But then — that’s it. You’re still a senior in high school, living with your family (or in an equally strict dormitory at boarding school). You aren’t immediately flung into the far reaches of adulthood, where people throw around words like “401k plan” and “stock portfolio.” You’re an adult legally, but the most you ever feel it is when you yell into your living room as you close the house door: “I’m an adult, Mom — you can’t tell me when to come home.”
It’s not really a groundbreaking assertion that college isn’t the real world. We live on our own, away from our parents and families, but we’re not really on our own. Our dining halls serve us food, our hall bathrooms are cleaned regularly, and taxes are only a headache in that they make splitting the check after a dinner out on Nassau an hour-long affair. On the whole, we get most of the perks with very few drawbacks.
Even though college kids are by and large still referred to as college “kids,” and college has a very sheltering, ivory tower feel to it (particularly here at Princeton where laundry is free and even the gym looks like a castle), I think these four years are like a very long incubation period. You go in some 1.0, basic starter package version of an adult and leave with a marginally higher chance of not withering away if you were to ever have to take care of yourself — perhaps an adult, version 1.4. A lot of the immaturity remains (this alone is the basis for virtually every sitcom starring 20-somethings in New York), but you leave with all the components you need to be fully functioning in the real world.
A lot of it has to do with the little things that build up, eventually ending in this arcane but existent feeling of adulthood. The first time I felt the slightest bit like an adult was when I had to measure out my own Robitussin for myself during midterms week. In retrospect, it’s probably ridiculous that I never poured out my own cough syrup during my 17 years at home, but for those five minutes, I felt profoundly responsible. Look at me, taking care of myself like I was 30 or something.
On top of that, more life lessons have been learned the morning after doing something really, horribly, cringe-worthily stupid than anywhere else. Nowhere else than in a trial version of the real world could you exercise your ability to do whatever you want with “Well, at least I know not to do that again,” being a perfectly acceptable conclusion to the story.
College also forces down your throat the ability to compromise. Especially if you’re living with roommates (but honestly, even if you aren’t), living around so many other people calls for concessions. The ability to agree to some middle ground (setting your thermostat to temperatures that are neither arctic nor tropical; leaving your hair in places that are not the communal hall shower; storming the hallways in a drunken rage some time that’s not the night before spring semester classes are supposed to start) is not always present in people before they live away from home for the first time. Compromise is the cornerstone of success, or some other similar-sounding platitude, and you can’t really expect to grow up without it.
As often as college is dismissed for being a sugar-spun version of the real world, it gives people all the necessary qualities they need to be effective adults in the future. This is true even here at Princeton, where we’re arguably more sheltered than most. The thing is, though, no one ever feels like they’re all grown up until much, much after they actually are. There’s always something else to do, another accomplishment to achieve before you feel like you can wear around the title. Not until I’m 18, or in college, or have a job, or make tons of money.
Then all of a sudden, you realize it happened ages ago, probably in a very non-dramatic fashion. Perhaps you’ve been an adult since that third week of freshman year when you meticulously measured two tablespoons of decongestant all by yourself.
Shruthi Deivasigamani is a freshman from Creskill, N.J. She can be reached at email@example.com.