced by my reference to, "feminism and ending racism and things like that," I quickly recognized a general feeling of widespread campus apathy within the span of a few months. Since then, I made a conscious effort to get involved with campus groups that would make me feel more at home. I applied for a residential seminar program, in which I took an Existentialism class with my floormates, culminating in a weeklong trip to Paris fully funded by the university! I was pleasantly surprised and thrilled to be accepted onto an extended study program to South Africa, where I met students passionate about social justice on campus, who gave me valuable advice on clubs to join and events to attend at Colgate. I was finally happier, at least with the subset of Colgate I was able to call home. I found incredible professors, who motivated and inspired me in ways I never thought possible. But I still won't lie and say that I like Colgate. I might have found my niche, but the pain that people I love suffer on campus every day, due to the prevalence of racism, sexism, sexual assault, homophobia, transphobia, and every oppressive force under the sun, did not magically float away. Students, faculty, and staff only learn to cope with them. And I'm tired of feeling obligated to say I enjoy that.
Of course, I have a lot of privilege when it comes to this conversation. I'm white. All three of my immediate family members attended Ivy League universities. I'm able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender... the list goes on. I can easily blend in at Colgate, if I choose to, and like so many other students do. I could have pretended that the racism and homophobia other students experience did not bother or affect me. But that's part of the problem. Systems of oppression affect everyone. If you ask any student at my school whether it's a challenging place for students of color to attend, I'm willing to bet they would say yes. The difference lies in whether it impacts their opinion of the school. Unsurprisingly, students of color who perceive the racial climate negatively tend to be less satisfied with Colgate, whereas white students, who also perceive the racial climate negatively, still rate their overall satisfaction as high, according to the Campus Life Survey administered in 2009. In other words, it's easy to brush away racism and continue happily spending four nights a week at the frat houses when it's not your own body under attack.
I used to think that white students didn't know racism existed at Colgate. Today, I'm more skeptical. The sad reality is that most people are well aware of these problems- they simply choose to ignore them. After all, there was no racism ruining the fun in Animal House. Until historically advantaged white students like me stop accepting a happy and blissfully ignorant college experience at the expense of our peers of color, college will never be for me. If college is truly the community the brochures claim it to be, then one person's pain should hurt every member. Every student should be angry that racism exists on campus, whether or not it is directed at you. And politics aside, let's stop pretending that college is ever a four year walk in the park. I'm not suggesting that all of you have to be as dissatisfied with your college as I am, but I think we could all benefit from a bit more honesty about the ups and downs of every college experience.