Tonight, five unforeseeable mishaps have conspired to land me at an unfamiliar cafe. The cafe is a little off the beaten track, with an upstairs seating area that overlooks the downstairs. I’m currently upstairs, and downstairs a college student is participating in a rather painful open mic night. I’ve put in my headphones and turned on Pandora to drown him out – dubstep, the concentration music of my college career. To make matters even odder, I’m wearing an old Cal t-shirt.
I feel transported back to my college years.
When I went to UC Berkeley, Caffe Med was one of my favorite study spots. It was similar to the one I sit in now – split into two levels, and a little of the beaten track. Caffe Med served great coffee as well as delicious, freshly made carrot juice. They were open late – ’till about 2am – which was great for last minute studying or essay writing. What I loved most about it, though, was that is was generally pretty devoid of college students. There might be a few scattered about, but it definitely wasn’t packed to the rafters like the other local cafes.
I liked studying alone in college. I liked being alone in college.
A lot of people talk about their college experience as their glory days – their social apex!
That wasn’t my experience.
For example, to commemorate freshmen year dorm life, at the end of the year, someone made a yearbook that included a drawn out floor plan with cut out pictures of our heads. The heads were placed not in the rooms where we lived, but into the rooms where we most often hung out. Most heads were clustered into their primary friend groups. My head was in my own room – away from the pack.
I was separated, like a metaphor for my primarily independent college experience.
Independence can be traced like a uniting thread through nearly every facet of my college life. I never had “my group”, like a sorority or banded bunch of misfits. Granted, I wasn’t isolated either; I had friends all through college, although no close ones outside of a few notable exceptions. But I was never a part of a group. I was always welcome, but never missed.
My living situation changed frequently. After the dorms, I had five different living arrangements within the following year and a half. It wasn’t until half way through my junior year that I finally found a place to live for more than a semester: in a big house where I shared a room with then-stranger-now-best-friend Kelly through graduation.
My major was interdisciplinary, which meant I could take courses from multiple departments. It also meant that I rarely had a class with the same student more than once, which made bonding with classmates a little tricky.
Between classes, I sought the peace of seclusion. I bypassed the densely populated Memorial Glade in favor of the shade under the willow by Strawberry Creek, or else the secret-ish patch of grass just east of Doe Library. I liked that it was mowed less often, and I always found the sprinkling of flowers inviting. My favorite places to study on campus were the East Asian Studies Library and the secret math-only study room on the 7th floor of Evans – both of which had great views and were usually emptier than the bigger libraries.
In terms of extracurriculars, I tried out a lot of different things but hesitated to dive into one club. There were always other things I wanted to try, or I couldn’t make a long term commitment because I was leaving to study abroad. (Or – in the case of the Quidditch team – I didn’t realize it took actual athletic ability.) I never developed the bonds my acquaintances seemed to have from being in the same campus organization year after year.
While my tendencies prevented me from creating shared memories with a central friend group, my husband Ken had a very different college experience. All of his stories involve people, and often the same people. He was assigned to a triple dorm with randomly chosen roommates, and those two roommates were in our wedding last year. These two amazing men, along with other awesome people Ken went to school with, are in nearly every story from his college experience. His group of friends all know each other, and when they all get together now, it’s like no time has passed. It reminds me of the college friendships you see in a movie.
Compared to that, my college experience is a big flop, right?
I’m starting to think not.
I may not have had a big friend group, but I’m not a big friend group type of person. I prefer to have just a few close friends – and I tend to collect them slowly.
I may not have wild stories from parties, but my life wasn’t dull either. There were adventures and misadventures. There were yellow rain suit wearing nights and midnight ice cream quests. Late night talks atop a giant whale and driving across the Golden Gate Bridge for a study break. Jumping in pools fully clothed in costume. There were dance parties and mock music video recordings – and at one point I think every person in my house owned and wore a onesie.
Still, if we’re being honest, the shenanigans were often the exception to the rule and are disproportionately weighted toward the end of my college career – after I had met my best friend Kelly.
But I didn’t choose UC Berkeley for its (albeit famous) shenanigans. I chose UC Berkeley for its nerdiness. From the moment I first stepped on the campus to even now looking back, what stands out to me most fondly about Cal is the academic intensity and rigor. Far from being a necessary evil to get a degree, I found my studies to be truly enjoyable!
In short, I loved the college part of college.
I’m not saying that people who had a more relational college experience didn’t take their studies seriously or even enjoy them! What I am saying is that I’m recognizing that my college experience was consistent with who I am and what I value.
My primary interests have remained largely consistent since childhood, and in retrospect, I see each of them strongly represented in my college career:
- My faith – I was heavily involved in my church. I participated in the college group, was on the leadership team, went on retreats, lead bible studies, attended study hall during finals, went on mission trips, etc. . .The whole shebang!
- Writing – In addition to choosing a writing-heavy major, I wrote for a campus journal To an Unknown God every semester I was on campus. I also started my own journal that published four issues that I’m still really proud of. (If you ever come over, I’ll show you!)
- Studying – It’s hard to feel like I took advantage of even a drop in the bucket worth of Cal’s available opportunities; I certainly could have dove deeper into some subjects, or stretched my horizons wider across others. Still, I majored and minored in subjects that I was passionate about, and I also took a wide range of classes outside my major but within my other areas of interest. I may not have done everything, but I loved and was wonderfully challenged by what I did do!
- Travel – Between freshmen orientation and graduation, I traveled to sixteen new countries on four different continents. I served on a international service trip and studied abroad three times, tacking on backpacking trips before or after whenever possible.
- A Few Close Friends – I made a few truly wonderful friends, both at Cal and through a study abroad program. These friends know me and love me anyways, and are all encouraging, impressive, and life-giving people. I wouldn’t trade these friendships for all the acquaintances in the world.
- Performing Arts – I took a dance class nearly every semester, as well as attended a one day workshop where I learned Beyonce’s Single Ladies Dance. I also took an acting class and later auditioned for a play where I landed the opening act in what became completely sold out production.
- Kids – During an internship, I created a Positive Body Image Workshop for young girls that we were able to put on at local schools, which was a heartwarming success. I also took a teaching class which included a student teaching component in a classroom of hilarious 5th graders in Oakland, as well as volunteered with kids and youth at my church.
That’s the first time I’ve written all of those together: my priorities and values, along with how my college experience fits into them.
Up until now, I instead used movies or friends’ experiences as my measuring stick, and I’d always come up short.
I don’t think it was an accident that I ended up in this split level cafe, this sudo-time-machine to take me back to those college years. Through this process of reflection, I’ve come to realize something:
I didn’t do college wrong, just because I didn’t do it like the movies, the Facebook pictures, or even my husband.
I did college in a way that was exactly consistent with who I am, and in that way, I did it exactly right.
What about you? How do you feel about your college experience (or a different experience!) looking backwards? Have your perspectives changed?