Throughout high school, college always seemed to be the far away promised land—an escape from home and routine, the guarantee of complete freedom, and finally some degree of adulthood. College was idealized for me by parents, counselors, and teachers, as a utopia of learning and opportunities, and also by older siblings, friends, and “Animal House,” as an endless party with instant best friends and classic nights that always end as the sun is coming up. I found out I was attending Columbia in December my senior year, and I was on a constant high for the rest of school. As the last months of high school waned, my excitement for Columbia only increased, and my ridiculously high expectations only grew higher. By summer, I was counting down the days, anxious to begin the perfect experience that was promised to me by the “Blue Album,” welcome events, and an endless parade of impossibly elated emails from the deans and administration.
I was lucky enough to do a pre-orientation program where I found an instant supportive community of true friends and mentors, but I still felt lost during NSOP week and throughout the beginning of the semester. NSOP week can be an incredibly fun, often insane (sloppy) time, but it can also be an unbelievably stressful time. There is a lasting disparity created by our impossible expectations of college and the reality of what we find during these first few days—awkward icebreakers, lonely and unstructured downtime, superficial conversations, and the immediate burdens of navigating the Columbia bureaucracy. We expect immediate gratification of all our expectations, and when we come to campus and don’t instantly become best friends with our entire floor, or don’t end every night of orientation sitting on Low Steps discussing the fabrics of the universe, we feel unnerved. When we wake up the next morning to registration and find out that every single one of the classes we had planned on taking is filled, the pit only grows. When a cycle of disappointment begins, it’s easy to view everything through that lens: the semester becomes a string of failures, as even the high moments can seem low in comparison to what you hoped they would be.
The key is patience. Some people immediately find their comfort zone during NSOP and meet people who will remain their friends for their entire Columbia experience, but just as many people don’t know what to do when they don’t. These things don’t happen overnight, and truly powerful friendships and experiences need time to cultivate. You may have been away from home, or even studied abroad in the past, but nothing is like the transition of the first year of college. Freshman year is a difficult one, and it’s just reality that any transition period is going to be hard.
Following the death of Tina Bu last year, a much-needed movement toward wellness began on campus, emphasizing that we don’t always have to play the “I am fine” game. During NSOP, everyone seems to feel that they have to appear like they are having the best time of their lives, like they are instantly bonding with everyone they meet, and like they already know that Columbia is the perfect place for them. For most people it’s not so immediate, and they put on a face of ease so as to appear comfortable, and as to convince themselves that they are comfortable.
You are never alone, and although at times Columbia can make us feel alienated, we live in an incredibly supportive community, especially during times such as this one. Tragedies like Martha Corey-Ochoa’s death bring Columbia together and make us face the realities that we often suppress, and talk about the things that we try to pretend aren’t present. It’s OK to admit that you feel stressed, or alone, or especially overwhelmed, and I would even say that it’s the norm to feel these during your first week of college, throughout your first year, and at times throughout all four years. As Wilfred Chan and Sarah Ngu made clear in their Eye article “How We’re Doing” (Dec. 11, 2011), if you are feeling any of these, do not suffer in silence. Reach out to the fantastic resources that Columbia has, from RAs to Columbia Psychological Services to Nightline, and understand that mental health should not be a stigma.
It’s fine to feel lost at any point of your time here, and especially during your freshman year. We face unbelievably difficult challenges as Columbia students, and as intensely driven students, we internalize many failures and blame ourselves. When those impossible expectations of what college is supposed to be are not met immediately, or you feel you don’t live up to the expectations set by those sending you to college, it’s OK to feel disappointed or overwhelmed. Just don’t be afraid to reach out for support, and don’t lose the determination to keep striving for those expectations.
Leo Schwartz is a Columbia College junior majoring in political science and Latin American studies. He is a preorientation leader for the Columbia Urban Experience. His column Rationalizing the Irrational will run alternate Thursdays.