College– a strange and new territory. A fresh start. A new chapter. A place of self-discovery, cramming for midterms in the library, and trying to drown out your pounding hangover with a professor’s monotonous lecture. We can learn a lot about ourselves along the way, and at our own pace. Since entering the “real world” and leaving behind the security of a college campus, I wish I had learned these lessons, not only about formal education spaces but about life, earlier.
1. Find space for yourself on campus.
In my years at school, I often spent more time on campus than I did at home. As it became my second home, I felt a growing need to feel safe and protected at school. Having a safe space on campus became crucial for my physical and mental well-being throughout college. A space for yourself can be anywhere — an ethnic studies center, the LGBTQ resource center, or a random isolated corner of campus where you can escape the business of campus life. It is a place you can go in between your classes to squeeze in a quick nap or where you can eat your lunch in peace without feeling lonely. After a cruddy grade on a research paper or an argument with another member in a student organization, everyone should have a place for themselves on campus. I simply could not thrive as a student if I did not first feel safe and secure as a queer student of color at a state college in Texas. My little space was my home away from home, my charging station, and my own little protective bubble I could rely on while navigating my time through college.
2. Stop dreaming. Start doing.
College is supposed to be this magical life changing journey of self-discovery. I spent so much of my time dreaming about the perfect college experience that I was letting it all pass by. My favorite television producer and TV writer, Shonda Rhimes, puts it best in her commencement speech to a graduating class at Dartmouth:
“Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change.”
Somewhere along the line, I stopped letting an education get in the way of my learning. I began applying for internships and attending student conferences. At first, it was merely for my own self-discovery and my desire to understand why I never felt like I fit in. I wanted to learn more about the identities I hold and find a sense of community. Soon, people I would meet at trainings became good friends, and lessons I learned in workshops because useful talking points in class discussion. I was determined to not be afraid to keep learning and to make the best of opportunities that came my way. And when I wasn’t given those opportunities, I actively sought them out. When I stopped waiting around and daydreaming about a perfect ideal college experience, I was able to craft my own personalized experience that I never knew I needed.
3. Treasure and cherish your network.
The absolute hardest thing to learn since graduating is that making new friends can be really hard. Your co-workers are often much older with families and settled lives of their own, and it seems that nobody is willing to go to Happy Hour with you anymore. The childhood innocence of asking someone to be your friend on the playground is a thing of the past. Even yelling at passersby to attend your event when you are tabling for a student organization isn’t socially acceptable in everyday life. Basically, for a cynical introvert like myself, meeting new people outside of college sucks.
Not that the quantity of your friends should matter at all, but we are no longer given unlimited access to a young and diverse student population with a wealth of knowledge. It’s like getting on Tinder in a desert. Maintaining networks doesn’t extend only to our peers, either. Keep in close contact with your mentors and advisors. Your professors can be great resources outside of the classroom and beyond graduation. Faculty and staff were once young academics in our position.
Some of us are not lucky enough to even call one other person in this world a good friend. We all need support systems throughout college and in the future years to come.
Too often, I have been given advice about the best internships to apply for or which classes to take to prepare for graduate school. Rarely have I been given advice that centers my health as a whole person. Instead, I am often seen as just an student at an academic institution. Whether one has attended college, is in the process, or had chosen other life paths, these lessons can be applied in everyday life. Prioritize your needs and health first. Start doing instead of dreaming, and build a community and network of supportive people.