Sitting on the lawn last week, I overheard someone say to a friend, “I don’t think Columbia is conducive to happiness.” Maybe, it was the way they said it, with slow syllables and long pauses between words—or maybe, it was the way they gave form to my very thoughts—but it hit me hard.
I have always thought of college as a blip before everything else, a time to grind out all the work that needs to be done in order to get where you want to go, even if that means forgoing fun. It’s an almost immediate transition from childhood to adulthood, speckled with minor slip-ups that prove we still don’t know everything: Staying up until 3 a.m. without realizing it, until the fatigue catches up with a vengeance; eating only candy corn and cereal, oblivious to why we feel so gross all the time; putting off homework until Friday, then Saturday, then Sunday and never learning from our mistakes; turning every weekend into a whirlwind of assignments and Sunday Scaries.
When we step onto campus for the first time, we’re immediately separated from our hometowns, from all the places we’ve been and all the things we were, and propelled to a new start—this time with Columbia as our central point of concern.
Maybe this is what makes our Columbia years seem bleaker than earlier ones: Almost instantly we become adults, living on our own, taking care of ourselves, and organizing our days however we want, overloaded with mounds of work, first-time jobs, clubs, sports, and internships. All these factors come together to make our entry into adulthood a tumultuous and chaotic one, causing us to feel less and put our heads down more to do what must be done.
It’s easy for us to forget to pick our heads back up and take time to appreciate the people and places around us. Suddenly, it seems like there’s no time for that. Suddenly, it feels wrong to do work in front of the TV, to spend rainy Saturdays watching movies, to sit for more than half an hour in the dining hall—that time has been repurposed for working, for bettering ourselves, for preparing for the lives we are waiting to lead.
But Columbia only thwarts happiness when we let it.
College is life, too, and no four-year period should be explained away as preparation—a prerequisite for later when living can truly begin. I don’t want to leave college saying, “I’m not really sure what happened, but I did what I had to.” I want to live my life happily, and my college years shouldn’t be an exception.
We may have to get older, move out, move on, but we don’t have to grow up right away. We should never forget the hours we used to spend playing with the neighbors, making cookies with our siblings, reading for fun and saving homework until two minutes before the teacher came around to check it. Yes, even that last one. It is amazingly wonderful to work as hard as everyone here does, but we shouldn't take this too seriously. Do we really want the rest of our lives to be dark under-eye circles, a caffeine-quickened heartbeat, and a vague, heavy sense of waiting for all of this to be over? Personally, I want to go back to feeling the holidays, living in a lot more places than the library, valuing friends over grades, and smiling at strangers. I want to channel my inner kid, the one buried beneath the work and the stress, and I want her to remind me that life before graduation is life all the same.
The habits and tendencies that characterize us today are not just going to magically disappear tomorrow. Graduation will not suddenly sprout a new me who, this time around, exercises on the regular, gets to know the check-out guys, stays out to watch the sunset, and puts off work to help a friend. I want to be that person for the rest of my life, and the start of something like that should never be put off.
Nora May McSorley is a junior at Columbia College studying psychology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org where she’d love to help you find your inner kid. Distance May Vary runs alternate Wednesdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.