In all honesty, I meant to write this blog post a month ago, right after I got home for winter break, and offer a quick retrospective on my first semester at college. Instead, my semester ended with a mad sprint to the finish as I engaged in a mighty struggle with Microsoft Word to properly format the footnotes of my seminar’s final research paper. After finishing it during my first and last all-nighter of the semester, I was totally burnt out—I didn’t want to go anywhere near a word processor for a little while. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. But now I’m back! And it’s a new year! And I just updated Microsoft Word!
Which brings me to now, nearly at the end of Winter Term (which I will talk about soon in another post! Mark your calendars). You may have read my last blog post about my disorienting experience being home for Thanksgiving. If not, here’s a short summary: Over Thanksgiving break, I felt like my whole life was in flux. I was adrift somewhere between Montclair and Oberlin, not feeling completely at home in either place. Two months later, I feel much better about splitting my time between my hometown and my college town.
This blog entry will be a twofer—a look back at my semester (with the added benefit of now having my final grades, and thus being able to confirm that the things I thought I was doing correctly I was, in fact, doing correctly) and some new thoughts on where “home” is. But don’t worry, I’m including big headers for each section so you’ll feel like you’re reading faster. Or are you actually reading this faster? Who’s to say?
Semester One: The One I Had to Get Through Before I Can Add “Electric Boogaloo”
So, the fabled “first semester at college.” Like any college-bound high school senior, I spent my spring receiving a lot of college “wisdom” from pretty much everyone, ranging from the very useful “make sure to buy bed risers” to the not-so-useful and fantastically confusing non sequitur “do the best you can, but don’t work too hard!” I wasn’t really sure what to make of any of it at the time, and truthfully I’m still not convinced that any of it is universal, or even broadly applicable (except the bed risers, those are essential).
The truth is that there are a lot of different ways to “do college," and what works best for you really depends on how you define the “college experience” and what you hope to gain from it. The gift and burden of college is that apart from the roughly 12-15 hours spent in class each week, your time is entirely your own, and there are a lot of cool ways to spend all of that free time. If your college experience means staying out late with friends seven nights a week and playing in three bands and teaching yourself how to juggle live snakes and cramming all of your reading, problem sets and papers into the little bits of time that are left over, you can do that. Conversely, if you’re at school to hit the books and spend 14 hours a day in the library, you can do that too!
For me, this semester was about carving out a place in between those extremes. Like many of my fellow first-years, this semester was all about finding my academic and social footing—figuring out the right balance of friends, coursework, clubs, and sleep. My goal was to finish the semester with solid grades, a few good friends, some fun co-curriculars and a schedule that involved eight hours of sleep a night.
As far as academics go, I was very happy to find them pretty much exactly what I expected them to be, which is to say interesting and challenging without feeling overwhelming. I chose to take two 200-level courses during my first semester, which was arguably an ill-advised move since 200-level courses usually assume some familiarity with college coursework. I was initially concerned to find myself one of only a handful of first-years in both classes—one of them a 30-person lecture course on World War II, the other a 25-person discussion-based course about modern American conservatism—but I decided to stick with them, and I’m glad I did.
The shift from AP courses to "real" college courses was surprisingly manageable, in no small part because of the one-on-one time I had with my professors during weekly office hours (Seriously! Don’t underestimate how helpful these are! Twenty minutes alone with your professor is infinitely more useful than hours staring at a textbook). Generally, I found that the old “two hours out of class for every hour in class” rule held true for reading assignments, but I’d often end up putting in more time when I had a paper due. I was certainly held to a higher academic standard this semester than I ever was before, but I never felt like more was expected of me than I was capable of. As my history professor put it when I asked him for some advice on writing my first-ever college paper: “Papers aren’t rocket science.” I was really grateful to have this piece of advice, because even when I felt a bit out of my depth, I could remind myself that the basic tenants of academic writing hadn’t changed between my high school graduation and college matriculation; a thesis is still a thesis, a conclusion is still a conclusion, and the same fundamental skills that got me through high school can get me through college (with some extra polish, of course).
Finding the right balance between work and a social life was probably my biggest challenge this semester, which from what I can gather is far from uncommon. The big downside of living in proximity to a bunch of my friends is that it's all too easy to spend an evening shooting the breeze at the expense of getting any work done. “Quick” trips to fourth meal often end up extending into the small hours of the morning, and a “study break” with my roommate more often than not leads to at least an hour of conversation. Not that this a bad thing, per se—it’s great to be surrounded by interesting, thoughtful people. It’s just that sometimes those interesting, thoughtful people aren’t going to help you finish 80 pages of reading and a rough draft. In the end, I found (unsurprisingly) that the best way to be productive was to go to the library alone, find a quiet spot, and sequester myself there, which was winning strategy so long as I a) brought a snack and b) didn’t fall asleep in a womb chair.
As far as co-curriculars, I was lucky to find a few that I really enjoyed during orientation week. Writing for the Grape gave me a chance to try my hand at college journalism and humor writing. My “live from Studio B” exco class was a great crash course in live recording, and it helped me meet some very cool musicians. And, of course, blogging for the admissions office has been a fun way to share my experiences at Oberlin. My one regret regarding extracurriculars is that I didn’t get involved in more of them, mostly for one reason: my ridiculous sleep schedule.
Something I’ve known about myself for a long time is that if there’s no pressing reason for me to get myself out of bed, I won’t. My default behavior is to sleep until about an hour before I have to be somewhere, whether that means sleeping for two hours or 12. I was hoping this would miraculously change once I got to college (spoiler: it didn’t). As a result, I ended up oversleeping my 12:30pm Econ lecture a few more times than I’m proud to admit. Without a tight schedule to keep, my normal sleep pattern was something like going to bed between 3 and 4 in the morning, either because of some very successful procrastination or a few too many episodes of The Office (side note: Ed Helms, who played Andy, is OC Class of ’96). I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy being well rested all semester, but I’ve learned that there is definitely such a thing as too well rested; my sleep schedule led to a lot of wasted time that could’ve been spent doing important things—or at least things marginally more interesting than sleeping. For the spring semester, I’ve made sure to register for a 10am or 11am class (which is my equivalent of a normal person’s 7:30am) every day of the week.
All in all, I’d say I had a pretty solid first semester. I’m excited to get back to campus in two weeks and start some new courses, see my wonderful roommate and friends, start some cool new musical projects and maybe write a funny article or two about a niche '90s cartoon character.
You probably noticed that I spent a lot of this section talking about high school. This feels weird to me for two conflciting reasons. On one hand, I feel a bit odd talking so much about my high school life when the entire reason this blog exists is to provide some perspective on college life. On the other hand, it feels disingenuous of me to present myself as some kind of authority on college life and academics when it was just seven months ago that I graduated high school myself. In any case, I hope (and expect) that going forward I’ll find fewer reasons to talk about high school. If this semester was all about transitioning from high school to college, then hopefully the next one can be about building further on what I’ve accomplished at Oberlin so far.
Winter Break: “Home” is where your laundry is
Spending the past month back in Montclair has given me plenty of time to think about “home” and its place in the weirdness that is the residential college experience. “Weirdness” is the best term I can think of to describe the constant shifting between hometown and college town, and with them their respective and mutually exclusive friends, daily routines and rhythms, and Chinese restaurants. Coming back for fall break and Thanksgiving, this weirdness made me feel like a stranger in the town I’d grown up in. Nothing in Montclair had changed, which is part of what made the experience so jarring. I had to adjust to the reality that even though Montclair is still “home," it’s no longer where my whole life is. This dichotomy left me feeling like I didn’t really have my own “place” physically or emotionally.
A semester later, I wouldn’t say the dilemma has gone away. Rather, it feels less like a dichotomy to be overcome than a simple fact of life—which, of course, it is. I was a bit surprised to feel so much more comfortable about the Montclair/Oberlin divide after only a few weeks home. Maybe the extra time spent on break has given me a chance to re-acclimate to my hometown as a college student rather than a high schooler, or maybe finishing my first semester has made it easier to see myself as a full-fledged Obie. In any case, I don’t feel like I have to somehow decide whether my home and my life are in the Midwest or the Mid-Atlantic. It feels completely normal for me to feel at home in both places.
I’m okay with Oberlin being where I spend eight months out of the year to learn, grow and make new friends, and Montclair being where I spend the other four months to recharge and spend time with family and old friends. Intellectually, I’ve understood this to be the case since I matriculated in August, but until now I wasn’t really prepared to believe it; I was struggling to see Oberlin as something more than a place I went to to learn some cool things when I wasn’t home. Now I finally feel comfortable seeing Oberlin as a full-fledged part of my life, instead of trying to keep myself totally anchored in Montclair.
This all amounts to a long-winded way of explaining this section’s header: Home is where your laundry is. I live in Montclair, but I also live in Oberlin, and whichever place has more of my dirty laundry at any given moment is probably where I am, and by extension where “home” is, because while there’s a world of difference (and all of Pennsylvania) between Montclair and Oberlin, they’re now both places where I feel like I belong.