Last December, I turned 20. This is, for many people, only an inconsequential farewell to their teenage years, something as welcome as it is inevitable. Everyone in the world knows this: You still have 10 whole years to make as many mistakes as you can. For me, however, my birthday also marked the uneasy beginning of a mid-college crisis: Has my Columbia experience been everything I imagined it to be? As a junior, have I carved out enough communities for myself? And—the thought is near-unspeakable—what happens after college?
Whenever I am asked about the life I envisioned at Columbia, I cite the movie Kill Your Darlings almost immediately. A teenage Allen Ginsberg, shaking uncontrollably, tears open an envelope bearing the unmistakable Trajan Pro font of Columbia’s name. It’s a “yes,” he learns; he repurposes a broomstick as a dancing partner, turns on the radio, and celebrates. Only a few months later, Allen’s world expands dramatically beyond his living room: He meets fellow writers at pretentious parties, experiments with unidentified substances in bathtubs, and organizes midnight missions to steal forbidden books from Butler. At 17, this was enough for me to decide Columbia was my dream school—and that, for better or worse, this would be my college experience.
Three years later, I can confidently say that I have not stolen a single book from Butler, nor have I sat in a bathtub in the state of New York. Like Allen, I have made incredible friends here, many of whom are willing to accompany me for over an hour on public transit to scope out outer boroughs, or slip into the stranger corners of everywhere that’s open after midnight. Sometimes, however, I wonder if there is more to Columbia than I think I know. In a panic, I often remember that I am 20, that I am somehow already a junior, that in a little over a year, this place will no longer be mine. Part of it feels irrational—after all, I am only 20, which probably means less than I think. Somehow, though, the anxiety persists.
When I think about my spaces on campus, I wonder if it is normal that one of my favorite—or at least most memorable—communities was my first-year floor. We divulged the most personal details of our upbringings, took care of each other after messy nights out, and memorialized our inside jokes on the lounge whiteboard. Our GroupMe was rarely quiet. Since then, my communities have largely been the result of non-residential and non-extracurricular exploits—mostly circles of people I have met through mutual friends or niche events downtown. For the most part, this has been more than enough. But the question inevitably creeps back: Should I be doing more? Isn’t time running out?
In thinking about time, I have reflected—perhaps more than what’s considered healthy—on what happens after graduation. Personally, I do not like thinking about ends at all—which, for me, renders the topic somewhat taboo. Yet, it is inescapable: Something must come after this, as is the case with everything else in the universe. I often think about a much older guy—a Columbia alumnus, conveniently enough—with whom I was involved as a first-year. “Life is so much better after college,” he told me one night. I had just turned 18; I believed him. Now that I am closer to the end, however, I have begun to cherish every class, dining hall dinner, and sunrise spilling into my tiny dorm room. After college, some of my friends will be thousands of miles away; no longer will we spend entire afternoons at museums, take summer lunch breaks at the Canal Street McDonald’s, or wake up in Coney Island together after falling asleep on the Q train. In many ways, this feels like loss, like skin peeling off without warning.
When I graduate, I will be 21. This is, for all intents and purposes, far more culturally significant than 20. Nothing, at least legally, is prohibited at 21—a cause for celebration. But part of me will still dread the addition of another year, a burden that signifies the once unthinkable end of college. In “My Sad Self,” Ginsberg writes, “All Manhattan that I’ve seen must disappear.” If this is true, then where does it go? Does everyone you leave behind take a piece of it to another city, to the other end of the world? Part of me is afraid of the answer. In the meantime, all I can do is cherish the time I have left here, because on some level, I really do love Columbia. I will hold my friends’ hands while I still can. And a year from now, when I can no longer say that I am 20, maybe I will feel differently—like the world beyond this one is wide-open, calling me to it.
Melissa Ho is a junior in Columbia College studying economics and art history. She will be 21 at the end of this year, and she can’t believe it either. Wish her well at email@example.com. Your Worst American Girl runs alternate Fridays.
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