The problem with unrealistic college expectations

The problem with unrealistic college expectations

Eva Stromgren, Contributing Writer

I remember sitting at a restaurant in late May 2018, only a couple of weeks before my high school graduation. I spoke with a family member who had just recently finished their first year of college. All I heard, and all I wanted to hear, was how fun and spectacular their experience was. It never crossed my mind that they may not have fallen in love with their college and their college identity as it seemed they had.  I did not realize that maybe I was only hearing about the friends who stayed close — not the ones who drifted away. I only dreamed of the weekends full of parties and trying new restaurants, the meals at giant tables full of people with whom I felt completely at ease. I don’t write this article to say that these wonderful experiences do not or will not exist, but the unreasonable and unrealistic expectations that we all bring with us to college infiltrate our conversations and our sad moments too often. These expectations are furthered by a culture of institutional, social and peer pressures that encourage a culture of busyness as a way to find personal contentment and gratification.

Going into college I had this persistent idea that I would hit a point, be that after a month, a semester or a year, and then I would suddenly be comfortable at Macalester: comfortable with my opinions, my interests, my home, comfortable forcing myself into conversations before class and forcing myself into Café Mac tables that I don’t feel welcome at and I think, to be truly honest, comfortable with myself.

At the end of my first year, I struggled almost constantly. I did not feel as though I belonged at Macalester. I was constantly embarrassed of myself — how few people I thought I knew, how few opinions I felt secure in, how few people I ate with, how much time I spent at the library. I never thought other students might be struggling as well.

I am not saying that all of our irrational life expectations are invalid. However, I am saying that we need to consciously work to further a college culture that does not revolve around how busy and stressed we are. By busy, I mean busy with various rigorous courses, a multitude of student organization or athletic commitments or just busy with fun. I think the societal pressure that we put on college students to be busy, as if stress makes a fulfilled life, is blatantly incorrect. While joining activities is definitely important for meeting people and feeling involved, our entire life and well-being should not revolve around how much we have to fit in or get done. Thus, I hope that we can remember that we are not alone in our struggles and our pressures, and become more aware of this mentality in our daily lives.

This past summer, I worked in the Admissions Office. While I am incredibly grateful for that opportunity — as I met some incredible people and got to rediscover what I love about being at Macalester — I was always bothered by the questions guests asked about the activities I was involved in. Granted I wasn’t knocking the ball out of the park in that regard, but I was in multiple activities, taking a full course load, working and attempting to transition to college and figure out who I was all at once. But somehow, I was embarrassed because I did not feel as though I was busy enough. While I whole-heartedly admire my peers who are able to manage their time so well and participate in so many things, students are inherently busy enough with our coursework and maintaining our well-being, without even beginning to account for time committed to organizations, athletics and friends. That said, societal and institutional pressures still encourage us to be the extremely-involved Macalester student that can be held up on promotional material. These pressures create an atmosphere of social shame that translates into guilt when we are not extremely busy.

I think the most painful and frustrating part of the college expectations struggle is how everyone seems to think they are alone in it. So moving forward, I am hoping for more honesty, from myself, from Macalester’s publicity materials and from the Macalester community.

I believe that social media is a major force in perpetuating these feelings and ideas worldwide. We compare ourselves to the always busy and endlessly fun lives that we see on social media from our friends back home. We see everyone else’s high moments without being able to see their internal struggles.While I’m not suggesting that we quit all social media apps in existence, we must recognize the impact that these one-sided social media portrayals have on ourselves, on each other and on the expectations of future students.

Obviously, there are great moments that we want to share with the world, and Macalester as an institution wants to attract students who want to be involved with their community. But we cannot talk the talk about acceptance and self-love when our social worth revolves around being as busy and stressed as possible.

There is no beauty or glory in suffering through stress. There is no medal for the busiest Google Calendar. There is no point in continuing to emphasize a self-love culture while still equating busyness and social popularity with value.

Apart from more awareness and honesty about the up-and-down nature of college, we need to work to challenge the current dialogue around our toxic culture of busyness, so we can break down these unhealthy and unrealistic expectations.

In talking to some friends at the beginning of this year, I realized that I was not alone in having to drastically change my expectations about the busyness of college life. However, Macalester still struggles to shake these unrealistic expectations. Though it seems as though we all had that point during first year where we realized that college was not really the same as it was portrayed, our dialogue must also change to be more honest and open about college stress and college culture.

Macalester is moving in the correct direction to combat inaccurate and harmful college expectations and culture around busyness with a number of various Health and Wellness initiatives. But we still could be doing much more.

Acknowledging that Macalester has high rates of student loneliness and discussing how this culture of busyness feeds into student loneliness and student stress is a conversation we need to have. We must think about our role as individuals and as an institution in providing future college students with this unrealistic mindset. We must act to change our culture of busyness and stress.