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Five Lessons I Learned During College

After four years, my time as an undergraduate student is about to end. Being back in my hometown during the final weeks of college has given me an opportunity to step away from it all and reflect in a way I otherwise wouldn't have. I've realized that I've learned a lot, and the most important things didn't come from classes.

Despite my excitement about college, during this time, I found myself experiencing loneliness, anxiety, and uncertainty about how I fit in on campus and who I wanted to be in a way I never had before. This, of course, was intertwined with the feelings of wonder and happiness I experienced while walking around the big campus knowing it was mine, discovering things I was passionate about, and having fun with friends at Badger games, at work, on the Terrace, and downtown. As I think about this rewarding, stressful, exhilarating, challenging time of my life, I've discovered that I took several valuable lessons away from the moments I struggled the most, the times I felt my best, and all the in-betweens.

Here are the five most important things I learned during college:

1: Real life rarely matches the idealized expectations we create in our heads, and you don't have to try and force it to.

Before starting college, I had very specific ideas about how I wanted my life in Madison to be. This often proved to be more harmful than motivating. If you aren't happy with where you're at, try new things, reach out to people you want to surround yourself with, and try appreciating what you have for what it is. You can't always control the situations you are in, but you can always control how you choose to exist within them. Nurture the relationships and opportunities you presently have. Looking back, I've often realized I had a lot more than I thought.

2: If in the process of pursuing a relationship of any kind with someone, you find yourself feeling bad about yourself, that person is not meant to be in your life the way you wanted (and that's ok!).

For most people, college is the first time in a long time that you are presented with a whole new group of people, and it can be difficult to figure out how to get close to the ones you're drawn to. Sometimes this takes work, but I've found that people who 1) talk at you rather than to you 2) don't listen attentively, and/or 3) don't give back the effort you put in for them, aren't worth the energy it takes for you to pursue them. The disconnect you might feel isn't because you aren't good enough, it's often because you aren't receiving the attention or respect you deserve. It's not healthy to put people on pedestals and then blame yourself for not being on their level. All relationships that are meant to last should be balanced and natural, and the positivity they bring to your life should outweigh the negatives. Good relationships won't feel like a constant chase.

3: When deciding whether to go or not go, just go.

Not everyone needs this reminder, but if you're like me and sometimes do: life is supposed to be fun too! The regret you'll feel from missing out on an opportunity to have a memorable experience is almost always (within reason) worse than whatever the consequences are for going. It's important to work hard and get rest when you can so that when you get the chance to live a little beyond the stresses of college, you can responsibly take it.

4: Never let your fear of feeling embarrassed or uncomfortable hold you back from being honest about how you feel or what you want.

The only person who suffers the consequences is you, and whatever inconvenience or discomfort you might cause others will ultimately be forgotten as long as no one else is hurt in the process. I've learned that people respect the bravery it takes to be honest about your feelings and needs, and opening up to others is empowering.

5: Success in school or work is never as important as your mental health.

College demands a lot from students, and when paired with one or two jobs or other responsibilities, people are thrust into new levels of stress. When I feel myself getting overwhelmed and anxious, I've found it helpful to ask: Will this matter in a month, a year, or 10 years? What is truly the worst thing that can come from this situation, and will I be ok if that comes to fruition? By practicing perspective-taking and allowing yourself to step away from the problem causing you stress, you give yourself an opportunity to reframe the situation and break away from unproductive thinking that spirals you into further anxiety. Usually I find that the unrealistic standards I hold myself to fuel my stress more than the idea of failing does.

I hope this is helpful to anyone else reflecting on their college experience and to those looking for advice from someone who's been there! Take care and stay safe!

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