Sunday, March 4, 2012

Reflections on College

I Googled my name tonight.

Don’t act like you’ve never done it before.

I came across the abstract for the paper I submitted and presented at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research in Montana my last year of college. My English department’s newsletter interviewed me on my paper and wrote: She describes her work as an exploration of “the complexities of the mirror that not only exposes our complex identities but also exposes the multi-layered issues of morality in the postmodern era.”

The multi-layered issues of morality in the postmodern era? What does that even mean?

I had to read my abstract a few times until I understood what the hell I was even talking about. My first reaction to this was “wow, I’ve gotten way dumber since college.”

But then I mulled over it a bit.

I’ve been thinking about college a lot lately. I teach seniors, so college is frequently a topic of discussion. I am always fascinated by their plans. Some seniors are so decisive and self-assured. “Well,” they typically respond when prompted, “I’m going to go get my generals done at _______________ and then I’ll be transferring to ____________ where I’m probably going to major in ____________ with a minor in _____________.” How easy and simple and wide open life seems to be to these kids. These are the ones who are successful in high school, who get good grades, who are convinced they have mastered the institution that is education. Their path appears simple and laid out, a process of connecting the dots and following a predetermined plan. I was like them only seven years ago. I was convinced that I would enter college with ease, move as swiftly through it as I had high school, then come out a smoothly-pressed adult with a degree to show for it.

But what no one ever told me was that “college student” is not synonymous with “adult.” While I had mastered the art of wordplay (i.e. “the multi-layered issues of morality in the postmodern era”) no one had ever showed me how to pay bills on time, or how to understand the different types of health insurance, or explained what a Roth-IRA or a 401k was or how important a retirement fund is or what renter’s insurance was.

In fact, when I was introduced to student teaching I realized how very little I even knew about the actual job I was pursuing. Yes, I knew that in order to create a lesson plan I needed to carefully lay out a well-worded objective, and understand the materials needed in order to execute said lesson plan, but did I have a clue how to teach?

This is where college misses the mark. Life skills. Adult reality.

In my first year of teaching, I felt angry about this realization. Being a generation x-er, my first reaction was, of course, to put blame on anyone but myself for my personal struggles. I blamed the institution that branded me my degree. I even fantasized about writing to my university and explaining how little they had prepared me for the actual job I was working. It seemed to me to be a natural connection.

And not only did I feel completely overwhelmed by my job, but bills were suddenly becoming paperweights to other bills. My monthly payments were doubled, my exciting “grown up” paycheck was taking a straight route to paying off my necessities to live. What fun was that?

So, eff you, university, I thought, as I painstakingly wrote out my check to Comcast. And eff you, university, as I responded to an e-mail from an angry mother of a student. Why didn’t you prepare me for this? Why didn’t you tell me that the sweet taste of adult freedom was in reality very, very bitter?

Were my college years only good for teaching me how to write some befuddling essay on some obscure topic like postmodern British literature doppelgangers?


But on second thought, the fact is, college did teach me a lot more than how to write a damn good essay and use phrases like “complexities of identity”. It taught me how to survive off of procrastination and how to thrive off of productivity. It taught me how to live and function with shy, or messy, or crazy roommates. It taught me how balance having a boyfriend and still showing up to class. It taught me how to cure a hangover, or how to just deal with it. It taught me how to make friends who were completely different from me. It taught me how to seek out the people who were like me. It taught me how to function in a places and situations that weren’t natural or comfortable.

It didn’t teach me how to be an adult. This is true. And it didn’t teach me how to be an actual teacher. That is also true. But college didn’t teach me these things in the same way that high school didn’t teach me how to be a college student, nor did middle school prepare me for high school. These things can’t be taught. They can only be experienced.

And while the abstract for an essay I wrote only 2 years ago now seems confusing and wordy, I am still very proud of what I did know in college. So even though it didn’t prepare me for what I experience on a day to day basis in the real, adult world, it shaped who I am. In a way that NCUR abstract that can still be found on Google today is sort of a testament to my college years. It says I learned and executed the absolute maximum of what I could learn as an English major and college student. I can’t blame college for not preparing me for every nuance of the real world, there is no institution that truly can. All I can do is hope that in a few years, just like the few years it took for me to master high school and the few years it took for me to get college, I will have this whole “adult thing” all figured out.

Here’s to hoping…and to my “complex identity […] in the postmodern era.”