There will be a night, when you are lonely and a freshman, that you walk down the hall and find others like you, so you awkwardly rally together and talk about your favorite movies and SAT scores on the gross furniture in the lounge of your dorm on a humid Saturday night in September, and all of the sudden you forget to care about all the college parties you were so excited to attend. Three years later, approaching graduation, you may find yourself doing the same thing with the same people, but only this time you’re doing it because you want to, and because these awkward freshmen have somehow become your family. Only now there may or may not be alcohol involved.
Being apart from your parents for the first time in your life will help you see them as real people. They are no longer the superheroes of your childhood, but they fall and they bleed and they may need your help, sometimes. This is not necessarily a change on their part, but a greater realization on yours, and it is not at all a bad thing. You’re becoming an adult, and in observing this new adult world through a more realistic lens, it seems only appropriate to begin with the most idealized aspect of the past eighteen years. Don’t be afraid of it – embracing an individual’s complexities can be the hardest part of relating with another human being. But remember that you are a part of each other. Your mom and dad will be your mom and dad for the rest of your life.
Someone close to you will disappoint you. It will hurt more than many other things because friendship is stronger and less drastic than romance, and in theory should last until ties have gradually faded, and not because they have been decisively cut. If talking about it or thinking about it months later still makes you mad or sad, reach out to them. In life, just like in literature or in film, no significant character leaves in a dramatic fashion without coming back at some point down the road.
There will be a moment, or rather, a seemingly perpetual series of moments in which you approach a realization that you don’t, in fact, know what you want to do with the rest of your life. After graduation, the proverbial path is unpaved and on an incline and it may even be hot outside. College will get you there, but you may feel it hasn’t taught you how to walk on it. Do I really want to do math for the rest of my life? Is law school the right choice for me? Here’s something no one will tell you: you’re not supposed to know how the rest of your life should unfold when you’ve barely emerged through a quarter of it. Take a deep breath. And by deep breath, I mean a year off. Give yourself time to live outside of school. Travel, meet people. For a little while, get a job just to have a job, and remember that job is not going to be your career. In college, there may be a moment when you see George Saunders speak to a room full of people just like you, and then one of the greatest and well-decorated contemporary writers will tell you that he originally got his degree in geophysical engineering, and worked for an engineering firm for seven years. Realize that no one is meant to be settled and established and have it all figured out by the time they’re twenty-four, unless they want to be completely bored for the next seventy years.
You will trip over a brick on this campus. You will hear this everywhere, and that is because the only thing more certain in life than tripping on a brick is that by the end of it, you will be dead. You will trip on a brick not once, not twice, not seven times, but probably somewhere in the neighborhood of eighty-eight or eighty-nine times.
There will be a lot of moments when you are rejected. By a professor, by a job, by an application, by a girl, by a boy. It’s likely that multiple rejections will happen in a short span of time, and they will make you never want to get out of bed again, even for warm Caf cookies. In these moments, you will undoubtedly feel the opposite of what you should feel, because in reality, the courage that has compelled you to put yourself out there in the first place is greater than many people can claim. College may teach you that everyone needs to be broken down to nothing before they can become something. You are not a great anything until you’ve thought to yourself at some point that you are the worst anything that has ever lived.
If you’re lucky enough, you’ll experience love, and if it’s real, you’ll be scared to call it that just yet. You may not be anxious or excited. You won’t lose your appetite, because that seems to indicate that to remain in love with someone forever means you will never eat again. That to desire a hamburger means to have fallen out of love. The thought of him or her won’t make your heart race. By that point, if you’ve sat on it long enough, your heart will have adopted him or her as an integral cog in the regular mechanics of your circulatory system. They say that love is selfless. And you’ll have a moment when you realize that part is true. Their happiness will become your happiness – a scientific, economical, reliable correlation. And that feeling, unlike Hallmark love, will be unascribable to any one color, unless that color is black, simply because, of course, black is a combination of all the colors – those both beautiful and less beautiful, but nonetheless necessary to paint an honest world. If you find yourself feeling this way, or even at the very least think you feel this way: congratulations. It requires a brave person to put their own heart in this position, no matter how involuntary it may seem.
Finally, you’ll visit Washington D.C. for the first time on any given weekend, and fit in as much sight-seeing one could do in about 30 short hours: the magnificence of the Capitol building, the grandeur that is the Lincoln Memorial, but most especially – the beautiful stillness of Arlington Cemetery. The sky will be cloudy and you may be tired. You’ll inexplicably cry at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as you watch the guard walk across the horizon with a reverent ferocity. You’ll say a quick prayer for anyone who has ever sacrificed anything for your sake. You’ll smear away the tears that have somehow snuck into your eyes, and turn to pan across the landscape: tens of thousands of tombstones, extending farther than you will be able to see. The names will mean nothing to you and everything to you at the same time, because those unrecognizable names and their sacrifice are the reason you’re able to stand where you’re standing. The most important and essential moment you will have, at any point in your life, is the one in which you understand that you are not in this alone – that we need to be good to each other in order to survive.