College began as a dream of escaping home, living life on my own terms and taking it by the horns.
However, the whirlwind of new people and exciting experiences that engulfs you makes it pass by quickly. I still think I’m dreaming, with no recollection of how I got here, constantly questioning the ridiculous rate at which change takes place around me. Within me.
I’m approaching the end of my freshman year, and there’s much reflecting to be done.
Fall quarter. The leaves are turning colours, the weather’s still great, and you realise that you live next to a giant lake, as well as one of the greatest cities in the world, which you don’t really visit as much as you thought you would. Still, you’re finally living the dream, and everything around you just seems too beautiful to be true. For the first two weeks, you go through a bunch of orientation activities with a group of strangers, some you’ll end up liking more than others, others you might never see again. The real learning, however, takes place at night, in a sweaty basement of some off-campus house, bursting at the seams with freshmen.
“Wow, it’s hot!”
The people that you meet in college are entirely different from those you know at home. They come from all four corners of America, and the world, for that matter. As you try to navigate the moshpit of different personalities you’ve found yourself in, you feel just a bit overwhelmed, and know that part of your perspiration can be accredited to your nervousness. That little bubble you were living in just popped, and you smell the real world for the first time. A weird combination of sweat, perfume and cheap beer.
To some, this smells great! The more socially inclined freshman settles in rather well, making friends quickly, and becoming very friendly with some quite easily. The shyer are left awkwardly standing around, unused to all the illegal activities going on around them. Nevertheless, at some point, everyone realises that the canvas is blank, and sets out to paint a picture according to their liking, or rather, somebody else’s.
Friends are picked out like cherries, placed into one’s basket. However, the pictures aren’t complete. Next night, the cherries might turn into oranges. They’re not the same, but it’s okay. They may be a little sour, but on the whole, still pretty sweet.
Regardless of all of the mind games, you’re still a freshman, and you start to panic when the music stops. You hear that there’s been a noise complaint, and the cops are outside. Your age suddenly becomes very apparent in the way you act.
Soon, a sagacious upperclassman tells you to relax. “They won’t do anything,” he says. You don’t take a chance, however, and leave, as most freshmen do. The party dies, as most in attendance were freshmen. You regret your decision to leave a bit, and decide to take the cops with a pinch of salt next time.
Wildcat Welcome soon turns into a blur. You’re not quite sure of who you met, what you did, where you were and how you got here; all you know is that you’re here, much like a dream. However, with school starting soon, things begin to come into focus.
Seeing familiar faces as you walk down Sheridan Road in broad daylight is a completely different experience. Suddenly, the party animals and shy flowers all blend together, as students. The backpacks and the brisk walks remind you why you’re actually here. As the quarter progresses, classes, interactions and student clubs make you realise how average you are. Competition is intense, as you’re introduced to curves and grade deflation, and an onslaught of never-ending midterms. Eventually, your fall quarter GPA confirms your mediocrity. Oh, and that 9 a.m. class you diligently signed up for, thinking you’ve endured much worse in high school? You never made it, did you? I told you so.
Hey, it’s alright. It was the first quarter of college, and you’re only going to get smarter. College is less about knowledge, and more about resourcefulness. You’ll come to realise that it’s okay to use your friend’s code when you’re desperate, work on problem sets together and skip a class to have a good time. You only have one freshman year. Better live it, not regret it.
Meanwhile, some of those oranges and cherries in your friend basket have gone bad. Well, now you can tell the good ones apart. Nevertheless, people change, yourself included. Next quarter, you might find that you prefer apples. Don’t worry, not all your friendships are going to be transitory. Some of them will become like family, and family is forever.
This is only the beginning. Winter is coming.
As you step outside of the airport, knife-wind slices through the hoodies and jeans of the naive, chilling them to the bones, while the initiated watch on as their friends’ souls slowly start to shrivel up. You quickly slide into the Uber you decided to share, grateful for the warmth of the cramped huddle inside, secretly hoping that the journey to campus takes longer than needed. The next day, you walk to Tech for that 12 p.m. class you signed up for, dressed in a down jacket, only three months older, yet a lot wiser.
This is the point where freshman experiences begin to diverge. Now having a sense of what is offered, we freshman are no longer swept away by the currents, and choose to sail in different directions. We begin exploring our characters, often discovering parts of ourselves we never knew existed.
Some of us loved the party scene in the fall, while others didn’t. Some guys were very diligent in attending Sunday dinners, getting to know brothers who may or may not be their type of crowd.
Meanwhile, the girls outsourced their self-exploration to sororities, filled with girls who were very efficient in letting PNM’s (potential new members) know who they are and where they’re meant to be within a week. Sometimes, they’re right. Other times, not so much.
Friend groups may multiply in size, or even split up. Some find themselves getting disenchanted with Greek life by the end of the quarter, wishing to reconnect with friends from the fall. Others love ‘involved’ lifestyle, and can’t get enough of the bonding and exclusive events. Either way, everyone learns something new about themselves, and who they enjoy being with.
For those who don’t rush, that decision in and of itself reveals a lot to them about their own character. I probably could have found like-minded people in some frat. However, I discovered that I couldn’t be bothered to attend dinners to show interest, and would rather socialize on my own terms. A more organic approach suits me best.
Nonetheless, my friend group still significantly changed in the winter, and others’ probably did as well. Winter necessitates that freshman re-establish connections with very recently made friends, after a long time. However, those friends may not always be willing to make an effort. Maybe you aren’t.
Regardless, one shouldn’t lament over active friendships that went dormant. Those that persist often reveal personal preferences previously unknown to us. They’re also the ones to nurture. Besides, if you really care about a friendship, it’s always available to reignite. All it takes is the choice to do so.
In general, most people are also a little more selective about who they meet and choose to be with during the winter, partly because of the weather, but mainly because they don’t feel obligated to introduce themselves to every new face anymore. Who knows? You might even make some enemies. The winter builds character, and not everyone likes what they see.
The spring, however, set me free.
By now, everyone’s freshman year has gone off the well-trodden path, and I can no longer speak for others. Spring brought a fresh wave of positivity into my life. No, it wasn’t because of seasonal affective disorder slowly subsiding as the days started to grow longer. There was just something about the crisp sun, green grass and shimmering blues of the lake that reminded me to enjoy the little things, and re-evaluate my approach towards life at Northwestern.
A huge part of our lives at this elite institution is shaped by our ambitions. What we study, how we spend our free time and what we prioritize, are largely a product of what we see ourselves doing in the future. More often than not, we’re trying to reverse-engineer our path to success based on ambitions fed to us by our environment. Let’s be honest. You didn’t come to college wanting to be part of ABC consulting club and work in XYZ bank when you graduate. I’m guilty too. I didn’t even do half the things I said I would in the ‘Why Northwestern’ essay.
So when I got my spring quarter rejection from ABC, it really wasn’t a big deal. Honestly, I was sick of having my potential limited to whatever arbitrary opinion a business club had about me. Instead, I invested my time in things I was interested in, such as writing, and gaining new knowledge through open events like HackNights, rather than trying to prove I know more than I really do to pre-professional organizations. Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot to be learned from fthese organizations too, which is why I applied. I simply decided not to be consumed by false ambitions and instead, to take matters into my own hands.
If you’ve seen The Karate Kid, you’ll remember Mr. Miyagi’s line, “Sky is blue, grass is green.”
I had finally seen the literal and metaphorical truth of this observation. I still worry about grades, though a lot less often now. A bad grade just isn’t that big of a deal anymore. If anything, it only motivates me more and teaches me how to deal with failure. Besides, isn’t college meant to be fun?
That brings me to the here and now. Almost a sophomore, I often think about where the year went. Certainly not into clubs, or even classes, for that matter. The close friends I made outnumber my GPA. To me, that’s an achievement.
I have no regrets, and it was a year well spent.