The summer after freshman year, I reconvened with my friends from home to rehash details of the first year out of what would supposedly be the greatest four in our lives. We aggressively agreed with each other: Yeah, man, college is the best. It’s so great. I am having so much fun. And then one friend sighed: “Actually, I hate it. I’m thinking of transferring.”
There was a silence. For most of us, college had been the shining beacon of hope at the end of the tunnel. It represented unlimited freedom, no parents, no curfews, classes you loved and living 40 feet away from your best friends. After having the idea built up so much, incoming freshmen expect their college experiences to be positively utopian. The idea of not loving college with ever fiber of your being is practically sacrilege.
And yet, college is built up so much that it’s arguably impossible for reality to ever measure up to the fantasy. No one ever dreams of the hard parts, though we all subconsciously know that they exist. No one dreams of consecutive all-nighters pulled during midterm week to study for back-to-back exams. No one dreams of being hosed from an a cappella group when you were first-chair alto in your hometown’s regional choir or of living with a roommate who sexiles you four nights out of every week.
The thing is, there’s a pretty strong stigma around the idea of being unhappy at college. You are allowed —even encouraged —to feel stressed, annoyed or frustrated, but never for long stretches of time. This might go hand-in-hand with the more overarching stigma that surrounds clinical depression, but I think it reaches further than that. There’s a distinct difference between being depressed and just being unhappy with your college experience. No one wants to admit that they are sad at school, particularly when that school is Princeton and they worked so hard to get here. But the fact that no one wants to admit being down at school gives rise to people pretending to love college, sometimes with a more than average amount of enthusiasm. This causes a sort of chain reaction in which no one thinks anyone else is unhappy, making people even unhappier because they feel like they’re the only ones having feelings of doubt about the Great College Experience. What’s worse is that there’s nothing they can do to change their lives without clueing others into what’s going on.
In 2009 the American College Health Association asked students what their number-one cause of unhappiness is in college, and almost 45 percent said it was academic stress. Here at Princeton, everyone graduated at or near the top of their high school classes. While I’d been told many times and objectively knew that college would be much harder, I didn’t actually conceptualize it until I came here and took 8:30 a.m. organic chemistry. That discrepancy — the feeling that you were once a big fish in a small pond and now you’re a tiny one in an ocean — is enough to cause a serious downward spike in emotional well-being.
The website Princeton FML often features posts from students lamenting the fact that they let college pass them by. Many feel bad about not enjoying their time here at Princeton, but they only feel comfortable posting about it when the sentiment can’t be traced back to them. Anonymously, almost half of the student population has admitted to feeling sad at school, according to the 2011 COMBO survey. This even led to the formation of a “People Who Blew Princeton” club that anonymously provides support for people who feel as though Princeton passed them by.
The thing is, if we’re all more honest about the fact that college isn’t a flawless paradise, there wouldn’t be such a need for secrecy. College is a great time for most people, but not for everyone. The common gripes that many of us brush off resound much more deeply with others and cause a much stronger reaction. To pretend to love college because the alternative is so undesirable is only going to exacerbate the problem.
Shruthi Deivasigamani is a sophomore from Cresskill, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.