It's back-to-school time, and that means lots of think pieces from professors full of gentle chiding at students, reminding them to read the syllabus and the books, put their phones away, and do their homework. I'm always struck by the harsh tone of that writing, as if professors have completely forgotten what it's like to be a college student. Yes, it's about doing your schoolwork and earning that degree. And it's about the intense privilege that all of us should get, if we want it: the time and space to explore and learn and think and think about how to think with a bunch of other people doing the exact same thing at the exact same time. It's a gift, one that should be granted to anyone who wants it. But college is so much more than what happens in the classroom.
Don't get me wrong: I was—and am—all about class. I was a straight-A student, never missed class, a teacher's dream, but that's not what I remember about college. What I remember is worrying that I wouldn't make friends, and then worrying that the friends I'd made weren't good enough, or that they knew that I wasn't good enough for them. I remember falling desperately in love with a beautiful sophomore who ate pomegranates and wore the warmest and sexiest gray and orange cable-knit wool sweaters in the fall, but worrying that no one, including her, would believe I was a lesbian because I'd never kissed a girl. I remember winning a grant to do summer research and choosing to do that research on French feminism over a summer in Paris, because another girl said if I went there, she'd come visit on her way home from studying abroad. And I remember drinking too much and smoking too much weed and trying cocaine even though I was sure it was going to kill me like how it killed Len Bias and smoking cigarettes out the window of the Women's Center while I waited for some other girl to stop by and make out with me in the bathroom across the hall and omigod Ani DiFranco is playing in the fucking student center how the fuck did we get so lucky.
All that longing and desire running through my memories of college were absolutely animated by what I was learning in the classroom, though. I vividly remember walking into my Introduction to the Study of Religion class on the first day of sophomore year and feeling the punch in the gut that comes with seeing that crush you didn't think you'd see again, sitting in the front row, playing footsie with the redhead who got all the girls—why do you get her, too??? I sat a few rows away and quickly made a plan: I'll study hard, do all the reading, wow her with my smarts, and steal her away. I didn't get the girl, but I did get to write a paper about how a Christian bookstore organizes its shelves and what that has to say about its thoughts about other religions (spoiler alert: It thinks Mormons and Buddhists are basically cultists). That project helped me think about how organizational systems make arguments, and I haven't seen the world in the same way since.
And no, that other girl didn't come see me in Paris after her study abroad ended—she got a boyfriend instead—but I got to learn how to live on my own in a place where I didn't speak the language. My landlady's insistence that I not let any "Arabs" into my apartment taught me that not all racial formations are the same, and that the echoes of empire don't all sound the same. And when that girl and I both returned to college the following fall, her with a new super-short haircut, I learned the vital life lesson that not all girls with new short haircuts are lesbians trying to tell you something. Sometimes a haircut is just a haircut.
It has been almost 20 years since I was a college student. I still have my first day every fall, but I'm on the other side now, the professor side, and it is awesome. As wonderful as those four years were for me (and hey, if it takes you five or six or however many years, don't worry—it's not a race), I certainly don't wish I were back there. Those years were hard, full of self-doubt and insecurity. Here are a few things I know from the other side that I'd like to share with today's college students:
You have the skills to succeed at college, so don't worry so much about it. Or maybe you don't, because you were dealt the ugly hand of a public education that didn't teach you how to read and write, as they were too busy teaching you how to fill in bubbles on the ol' test sheet. If that's the case, remember that it's not your fault and then head over to the tutoring center and put in the extra time—you'll get it, and it'll be worth it.
You are so fucking beautiful. College women in particular seem not to know this. Trust me—you are beautiful. It doesn't matter if you are or aren't. Beauty is a terrible way to judge people, because it's subjective and also not actually important, but putting that aside, please know that in 20 years you'll look back at pictures of yourself and be aghast that you spent so much time and energy worrying that you weren't.
Do the reading. No, really. It'll make all the late-night drug-drink-cigarette-and-soda-water-filled night conversations so much better. And I turned out to be right: Being a smart nerd totally gets the girls.
Don't work for free. That's a general rule, but it bears repeating, especially to college students who are especially prone to the seduction of "exposure" and "experience." Ask for what you're worth.
And finally, fight for a world where everybody gets to go to college, because college is the best. That's why I've never really left. •