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COLUMN: My first semester was okay, and that’s okay

December 8, 2022
Photo by State News File Photo | The State News

Before I moved to Michigan State University this fall, I was told, by numerous sources, that the coming months would be the greatest time of my young life. One person told me that “college is gonna be bananas with a capital B.”

There was almost a longing, a certain “take me back, please,” in the adult eyes that told me how unforgettably inevitably incredible this time would be. They told me to value it, because soon it’s gone and you’re raising three male toddlers in an arid hellscape called Phoenix, wondering where the time went. And while I don’t see myself engaging in that specific outcome, I get the point – I’m young, and without much obligation, I should be having the time of my life. I should be living a lifestyle that can only be described as Bananas (note the big B).

But in reality, coming here hasn’t been so straightforward. I’m living in a new place for the first time, surrounded by like 38,000 new people. I’m taking classes and learning in a way I haven't before – it’s a complete and total transition. And that’s hard.

I’ve been talking to friends about our first semester at MSU coming to a close and we’re feeling the same things. We’ve had a good time, we’ve really enjoyed it, but for some reason we’re disappointed. It hasn’t lived up to our expectations.

We were told by family, friends and a greater cultural perception that this time would be blissful perfection. But how can that be the case if this just feels how living normally feels?

First, I wanted to test if my friends are just too small of a sample size. So, I filed a Freedom Of Information Act request (you’d think that’s the first reflex of someone whose friends are a large sample size?) with MSU’s notoriously fast FOIA office. Twenty-six days later I had all ten pages of the results of Fall 2022’s “Student Experience Survey.”

It covers topics from housing to dining to campus safety and solicited just under 8000 responses – according to the results, we weren’t the only ones with content feelings.

The data is spread and skewed and unexciting. When presented with statements like “the environment provides me an opportunity to grow,” or “I have found it easy to establish relationships,” or “I feel that a faculty member has valued my contributions,” the data presents a statistical “yeah, sure.”

Few students truly disagreed with the statements, most were neutral or agreed to some extent, but there was no overwhelming positive consensus to be found.

With data to confirm our hunky-dory, I’m left with a new question: if we’re not the only ones feeling that way, why set the bar so high?

Now again, it hasn’t been bad, in fact, it’s been a great time. But, the problem is that when you’re told over and over that this time will be perfect, any one bad day feels like a complete and total failure.

In fact, the single most valuable thing anyone said to me about college was very negative. A teacher who I deeply respected told me, “if you hate it after a semester, you can transfer … wait, that's bad advice, you’ll hate anywhere after a semester.” 

That was the only time anyone told me this semester would be anything but amazing. So it stuck with me, and when something went wrong, when there was a bad day, I could think, “it’s normal and okay for this to suck once in a while.” Not, “I’m failing at enjoying the last good years of my life.”

Her sentiment about transferring is also comforting, not because I can, but because I wouldn't want to. I don’t know if I could find anywhere else that would offer me what I have here. 

I’m in a residential college where I get to learn what I care about in intimate small classes; MSU offers an orchestra and theater productions for people who, like me, couldn’t squeeze in an artistic major; and most of all, there’s an incredible independent student-paper where I’m paid to do work I care about surrounded by similarly passionate people.

I’m not alone either. According to the survey, only 7% of respondents said they would not choose MSU if they “had to do it over again.”

In my work, I’ve gotten to talk to a lot of MSU students about the things they care about. There was an Amazon engineering intern with a bedroom-pop production alter-ego; climate organizers across the sector’s political sub-spectrum who want to make MSU a more sustainable place; even MSU students at the state’s largest model-railroad show, which is hosted on the university’s campus. More broadly, there’s an array of interests and actions at MSU that I can’t fully encapsulate in a nice-sounding sentence that follows the rule of three. This place has something for anyone, but in that enormity it can sometimes feel lonely or overwhelming.

So don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with encouragement in moderation. I don’t think everyone should go around overwhelming their favorite 17-year-old with cynicism. But, I do think inundating incoming college freshmen with sentiments on how they’re about to have the greatest time of their life is dangerous. It’s setting an incredibly high bar for a time of major transition, and leads to inevitable disappointment anytime things are only bananas with a lowercase b.

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