corridor with doors on either side

A Real College Myth

The call feature on Skype has a very distinct sound. It’s the old-school ring tone, but muffled, as if it is being smothered. The interaction it offers, too, is restricted: glitches, time lag, and the lack of physical presence are themselves muffled versions of real-world conversation. It cannot offer a real escape from the college room from which I’m calling, for it is strikingly transient. Over Skype, I make an admission to a friend who in all real senses is only a few hours away, but in all practical senses is on another planet. The admission is markedly plain, a simple but potent note: I hate college. Over my first semester at the ANU, I’ve given this subject much thought. I have had innumerable conversations with others – from best friends to strangers – about it. Indeed, just as I cannot physically extricate myself from college, my new home, this troubling thought similarly envelops me. Why do I hate college so much? I have tried to approach the college experience with an open mind. That I have weathered the full pendulum swings of entering college seems to suggest I have made an effort to be flexible. I experienced intense apprehension preceding arrival, the uncertainty of initial contact, the elation of early days, and even a slight sense of nostalgia while away during the mid-semester break. But the conclusion of this to-ing and fro-ing about college is not that I have emerged out of my shell – as I suspect I am expected to, and I suspect has been the case for many. Instead, I’ve undergone a backwards process. Withdrawing into the comfort of my room and choosing to enter communal spaces when they are least likely to be populated is surely a form of ‘settling in’. Though, it is hardly what we conventionally mean by the term. College imposes on an individual an unrelenting pressure to socialise. And as the heady excitement of my early days subsided, this pressure became a growing source of my discomfort. On the most aggressive level, college social pressure manifests in the notion of the ‘myth’. For those unfamiliar with this term, that is someone who is rarely present at college events or in college spaces and is consequently infrequently seen. Perhaps to say that the label is cruel might impose a malice that is unintended, but it is hardly an endearing title that people aspire to. One night at a college dinner, someone near me exclaimed that they were shocked an older resident had left. Shocked, because their college presence the previous year was so minimal it might as well have been that they were never there at all. In other words, they were a classic myth. I can forgive you for failing to understand why I felt so personally, viscerally attacked by the comment. Though, the reason is simple enough: I both understand and share the feeling of alienation and the desire to withdraw that college generates. When a friend subsequently remarked that I shouldn’t be annoyed at the comment, because I did not resemble the referenced older student, I was infuriated that they had missed the point so wildly. The problem with making a joke about those who do not choose to be ever-present in college spaces is not that I fear I resemble them. Rather, it stems from my anger at the flippant mockery that such statements about supposed ‘myths’ betray. Yet, even without the ‘myth’, this social dimension to college culture is pervasive. It underlies every conversation I feel I cannot extricate myself from or every inquiry about where I am going. Indeed, even on a subtler level, it is impossible to ditch a sense that I am constantly surrounded. Every conversation in the corridor I overhear, every whoosh of another’s tap being turned on, and every slam of the window is a reminder that there is no true solitude at college.   Once, in one of the innumerable conversations that I’ve had about college, someone joked that I should join a ‘Misanthrope’s Society’. But while there is an element of truth in that, the underlying reason for my dislocation from college is not a fundamental hatred of human life. I have met so many wonderful people at college. Moreover, I am constantly seeking out people I love – my familiarity with the Skype tone should be a testament to that. Rather than misanthropy, the problem seems to me to be the structure of college – a circle that I, some introverted rhombus, cannot fit. Of course, I get the counter-point. College is not meant to be just a living space; it is meant to be collegiate. And I’m by no means intent on changing anything about that environment. But the real college ‘myth’ – the one I wish hadn’t felt was such an underlying, dominant assumption – is that college is for everyone. If my many conversations have yielded anything, it is how surprisingly common my experience is. People often feel like they cannot fit in, desperately want to leave, and feel relieved when they have. Yet, arriving at this conclusion has required some deep introspection and intense inquiry. A month ago, at a talk, I heard a saying for the first time which truly resonated with me: ‘people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime.’ It’s an apt phrase. For my part, knowing that college and I just don’t click means I can put it in the ‘friends for a reason’ basket – there for amicable relationships and a well-situated place to sleep on campus. Struggling for so long, unable to pinpoint the cause of my alienation, has certainly been a tiring process. Now, however, I’ve arrived at a point of certainty. I’m certain that I’ll be leaving college next year. And, in the meantime, I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that college is a place suited only to some personalities. For some of you, this might be an obvious and trite conclusion. But, for me, it is of profound meaning. I only wish that I had arrived at it much earlier. That is why I hope to share this insight with you. For those of you who feel lonely at college, please know that, in this regard, you are not alone.