Note: This post was originally published on the Huffington Post.
After high school, everybody seems to throw around the saying that college is going to be the best time of your life, and to take advantage of it. In the weeks preceding your trip as you pack up, enormous emotions overtake you: you’re leaving behind the life you’ve had for the last 17 years. You won’t see your friends and family for months. The institution that had governed your life for the past 17 years is gone. You’re free. Free to do what you want to when you want to. No one is going to look over your shoulder and make sure you sleep before 11pm.
As you step onto campus, an instant sense of questioning overcomes you. This is going to be amazing! But I won’t see home again for a long time. So many amazing people! But what if I don’t like my roommate? So many amazing opportunities! But what if it this isn’t the right school for me? And yet, there is hope. There is optimism. Somehow or another, you know that these truly will be some of the best years of your life.
Instantly your old life leaves you and a new chapter begins. The semester passes by like a breeze and afterwards, you reminisce. At this same time last year, you were writing college applications. Now you have finished your first semester and you look back in awe at some of the best months of your life. You ask yourself whether college was worth the big fat check your parents wrote at the very beginning… You think about all the amazing people you’ve met… You think about all you’ve learned…
I can personally say with a lot of certainty that my classes were by no means worth 60k/year. But I can also say that the act of simply being in college taught me more than any class ever has.
College’s real power is its humbling experience. When I first arrived, I — like you — was just one out of 2,500 students. Nobody really knew each other. I was literally nobody. After a semester, I purposely or accidentally, superficially or deeply, met a few hundred new people.
But at times I just couldn’t help but think. Just like I’m looking back today, there was someone else like me last year looking back. And someone the year before that. And before that. This has been going on for the past three hundred years just at my university. I’m just one of the hundreds of thousands who has been in the same shoes. Just like I’m giddy about the past few months, there was someone in 1780 who was contemplating his past few months.
And this same situation has been going on at thousands of colleges around the world for thousands of years. You see, the institution of “college” is just so old and widespread that I’m just one of the hundreds of millions who has gone through it. Every one of those millions stayed up some days till four in morning working. Every one of those millions was homesick for a few days. And every one of those millions felt alone for sometime.
So if I’m just one of a hundred million to have gone through it, what is my role? Who am I? How will I make my mark on society?
Every college freshman goes though some variation of this existential crisis. Even though all the long nights working on problem sets and hard days, the crisis lasts. And yet it’s not a crisis. It’s a gift: it teaches you your purpose in life.
This is the real power of college: it forces you to find yourself and ask yourself what you want to accomplish not only in the next four years but also in life. You see the point of education is not to fill our minds with useless facts, many of which we will never use again — as classes force us to do — but rather to inspire us to love learning, and more importantly to help us find what we’ll do with our time on our pale blue dot.
And that’s where the people you meet come into play. Every fellow student, every professor, every single frat boy and sorority girl, every party lover, every hated friend and loved friend, every acquaintance, and every single awe-inspiring leader who you met in your first semester changes you. Why? They’re going through the same self-finding process that you are. They’re asking themselves about the purpose of their lives. It’s apparent now that college isn’t the best time of your life because of your classes, or because of your activities, or even because of the school you go to; but rather it’s because college groups together a few thousand people trying to find themselves, each of whom inspires you. It really doesn’t matter “where you go”; the experience will fundamentally be the same.
Now don’t get me wrong: college isn’t as rosy as I’ve painted it. Bad stuff happens. During my first semester, someone at my school committed suicide. One of my friends failed his classes. And yet another one is taking the next semester off because of psychological problems. But no matter all these problems, for some reason there is still hope. Everything is going to be all right. See, college puts you into this trance of safety and happiness — this trance that you’ll go home every night, you’ll work hard, you’ll have fun, you’ll graduate, and everything will work out at the end.
Very quickly, you realize that whatever happens, our great world will just keep spinning. You may fail a course. You may lose a best friend. You may find your dream job. Whatever happens, college helps you realize that life is beautiful and that even though you may be one in a hundred million, you have a chance to leave your mark. You leave each semester rosy cheeked and optimistic about the future.
In my classes, I learned about data structures in Java, how to find net present value, and how to generate hype for a product. In college life I met hundreds of people who inspired me to find myself. Now I’ll ask you: which is more important?