College is a time of exploration… or is it?

I had always heard that college was a growing experience, a chance to leave the nest and get your feet wet. A chance to explore and develop your own interests. However, after almost four years in college, I have to wonder if college really is the freeing experience it is made out to be.

In certain ways, we can see the tangible changes that come with being in college and living away from home. Most people experience more freedom in the hours we choose to keep or foods we eat (pizza for the fifth night in a row anyone?).

Another change is the ability to grow in less tangible ways, such as formulate our own opinions and views of the world, to develop our identity through experience. Growing up, most people tend to take on the beliefs and values of their family. When they leave for college, that force guiding their behaviors is absent. In theory the experiences we have in college, the classes we take and the people we meet, should play a role in shaking up our borrowed beliefs and formulating our own.

However, like I said, this is theoretical. In my experience, college has not facilitated exploration of my beliefs or opinions, but rather simply took over that guiding role to mold my opinions.

Being a college student itself imposes its own values. I have found compared to home, being at school I am more pressured to live up to the idea of “doing it all”. It’s hard not to notice those people who are taking 18 credits, are presidents of a club, carry out research, work part time and seem to do so flawlessly. In college, there is an overbearing pressure to be successful, to always be busy, that being in a chronic state of stress is actually a badge of honor. I find this makes it difficult to let college be the freeing experience it is meant to be. This has led me feeling lost, as someone who would like to enjoy the education process and explore life around me. While the choices I make in college are in theory my own, when it comes to getting enough sleep or eating nutritiously, at the cost of time spent on assignments or stress eating, I find a pressure to live up to the standards of being a student wins. In the college community, this idea of “doing it all” tends to be valued more than the person who prefers to take life at a slower pace.

This is even more noticeable when I find myself around other science majors. Those around me talk of their summer research experiences, staying up all night to study, and preparing for the MCATs and graduate school. My own ambitions are slightly different, and include focusing on personal growth, to experience life without always working and waiting to achieve something in the future. However, I find these less compatible in the educational environment to both achieve and express. Finding the time to explore what college has to offer is difficult if we are expected to do everything at once. This limits the experiences needed to formulate my own beliefs and values. I also find a pressure to conform to the values of those around me. For example, I’m very aware of this when people ask me what I plan to do after I graduate. Speaking with a friend recently, I talked to her about wanting to explore different interests, to just enjoy life and develop as a person. On the other hand, when a professor asked me, I found I unintentionally told them a slightly differently story. I want to work and gain experience before applying to further my education in the future.

Getty Images/iStockphoto
Stressed student with many problems

Pressures of what I should value come not just from other students, but from teachers. Education is supposed to  facilitate a dialogue, a formulation of our own opinions given two sides. Some teachers I have found do this very well, and even take a position counter to most students to try and get us thinking. Although, in many of my classes, I found that my teachers have given me one sided arguments. Being at a liberal college, some teachers promote these values only, and recite them as facts rather than allowing us to explore the multitude of options out there.

I have found instead of exploring in college, I have spent more time trying to live up to the pressures around me that I should embody the values of a college student; to do it all, to always strive for something more. In some ways these are very good qualities, but when it comes to deciding what we individually value, I think this environment falls short. These values also limit the amount of time we feel we can devote to other new experiences and environments.

While we have the opportunity to explore new subjects if we desire, or take advantage of clubs on campus, these opportunities always seem constrained by the pressures of school. As a result, it is very easy to take on the beliefs and values of those around us, to believe we need to be high functioning, and get stuff done. However, this doesn’t mean college cannot be that freeing experience. It’s important then to be mindful of the pressures around us, and actively push ourselves to develop our own beliefs, irrespective of those around us. A college experience can be a time of exploration, you just have to push to make it happen, and make sure you are walking to the beat of your own drum.