Gaining independence by living on campus away from your parents. Getting the most out of a university by following a certain program of study and finding perfect research opportunities and summer internships. Broadening your horizons and expanding your world by choosing a diverse school, studying abroad or living in a learning community. Self-discovery through partying and hanging out with friends from your dorm.
Altogether, this is what we call ‘the college experience’. Yet that ‘college experience’ — that conflation of ideals and a particular way of fulfilling those ideals — is less of a reality than it is a false picture. You can have an incredibly meaningful and rewarding experience in college in ways that don’t look at all like that picture. And replicating that picture doesn’t guarantee that your time in college will fulfill those ideals.
Independence doesn’t just look like living on campus. It also looks like any of the over 1 in 3 UConn students who don’t live on campus, some of whom live at home and are financially independent, others who balance jobs with academics to pay for college, or others who are responsible for caring for family members at home.
Getting the most out of your time at a large university like UConn doesn’t just look like following a prescribed plan. It can look like taking classes outside of your major that illuminate corners of your own world in surprising and exciting ways. It can look like doing research with the professor you had hoped to work with on the exact topic you’re interested in, yet discovering unexpectedly that what you really love is something else entirely. It can look like joining a club that looks nothing like any of the activities you did in high school but that formalizes and grows an important and necessary side of who you are. It can look like doing something boring, strange, ordinary or unusual over the summer that is more meaningful to you than any internship or research opportunity.
Broadening your horizons doesn’t happen by simply existing in a diverse community. Where you choose to live and what you choose to be a part of within that community can make it easy to default to socializing in groups where your interests, socioeconomic status, and race are in the majority. Expanding your world might look like studying abroad if you happen to be among the 10% of students who actually end up studying abroad, but it also looks like getting to know international students at your own university who are your peers for longer than just a semester, or going to events hosted by any one of the cultural organizations on campus.
Maybe drinking and partying in college is a form of self-discovery. Yet you may eventually realize that there’s little self-discovery in doing something just because all your friends are and because it is the societal expectation of how you should be spending your time. Self-discovery can also look like going home on weekends because home is the only place where you can truly reconnect with your culture. It can look like going to Friday prayer at the Islamic Center on Campus or spending the evening talking and sharing a meal with international students in the basement of St. Mark’s.
It can look like walking up to Horse Barn Hill by yourself just before sunset and looking down at that place beneath the sky where there have been moments of frustration and uncertainty, but understanding that since it has also been a place of joys and realizations, you love it for all that it is and know that you are exactly where you’re supposed to be: Standing there, listening to music and the sound of your own thoughts which remind you of other places and so you are not just there but also in all those other places at once which is maybe a part of what it is to be human.
And it is because of that — because there are so many different ways for a person to be, so many ways of experiencing and remembering and feeling and loving — that college must be, and is, about more than replicating a particular picture.
The real ‘college experience’ is about developing the creativity, resolve and courage to be a part of an institution and of a country, which both promise endless opportunity, in a way that is meaningful to you for who you are, and who and what you have the power to impact.
So although this semester is going to look unlike what any of us ever expected, and although it will not be without challenges and disappointments, we have not lost that college experience. If anything, without the norms of the other, fabled college experience to default to, now is when creativity, resolve and courage will not only be most necessary, but also most evident.