In 2005, I graduated from high school. My family is one where we (my sister and I) were expected to go to college, work part time, graduate, and then start our careers. I had always been a bit bookish as a child, and as a result I had numerous expectations about what my college experience was going to be like. I imagined that everyone would be invested and interested in learning, and that there would be people with whom I would engage in scholarly discourse and who would continually spark my interest to both be and do better.
However, when I started, it was just like high-school, except less emphasis on ensuring that students came to class or turned in their homework. It was nothing like what I expected. Most of my peers didn’t seem to care. At first, the freedom was more than a little exhilarating – I had grown up in a very conservative household with enforced rules and expectations. The fact that my peers did not meet my expectations was something I partially attributed to this; I skipped more than my fair share of classes, after all, and didn’t put in much effort on much of my homework.
However, midway through my first semester, I started to become exasperated with the classes (I recall my English class as being a major source of discontentment, as well as an art class). The structure never resolved into anything, and no one ever really wanted to talk in the discussions. A particularly frustrating day occurred when our English teacher told us we might have to think outside of the box, but when I tried to think outside of the box, it failed spectacularly.
After that day, I actively resented my classes, my professors, and my classmates. I began cutting class more frequently, spending time in the library playing video games on my laptop or going out to fast food places with friends. I put only a token effort into homework, and yet still found time to be disgusted with my professor who very obviously didn’t get it, whatever “it” was. This was not what I had signed up for; people seemed more interested in partying and zoning out (or, worse, making jokes) in class than learning anything.
While I had never been part of a college culture before, I had a predefined idea in my head that was nearly identical to ethnocentrism. I looked down my nose at the university and anyone involved with it, sneering to myself at how inferior it was. I was not willing to give anyone a chance, nor was I willing to change my attitude and preconceptions. I put the responsibility of my experience on everyone around me, and decided that they were the problem.
I went into the second semester not wanting to be there. Consequently, I wound up skipping all of my classes and ended the semester on academic probation.
I stopped attending university after that. For the next seven or eight years, I worked full time. For the first four or five, I continued with my unabated loathing of university – but then I started to miss learning. I read books on my spare time, but found without a structured environment and an expert to guide me, it wasn’t as rewarding. I started thinking about careers, and realized that I did not want to keep the job I had for the next forty, fifty years. It wasn’t just about money, but doing something variable, exciting, and challenging.
I had always wanted to go to college. And I started to think, even if it was different, and even if it wasn’t what I expected, there was still opportunity there. I started to lose the arrogant teenager assumption that I knew everything, and knew better, and started to accept responsibility for my own experiences and reactions to those around me. It was no one’s fault that they were different from what I had expected; they had done nothing wrong. Relative to my expectations, what was in my head wasn’t objectively better than what I had experienced. What was more, I hadn’t actually given reality a chance to be appreciated for what it was: a learning environment and people who had much to give – if I was willing to listen and pay attention. I needed to be open to the experience of college, first and foremost.
I went back in Fall of 2013, taking a single class with a friend. I sat in front, listened to the professor, and let it be what it was: a place where I could get as much back as I put in. I realized that I was pretty fortunate to be able to enjoy learning, to want to learn, and to be able to afford to go (with financing options, a little debt, and some help from my parents, granted). It didn’t matter how other students treated the class; I didn’t know where they came from or what their goals were. It didn’t matter if professors taught the class in a way that didn’t make sense to me – they were offering their expertise as a service that I had paid for, and it was my choice to either buckle down and learn from it, or not.
Even now, going to university is not what I imagined it to be so many years ago. I don’t know if a place exists that would match what was in my head. However, even given things I would prefer, I am happy that I chose to let go of my preconceived notions of what was better, and how things were supposed to be. I have the freedom to fail or succeed, and if I am struggling there are many options still available to me – just because things are different do not make them better or worse. In terms of cultural relativism, I can enjoy things for what they are, and not just based on what I was used to or how I think something should be.