Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic threw the rollercoaster of life’s expectations off the rails, I have been thinking about a cliché catchphrase that “college is the best four years of your life.” I’ve heard this many times from family friends as I was growing up. While I was in high school, it seemed like this aphorism had some merit: freedom, friends, and figuring out who I want to become. What more could I ask for?
However, the pandemic has taught me that the over-used proverb is misleading. The adage assumes that everyone is going to have a great time in college when that is not the case.
I agree with Stephanie Yoon’s June 2020 column that it is silly to think that college should be the best four years of our lives. To put my own spin on this topic, the quote puts unnecessary pressure on ourselves to maximize our time with tons of classes and extracurriculars without slowing down and learning from failure. Believing in the maxim creates a lose-lose situation: We are either disappointed with our college experience when it fails to meet our expectations, or we worry that it will be all downhill after graduating.
The saying reminds me of a conversation that I had with a friend last December in Clark Park. Sitting on a bench by the statue of Charles Dickens, the sky was gray and the trees were naked of their leaves. We were talking about our respective challenges with extracurriculars that we were feeling disengaged with. At one point, she confided that she doubted that college has been the best years of her life so far. I reassured her that I felt similarly and that we would get through this year together.
I am writing this column to share that if you are experiencing similar disillusionment about life these past two years, you are not alone.
I have qualms with the maxim that “college is the best years of your life” because everyone’s path is unique. In my case, I took a chance on some brand-new classes that intrigued me, including the Pursuit of Happiness, Benjamin Franklin & His World, and American Monuments. Letting my curiosity guide me has enriched my academic experience at Penn.
On the social side of things, the expression that “college is the best years of your life” reinforces a collective expectation that college is supposed to include close-knit friendships and nights filled with social gatherings. However, these expectations are challenging to fulfill, especially during a pandemic.
College is memorable not only because of the friends we make, but also because of the growing pains that we experience together. We are all figuring out how to be functioning young adults, and learning curves can be difficult to climb alone.
Even before COVID-19, life at Penn was full of challenges, from balancing demanding classes and extracurriculars to finding time for self-care. Many college students, including myself, have dealt with anxiety, depression, and other mental health struggles, especially during the pandemic at Penn and elsewhere.
Imagine who you were before the pandemic. Have you changed since then? I know I have. I evolved from being a performing artist to a writer interested in history, constitutional law, and government. I struggled to let go of my past self, yet I feel more at peace with it now. If we embrace change in ourselves, then we can let go of the counterproductive cliché that college is the best four years of your life.
The years we spend at Penn are molded by the world events that we experience, and living through history can hurt. Imagine the Penn students who studied during wartime, economic depression, or past health crises. The COVID-19 pandemic just happens to be our generation-defining challenge. We have sacrificed so much: graduations, family gatherings, and countless other experiences. Some of us have lost friends, family, and neighbors to this virus.
Although we have lost much, we have also grown. Although going to college during COVID-19 has been challenging, it has taught me that predicting the future is often futile. We simply have to live each day as best we can.
Let’s not label which years of our lives are going to be the best before we live them.
JADEN CLOOBECK is a College fourth-year from Laguna Beach, Calif. studying psychology. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.