Good college, bad college

People say “college” like it’s just a stage of life. You go somewhere called college, you party, you learn, you’re happy, and after that, for the rest of your life, you get to say things like, “Aw, man…college….” with a distant look in your eyes and a slow, wistful shake of your head.

But on a really basic level, there is good college and bad college. I know, because I went to both. I started out at a giant state school, and then I went to a small, Ivy League school. When people ask me about the state school, I usually defend it. I say, “You know, that kind of environment forces you to be self-sufficient. And there are some incredible professors. If you’re in the right department, it’s a great education, and you don’t go completely bankrupt after.”

(college. it doesn’t always look like this. source)

These things are all true. But I don’t mention the part about getting locked out of the dorm in the rain when I forgot my keycard by a big, mean guy who told me he’d let me in if I could prove that I wasn’t a thief. About my adviser retiring without anyone letting me know, and then receiving an email two months before graduation that stated I wouldn’t be able to graduate because my language requirement hadn’t been properly fulfilled. Or the night I called the campus police three times in a row because I couldn’t leave my room– there were guys pounding each other to a pulp in the hall. The dispatcher sounded unsympathetic. “It might take a while. They’re across campus.”

They never came. Eventually, an ambulance came, to take away someone who was unconscious.

Or what about the girl who cursed me off in class, for asking her to please stop using the word “faggot”? She called me a lot more things than that, in front of a quivering, helpless assistant professor, who, after she’d stomped out, told me apologetically, “Kids say these things a lot, I hear. Even in middle school. It’s not a big deal.”

Or my personal favorite: the teacher who found out that I’d been homeschooled and when I tried to answer a question in class informed the other students conspiratorially, “Kate doesn’t understand how these things work because she was homeschooled.” Awesome.

These are things that just don’t happen at some schools. Like at Stanford, where my husband went. When I talk about freshman year with him, he says, “I don’t even want to tell you about how annoyingly nice everyone was to everyone my freshman year.” He wished they would give him some space and stop bringing him cookies. I wished boys would stop yelling things about sex positions at me on the way to the dining hall. I wished I felt safe doing my laundry (a girl had been raped somewhere in the labyrinthine basements). I wished I had called 911 when a man tried to break in through my ground floor window in the middle of the night, rather than freezing in my bed and waiting and waiting.

(or this. sheesh, it really looks like a place where the people are nice…source)

I am proud of the scholarships I got, and the practically negligible cost (compared to the small liberal arts schools that are so desirable) of a lot of my education. I’m proud of myself for being strong and finding mentors and doing well academically.

But I’m also angry. I’m angry that there are two distinct worlds of college, and that many students only have access to one of them. I’m angry that as a homeschooler, I didn’t know that there was a different kind of college out there. I thought that maybe all schools were just terrible. I hadn’t known what to expect, and so I accepted the environment without asking the right questions. I figured, “Well, everyone has to put up with this stuff to get a degree.”

But when I went to the other school, I realized that wasn’t true. At the Ivy League school, there were other problems. Frustratingly arrogant people, entitled people, intimidatingly famous professors, and flawless designer clothes. But no one was cruel. I never felt physically threatened. I never felt like a loser for being interested in the subject. I felt like I should be smarter, like I should try harder. I felt outmatched and intellectually naive. But when I wrote a good paper or made a good point, and people congratulated me or smiled or gave me an A, I knew it was because I was doing really well. Not just because I wasn’t asleep, or had actually read the book. Not just because I was one of the few who cared.

In the end, though, I think college is mostly about two things: getting a degree, and networking.

My biggest regret is that I didn’t get to network with enough people I respected at the first school I went to. People didn’t act as dedicated to their futures. They didn’t end up going into fields that interested me. There’s a whole discussion about class and wealth that needs to happen here, but it requires a lot more attention than I can give it right now. I will say that at the state school, some of the students I knew were working two jobs and commuting. They were almost too exhausted to pass. Many of the students were happy to have gotten into college, and had no goals beyond it. A lot of the students retained attitudes that must’ve worked well for them in middle school and high school. “Learning is lame.” They were not the students who had done well in their classes as kids. They had learned to be defensive.

Going to college did a lot of important things  for me. I learned a lot about the way the world works. About sucking up. About fitting in. About avoiding being raped. Important skills. And most importantly, I got the degrees I needed to look valid. But if I could have spent the whole time at the second school and forgone the first, it would have been better, without question. I wish I had had that option. I wish everyone had that option. Or the option not to go at all.

*  *  *

Wild fun list: Play with a kitten. I’m going to do that today, when my brother brings his over, and I’m so excited.

11 comments to Good college, bad college

  • I got my degree at a state school, and I never had any of these issues, but I certainly know of people at my school who did. I lived on campus on and off; I took mediocre classes on purpose; and I preferred to manage my program on my own. But those were my choices. I’d gone to public school my whole life and lived in sketchy areas of town before, so state university wasn’t much of a shift for me. However, I can absolutely see where people (even those who had the same background) would struggle and be unable to thrive. It’s that whole “we’ll all different” thing, I think. I did very well at my school, was challenged in my major’s classes, and left with lots of good memories. But it’s not for everyone, for sure.

  • rachel

    The two schools you mention have shockingly similar crime rates, especially when you consider the fact that one is much larger than the other.

  • Tamar

    That is definitely unfortunate that you had those experiences; I didn’t and knew very few who did, but at such a large school, it seems bound to happen. I was fortunate to be surrounded by people in the honors program, which was a psychologically uplifting way to experience state school. (As you said, MANY people are just going to college for the hell of it, and that’s depressing.) I will say Stanford is quite a place, and everyone I have met who went there is very nice. While I agree that there are differences between private schools and public schools, it’s also good to remember that those 2 particular schools (I’m not sure if you’ve mentioned which state school you went to, so I’m also not) are on two different coasts, and the state school is in a crowded city with a high crime rate (higher than NYC). I’m curious how much an environment dictates attitude at a school.

    • kate

      I got the sense that people in the honors’ program were having a different experience than I was. I met a lot of them senior year, and that made my life SO much better. I also started off at music school, which was worse than an academic program, in terms of socializing and intellectualism.

      That’s true about opposite coasts. I wonder about that, too. But the two schools I went to were on the same coast, and were drastically different in environment.

  • High School Student

    This post makes me anxious about college, haha. My sister goes to a small private college in the middle of IN, and my best friend goes to a huge university somewhere in MA — and both of them have similar experiences it seems, or at least positive ones for the people they are (they are two very different people).

    I’m sincerely hoping that college isn’t just a repeat of high school for me. I have no friends with whom I can really relate; they’re all hyper-conservative and lack sensitivity about racially-charged (or whatever) issues. I can’t take it anymore. I had a meltdown a couple of weeks ago, realizing just how miserable high school is making me. I don’t exactly get bullied, but I’m boxed into this preconceived notion of who they think I am — who I was in kindergarten — and they won’t let me out, they don’t target me but they hurt me with their incurable ignorance, there’s no intellectual stimulation. I went to my guidance counselor the next day and told her I would like to be placed on a three-year graduation track. We’re working out the details right now, but basically I’ll be doing nothing but school (even in the summers) until June of 2013. I told her that “I don’t mean to sound pretentious or arrogant, but… high school is just not for me. I feel like college is where I need to be and where I’ll excel, and I need to be there and out of here as quickly as I can”.

    And so I’ll be applying to colleges sooner than planned, which is why I was researching Indiana universities with good political programs when I came to this post.

    “There’s a whole discussion about class and wealth that needs to happen here…” I think about this a lot too. :]

    I would for sure play with a kitten except I’m allergic! Canines it is…

    • Matt

      High School Student:
      One of the greatest things (to me) about college was the fact that no one had a preconceived notion of who I was or what I would do in a given situation. You sound extremely driven and that will help you a lot. At any school there will be people as driven as you are, more driven, and definitely less driven. The most important thing is to be someone you are comfortable with.

    • Hey High School Student,
      You sound similar to me when I was in high school. I felt alienated for doing my homework and preparing for my classes sometimes! It got better in my final year of high school, by which stage everyone who didn’t care about learning had dropped out by then. But anyway, I’ve found that university has offered a bunch of new challenges but the environment is definitely more conducive to intellectual stimulation… to some degree.

      I suppose I should preface my experiences by saying that I go to the top university in my country (Australia) so the environment might not be typical of all tertiary study, and in fact I know that it isn’t. Basically, it comes down to this: caring about your work is the minimum expectation and nobody is going to compliment you on that. Additionally, you will begin to be surrounded by people who challenge you rather than people who simply frustrate you (and people who do both!). You will find that there are many people who are smarter than you and who intimidate you. If you go to a very good school, then it is likely that you will also see a crazy amount of privilege which I found confronting and I don’t know how to deal with. At the same time, you get to know people who are interested and curious about the world and will more likely have a considered world view.

      High school is not really a place where everyone can really thrive and it’s foolish to think that university/college doesn’t have drawbacks as well. But in terms of finding like-minded people, you do have plenty to be optimistic about :)I can’t emphasise enough how helpful I have found tertiary education – I’ve found my best friends, my boyfriend of three years and have made some pretty amazing contacts just by putting myself out there, without really trying.

      If you’re interested about some of the downsides of university I’ve found, I wrote a post about some of the more annoying aspects of university that I’ve faced: http://thinkofprettythngs.wordpress.com/2010/11/15/tales-from-a-big-pond-why-university-can-be-disappointing/

  • Beep

    I go to a CUNY (City University of New York), and I can’t imagine any of the things you described happening at my school. Freshman year at my school we spent the first few days playing hilariously lame games meant to help us make friends. . .and we HATED IT!!! (but still loved it!)

    &Yeah there are people working multiple jobs and working hard just to stay afloat and there are people who probably don’t work as hard as they should. BUT there is still an overall sense of respect for the educational process. I haven’t met anyone who has a “Learning is lame” attitude, probably because it wouldn’t go over well if anyone did express that sort of view.

    Ehhh I could ramble on about the benefits of going to a CUNY (the low tuition, the many scholarships available so that many don’t pay tuition at all: MACAULAY HONORS COLLEGE &SOPHIE DAVIS ROX MY SOX!!!), but I bet there are people at your state school that had an altogether different experience than you did. Public colleges aren’t for everyone, but for some (like me!) they are the bees’ knees <3

    • kate

      I’m surprised to hear you haven’t met anyone with the attitude I described. It seems pretty widespread! If CUNY has managed to avoid it completely, I’m incredibly impressed. But then, NYC rocks.

      And yes, people have different experiences at the same place, but I guess my point is that no one should should regularly experience some of the stuff I did as a part of college. I wasn’t wandering around with a sign on my back that said “Yell stuff at me.” I was just going to classes like everyone else. And if it happened to me, it definitely happened to a lot of other people. Though I’m glad to hear other people had good experiences, too :)

  • Matt

    It’s posts like these that make me realize how lucky I was. I went to a large, flagship state university but was in a program (mechanical engineering) that demanded committed, intelligent students. Those that weren’t especially interested or dedicated to the subject matter switched majors by December of freshman year.

    I know my experience was different from others’ even within my program but I would describe my big state school experience as being a great one with mostly dedicated peers, caring and hardworking support staff, a campus where I felt completely comfortable at all times, and professors that varied from the mediocre to fantastic.

    Another thing that buoyed my freshman year experience was living on a floor of engineering students in the honors program. It helped me develop friendships that lasted through the rest of school and end up with a support network for difficult assignments and studying for exams.

  • MWN

    This is such a great post. I often wonder how my small, elite women’s college education compares with my friends’ at various state schools and community colleges. So many of the experiences you’ve mentioned sound horrifying.

    Not everything is fine and dandy at the Ivy Leagues, though: I was shocked when an Indian classmate of mine told me recently that she can’t wait to graduate and go back to India, because she has put up with so much racism at our school. English is not her first language but she speaks it really well, and yet freshman year one of her teachers told her she needed to come after class to “learn how to speak English.” She also pointed out that no matter the class, professors always pair up white people with white people and colored people with colored people.

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