Twenty-Five Years Later: My Thoughts on College, Then and Now

Vassar's main library

Vassar’s main library

Just last weekend, I attended my 25th college reunion.

It was fun. It was hard, even painful, to contemplate going again, but it was fun. Why hard? Well … college wasn’t my best time in life. I wonder if it really is for anyone, but the way folks talk about their college years — the friends they make for life, sometimes the spouses they meet and fall in love with, the sports, frats and sororities, the amazing good times that can never be replicated again — I do sometimes wonder if I wasn’t alone in feeling, mostly, bereft, adrift and confused all throughout my college years.

I went to Vassar College (which some of you may know as I’ve written about my alma mater before). My parents didn’t complete college. My grandparents — well, three out of four of them — didn’t even go to high school, so it’s not as though I am from a long line of collegiates. My sister went before me, but transferred to a school closer to home halfway through. I came from a medium-to-large-ish, homogenous, sheltered suburban high school.

It was a given that I’d be going to college, but it wasn’t a given that I’d be going away, or to a school like Vassar. Nothing was a given, it was all open wide and it was all new. I knew nothing about life, nothing. And yet I was sure, for no reason I could possibly put a finger on then — or even really now — that this school, this campus, this experience, was what I wanted.

I was standing right here in this archway:

Blodgett Hall, Vassar College

Blodgett Hall, Vassar College

…when I made the decision that I had to go here, when I was visiting a high school friend who’d gone to Vassar the year before me. Everyone looked interesting, different, curious, intelligent, worldly, and nothing like me. I remember a young woman (with whom I later became friendly) walking up to the building on that crisp, perfect, blue-sky fall day wearing a purple felt beret and that sealed it. The day I got my acceptance letter (and the day I found out I’d gotten enough financial aid to afford it) was a highlight of my life to that date.

Then I got there, and I realized this: Everything I had ever thought about anything in my life was all wrong, and I would have to start from scratch.

That education, separate from the actual classes I took in my four years, was my real one, my lasting one, and getting it hurt. I wasn’t sure who my friends were all the time; in fact, though I found several good friends in my time there, it wasn’t the same group the whole time, and there were times I was terribly let down by people I thought loved me. I never had a good romantic relationship. I was often lonely, even though I was busy and went to parties and lectures and hung out in dorm rooms and apartments and all the rest. When I felt my worst, I’d take long walks around the campus, which is beautiful, to remind myself of that first feeling I had about the place. What I never felt, ever, was homesick, though I did miss my family and my mother’s food. I never thought going home or transferring were options.

This may sound contradictory, but I loved it there.

Perhaps predictably, my senior year — free of romantic attachments and busier academically — was my best, most comfortable year.

As soon as I signed up for Reunion, the anxiety dreams began. I had no friends. I couldn’t remember where Rockefeller Hall was, and I had an exam there that I hadn’t prepared for. Over and over, the dreams came. What kept me from cancelling was the notion that part of the reason I was going was to bring my husband and sons there. Particularly for my boys: I wanted them to see it.

I wanted them to know, as best they could understand at this point, that it was often hard and painful and lonely, to know that sometimes that’s how it feels to forge a life that’s different from the one you’ve had handed to you for the first 17 or 18 years of your life. Because I want my kids to feel that way. I don’t want them to make safe choices. They may not end up at Vassar, of course, but I don’t want them taking the easiest option, the place that looks and feels the most like high school, or is the closest in either proximity or atmosphere, to their home.

I want them to know in their bones, as I did, that everything leading up to the high school diploma is barely the beginning of their minds opening and growing. That there is great value and no shame in coming home again (though I’ve lived in a lot of places since college, I now live about 10 miles from where I grew up), but there’s much greater and more lasting value in leaving first.

And that it hurts.

Coming back (even though I cried when I drove onto campus and cried again when I left) ended up feeling pretty good. I reconnected with some friends, even though those few close friends I had either weren’t in my class year or didn’t attend reunion. Significantly, I connected with some classmates I didn’t even know in school (and it’s not a big school) beyond a name and a face in the yearbook. I enjoyed every conversation. I healed a couple of old wounds.

And hey, I even sold a couple of books — what a thrill to see some copies of Mean Moms Rule at the College Bookstore, and meet other Vassar-alum authors.

VC bookstore

I wrote on our class’ Facebook page yesterday that I wish I could take my 47-year-old sensibility and stuff it into my 18- to 21-year-old self, and do it over again. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

Turns out, I wasn’t alone after all.