NPR reports that most people who drop out of college do so in their first year. Sometimes I wonder how I wasn’t one of those people. I could go into detail about the lack of preparation high schools provide for the college experience or I could bring up examples of other countries with superior systems and better retention rates, but instead I am going to tell my personal story of a “broken freshman year”. In some ways I had ideal circumstances. I had a scholarship, I had distance from my middle class parents but not so much that they couldn’t reach me if they had to, I had always succeeded in school, and yet my first year of college was almost my last.
In 2012 I got what was essentially a coupon- “One free education- Must be used by 2016- Must be at our Oklahoma Location”
After initially rejecting the offer on the grounds that
- Politically Oklahoma is the very last state I would feel comfortable in
- I’d been at a football high school for the last four years and want to spend the next few years a small liberal arts school with other artsy weirdos
- As far as I was concerned it was still the dustbowl there with a side of tornados, so no thank you
- I have always been suspicious of things given away for free
I agreed to visit the campus and let them try to sell me on it. My boyfriend and I drove from Las Cruces, New Mexico to Norman, Oklahoma; toured the campus; remarked how much greener it was in real life than it had been in our imaginations; saw a CAKE concert at the Diamond Ballroom, a HelloGoodbye concert on the OU campus and several small shows for Record Store day at Guestroom Records; decided that I could do a lot worse.
Then I got waitlisted at Georgetown. The scholarship offers from Willamette and Gonzaga were too small. My parents made it clear that they couldn’t help me that much and didn’t want me to take out loans. The options were narrowing to “Go to Oklahoma or don’t get out of New Mexico at all” and after my trip (which turned out to be quite unrepresentative) I felt like I should use my coupon.
I spent the summer as a Senate intern in DC and realized that I would have hated Georgetown anyway. I liked living in the city but the political process and the people’s self importance made me squirm. That summer I proved to myself that I could live on my own, shopping, cooking, cleaning for myself, drinking (mostly responsibly), meeting people I would later squander my chance to network with. Eating my feelings about a boy back home and getting a head start on the freshman 15 which for me would become a freshman 50.
The internship meant I missed the orientation activities, the first meet and greets and sorority rush, so I came in lost and I spent that whole first year lost. I had learned how to live in an apartment and had to re-adjust to the controlled and cramped life of a dorm with no kitchen access and a bathroom shared with three strangers. I then proceeded to made every mistake I could, like:
- Joining the rowing team to make my dad proud- which meant waking up at 4:30 every morning to do a sport I didn’t like with people who didn’t seem to really like me.
- Taking Chinese, but not taking it very seriously, when I could have continued with French if I wanted room to screw around
- Assuming that college is a place where smart people go to have healthy experimental sex with each other. It turns out Big state schools are where young women go to have all of their sexual fears confirmed and just because you don’t see yourself as a slut doesn’t mean everyone else won’t see you that way.
- Continuing to talk to my ex-boyfriend, and my future long distance boyfriend, and my former neighbor from DC (who just wanted naked pictures of me) and just generally distancing myself from the people actually around me
- Watching every episode of The West Wing and The In-betweeners instead of studying Chinese more diligently
- Joining a service fraternity in a desperate bid to meet people, then quitting in a very flaky and off-putting fashion
- Quitting the rowing team in an equally flaky and off-putting fashion
- Joining the Non-Profit Leadership Student Association (again trying to make friends and help the world) only to realize it was a poorly run organization and “Non-Profit Leadership” is a pseudonym for “Sucking up to Rich People”
- Letting an older guy give me homemade cookies, flowers (with a vase), a penguin hat and a gift card and take me on a date in the city where we ate at a nice restaurant, went ice skating, got cupcakes and saw a movie, when I was neither willing nor able to even kiss him because I was so disinterested
- Blowing off Statistics enough that I got a B average in the class but then a 20% on the final exam
- Going to rugby parties alone because I hadn’t made any female friends, then sleeping with three different rugby players (on different occasions) none of whom had any intention of treating me like a girlfriend or even with a degree of respect
- Going home for winter break and acting like my ex- boyfriend’s girlfriend again, but then kissing other people at various parties
- Telling the guy that bought me all the things that I was still in love with my ex-boyfriend—Over a text message, then Facebook blocking him and the friends he had so kindly introduced me to, because I was afraid.
- Getting a job with the incredibly unhappy woman who ran the Nonprofit Leadership Student Association even though she had never seemed to like me, or anyone, or life, then being a terribly inconsistent employee whose main achievements were a particularly nifty photocopy of my hand and making sure that all leftovers in the break room were eaten in a timely manner.
- Signing up for a “Personalized Fitness” class that turned out to just involve checking in with a lazy HES Master’s student at 8:30 AM then doing whatever you wanted at the gym, which for me was napping in the locker room and weighing myself repeatedly, and sometimes stretching (sometimes).
- Compulsively eating until I felt sick during my 8 weekly cafeteria meals because I couldn’t handle not getting the full 11-dollar value out of each visit.
- Starving myself or eating only string cheese and very expensive rice bowls and salads from the corner store in the lobby of the neighboring building. Unless it was Wednesday, on which I would eat a breadbowl full of soup with cheese on top (you know because it’s a special occasion)
- Getting a C in both Economics and Chinese because I was too depressed to care, even though getting A’s in those classes was the only way I could keep my scholarship.
- Joining and Outdoor Adventure club which meant going on a terrible backpacking trip, even though I don’t even like hiking, in order to make friends. On the trip I was teased mercilessly by an older frat guy and nobody defended me because my social standing was so pitifully low I just would have taken them down with me.
By the end of that year all I wanted to do was run away. My dad, 2 hours late because he had decided to bring his dogs with him, picked me (and the little bit of luggage I hadn’t left in a storage locker in Moore, OK) up from the trip (at which point the frat guy told me he saw where I got my looks from). When we got home I told him and my mom that I couldn’t go back. Oklahoma clearly didn’t want me and I’d rather go to community college than suffer another year of allergies and weight gain and loneliness.
And then the Moore Tornado hit.
In my mind this was proof of my theory that Oklahoma didn’t want me. A tornado had ripped through the exact storage locker where I had put all but a couple of suitcases worth of belongings. For some reason I had paid for insurance, but the value of my belongings is mostly sentimental. My mom and I were tasked with returning to the scene to determine what was left of my Oklahoma life and, if there was anything left, bring it back to New Mexico.
The tornado’s damage could be seen all along the highway. Roofs had been torn off buildings, rubble was everywhere. Because of the relief efforts almost all the hotels were full and we barely found a smoking room in a cheap motel in Oklahoma City. Somehow, my stuff was only slightly water damaged even though neighboring units had been torn open their contents spread across the concrete. We packed it up, relieved the trip hadn’t been for nothing, and decided to stop by the University of Oklahoma campus. The scholarship office told us that I had only lost part of my scholarship. If I took a few summer classes and got good grades for a year, I could get off probation and go back to paying just fees and books.
And finally, after trying and failing to secure an old scholarship at University of New Mexico, I decided to try OU one more time. I took the summer classes and got straight A’s the next two semesters. I met friends and got two jobs, both with people I actually enjoyed working with. I lost the weight I had gained through waitressing and vegetarianism.
I still felt lonely a lot. The allergies still made my eyes puff up in the spring. I still felt alienated from Oklahoma football and PanHellenic culture, but I had dug a niche for myself.
I stopped dating casually for 2 years and focused on one serious long distance relationship (still not sure if that was a mistake). I spent a semester (and a ton of money) in Finland, traveling and experiencing for the first time what it’s like to live in the same town (and in this case apartment) as your boyfriend.
And here I am in my final semester looking back over it all. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if money hadn’t been an issue. Sometimes I wonder if I would have been better off taking a year to figure myself out instead of trying to sprint through college and get two degrees for the price of none. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve learned anything in my classes that I can use in my future career.
I do know these things
- I have learned to love myself despite the opinions of everyone else
- I have grown resilient and independent
- I have gone from a person who was afraid to invite people over to a person who hosts parties in which strangers flock to my house to hear music and talk to friends, at least once a month.
- I am going to graduate with two degrees, one with honors, in May.
- I try all the time to make the lives of those around me a little bit better.
One thing I wish I had known when I felt like I was drowning during my first year of college was that I was never alone. Or if I was alone, a lot of people where also alone. I wasn’t the only one. Maybe the system could be improved by better tailoring freshman activities to the interests of individuals. Maybe America’s 18 year olds need to take a break before going back to school for between 2 and 10 years. But maybe I just needed to get all of my big mistakes out of the way in one year so I could become the person I thought I already was when I was a senior in high school.