To My Daughter On The Cusp Of College

by Joanna Nesbit
Originally Published: 

People will tell you the college years are the best years of your life. It’s a tale we’ve been telling young people forever, and I’m not sure why—perhaps adults suffer amnesia around college the way they do with childbirth. But life is much bigger than college, as you so aptly pointed out the other day.

It’ll all be exciting and new at first, of course, but college isn’t exactly a carefree time. Your classes will be hard; in some cases, you’ll be blown away by how dumb you feel. Trust me, even when others sound smart, they feel this way too, even those—maybe especially those—who wax on in class using arcane words you’ve never heard.

You’ll study and study and wonder if you’re doing enough. You’ll feel anxious, maybe even terrified. Please, please don’t let these feelings incapacitate you. There is so much more to college than good grades and high test scores. You’ll go through bouts of worrying whether or not you have what it takes. Trust me, sweetie, you do. You have the work ethic of a horse that will see you through, but you’ll have to navigate your doubts along the way. Everyone does. If you start feeling this way, go see your professors. Talk to them. Get to know them; they’re on your side. Ask for help if you need it. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask.

You’ll be lonely and homesick—it comes in cycles—but just know it’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with you, and no, you haven’t suddenly developed diagnosable depression. You’re just blue. There’s a big difference. I know you’re wondering whether you’ll fall prey to the anxiety and depression that so many of your friends seem to suffer. I suppose it’s possible, but you haven’t exhibited these tendencies so far. That doesn’t mean you won’t struggle in college. You’ll likely go through a breakup or two, you’ll bomb a test, or you’ll have spats with roommates. Remember, it’s helpful to talk about it. Find a friend. Call home. You’ll feel better for sharing and not holding it in.

Making true friends takes time. Oh, it’s possible you’ll get lucky and become fast friends with your dorm-mates right away. But keep in mind, your friendships back home took years to cultivate. You don’t replace that depth of friendship in a week or even a month, so if you feel unanchored with no solid buddies, a little lonely when you go to bed at night in a bed that doesn’t feel like home, that’s normal too. At some point, you’ll click, really click, with a few people. When adults are remembering their college friendships, they’re not recalling those from the day they moved in (although that can happen too). They’re recalling buddies from later years, people they met in a class, during a sport, through a club, people they befriended on a deep and lasting level. There’s nothing quite like it.

You’ll wonder at times whether or not you’re a loser because you think staying up all night isn’t that fun and that careening around drunk is sort of stupid. I know you. You’ll probably be that kid cleaning up someone else’s vomit. You love your sleep, and I hope you stick with it, because you’ll be happier for it. I also hope you get a like-minded roommate who’s willing to turn out the lights. Sleep solves so many problems. (I don’t know if you know this, but sleep deprivation can cause depression. If you’re feeling down, try going to bed earlier.) And no, I’m not naïve. I know you’ll have fun with friends—alcohol is fun stuff—but it’s not the primary way to “do college.” You don’t always have to be a joiner to fit in. Don’t be afraid to cozy up with a movie on your laptop, and for sure don’t lose sight of your morning runs. Those are your lifeline. They are who you are.

Juggling a part-time job and classes isn’t easy. You’ll have more of a leg up with our financial help than I did at your age, but you’ll probably still worry about money. People don’t talk about money much, but lots of other young people worry about college costs like our family does. Hopefully you can find friends with similar concerns so you can share them.

At the same time, I hope you don’t worry about being overly practical with your choice of classes. The last thing I would ever want is for you to major in some field you have no passion for just for the job prospect. The beauty of college—the whole point of college—is to take exciting classes that expose you to ideas and academic disciplines you would never otherwise have access to. It’s heady stuff.

I know you probably think I don’t want you to take risks. It’s true that I hope you don’t end up at a wild party without a friend who’s got your back. But being young out in the world is intoxicating. I do want you to take risks. Be adventurous. Stay up all night talking philosophy, hike a mountain, take a road trip with friends, watch the sun rise, fail spectacularly at something new. The world is a big, beautiful place with amazing people in it. This time is a unique cluster of years when you don’t have your own family or a serious job or any other big responsibility other than to yourself. When adults get misty-eyed about the college years, it’s the promise of possibility they’re remembering so fondly. So, even though these years aren’t as easy or carefree as we grown-ups make them out to be, they are also exciting. Dive in, sweetie. This is your time.

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