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Our Sophomores Are Still "New"Cheryl Gottlieb Boxer
When I decided to attend a historically women’s liberal arts college on a suburban campus of 2,500 students, I assured everyone that I didn’t mind missing out on the college experience I saw in pop culture.
I knew I wouldn’t be cheering for my team in a huge stadium of rowdy fans, participating in Greek life, or even living off campus, but I convinced myself that I wouldn’t mind missing out on those experiences, especially because the trade-off was an exceptional education. But hearing about my friend’s experiences at bigger, more central, co-ed colleges and universities, I was secretly jealous of their mainstream adventures.
In my first years of college, I chased the normalcy I had once feigned indifference to. My friends and I took the bus to attend parties and events full of strangers at Boston-area schools and I escaped into the city as often as I could.
I mapped out a path for myself that mimicked the stories I knew from TV, movies and college brochures. I would have copious amounts of fun and embark on wild escapades, even if it meant not getting any sleep. I would always take the normal course load and fulfill my degree requirements to a T. As a junior (preferably in the fall) I would study abroad. In four years, I'd graduate with an impressive major and a slew of resume-building experiences tucked under my arm. Later, my group of best friends and I would convene at reunions to reminisce about the good old days.
A little over a year ago, as the surrounding schools began to close one after another in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt this carefully crafted image of my life starting to slip away. I did my very best to hold on. Even as I hurriedly packed my room and watched my friends scatter across the country, even as I slumped through long days of Zoom classes in my childhood bedroom, even when my study abroad program in Bhutan was postponed, postponed again — and then cancelled.
I held on to some extent through this past fall semester as well. I rented a house with my friends in a neighborhood populated by college students and we diligently took to our Zoom classes. We had consulted with each other and were determined to graduate on schedule, together.
As the semester progressed I pushed my mental health aside and focused on my unspoken goal of normalcy. On Zoom one day with an advisor, as I pretended I hadn’t been crying and I had changed my sweatshirt that week, she suggested that I consider a leave of absence.
I was terrified of letting go of the idea of my life that I had protected for the last two years. But as soon as I filled out the form indicating my intent to forgo the spring 2021 semester, I felt that idea shatter. A huge weight had been lifted off of me.
My first few months of not being a student for the first time since kindergarten have been some of the best of my life. I have two part-time jobs and a house with two roommates and a cat. I’m embarking on wild escapades like aimless bike rides, actually thinking about the news, going to yoga, seeing a therapist, and reading books that haven’t been assigned to me.
My life feels simple, unhurried and full of possibility.
And although I’ve let go of the picture-perfect vision of my college experience, I haven’t lost my motivation to succeed. I simply feel empowered to try things I hadn’t considered before.
That’s why another thing I’ve been doing is writing applications. I’m applying for everything: internships, leadership roles, research positions. I’m even thinking of writing a thesis, which was never in my plan. I’m excited to try out new and unlikely challenges, roles and relationships, even if I fail.
I’ve already failed at the plan I had for my education, and I’m doing better than ever on the other side. I don’t have any excuse to not try everything in my last year of college, to not explore every opportunity and every option. Trying and failing isn’t just a possibility in my new normal — it’s a given.
By now, you probably see what I’m getting at. You don’t have to take time off or have your whole life plan disrupted by a global pandemic, but I do urge you to look at how your expectations might be holding you, or your child, back. Think about your plan for your own education, your life, your child’s education, their life: what great things might happen if the reins were loosened, even just a little?
I’ll leave you with some words of wisdom from my mom, whose plans I have defied time and time again. She told me that life is a series of being broken down and building yourself back up again. This year broke me down, but I seized the opportunity to build myself back up again, and to get a lot more flexible with the blueprint.
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