There is something unusually cruel about making friends in the four short years of college.
I’ve written a lot about time before — the weird ways we feel it pass by, and how little of it we seem to have. For a variety of reasons, some tragic and some motivational, I’ve carried with me this awareness of time passing, this desire to better understand it. Maybe I want to control it to some degree. If I could, in fact, control it, then I think I would try my best to expand these four, all-too-short years of a Princeton career.
Around the time this is to be published, I’ll have just one year left to this part of my life, so maybe it’s a bit premature for me to be having these sorts of thoughts. However, right now, I’m feeling the painful brevity of these Princeton years.
I tend to do this a lot — to accelerate and anticipate such big moments of change and endings. The realization of only having one set of lasts left hanging over me seems worse than the actual end. I’m not totally sure why I’ve been one to do this. Maybe there’s a part of me that believes this will help me feel better prepared, less hurt, when the changes and the endings finally do come.
Still, the very real, immutable ending of four non-extendable years remains. There is no escaping this reality. There will come a day when I must confront the end of my own four years and all the changes that may entail, but for now, what’s really causing me to think about all this is a late-night realization that I will have to say goodbye to the graduating seniors.
But I shouldn’t get so ahead of myself, not yet. I only use a word as harsh as “cruel” to describe college friendships because they are incredibly precious to me. It’s profoundly difficult to fully express how much I cherish these friendships.
Though what I have found so special about these friendships is, truthfully, what they reflect about my own growth.
A friendship is so much richer when one has a better understanding of oneself. And unquestionably, I have gotten to know myself so much better over the last couple years, finding an increased self-assuredness and self-definition.
In some ironic way, this also means there is more to lose as friends move on. It’s during these college years — especially this last one — that I’ve made who I am truly all on my own as never before. In doing so, I’ve found friendships based on a deeper sense of self. Seeing these friends move on feels like losing a greater part of myself too.
That’s not to say that I expect to totally lose my friends at graduation. But there’s no point in contesting that the nature of many, if not all, of these friendships is bound to change — to some degree, at some eventual point. It’s here that I think of previous goodbyes.
As a result of the altered Princeton experience during my first couple years, I have yet to say goodbye to friends the way I will have to this year. For the Class of 2019, my own leave of absence taken early on in the fall semester kept me from meeting many, much less deepening our relationships. Then, for the Class of 2020, the shock of being sent home and the disruption to everyday life dominated my attention and my emotions enough to keep me from feeling the loss of a goodbye on its own; it was compiled with so many other losses. And lastly, for the Class of 2021, my year learning from home caused maybe the most tragic lack of goodbyes.
I wasn’t around to see so many of my friends who, in another set of circumstances, I likely would have seen and hung out with every week, if not every day. Instead, the goodbye, if there was any, took the form of fewer Zoom calls, less frequent text messages, or more sporadic instances of the various ways their names or faces may have appeared on one of my screens. The tragedy of this lacking goodbye was how much it went unfelt.
All of this leaves me so terribly unprepared for saying goodbye to my friends in the Class of 2022. Sure, a younger me would have thought of, really expected, a special difficulty in saying goodbye to a class year I once belonged to. Maybe I do have some residual feelings to that effect. But really, the greater difficulty comes from the experiences I’ve had this year as a member of the Class of 2023.
Friendship has once again looked like shared meals and impromptu conversations, like shared nights out on the Street or deep in study, like passing hand waves across a courtyard in the rush between classes or a good cry together at the end of a long night. I could go on, and I could get more specific. But that might cause a few too many tears. Still, these are all the reasons saying goodbye to all my friends in the Class of 2022 will be so difficult.
Saying goodbye to them will entail, for the first time, a return from summer vacation that feels empty in a novel way. It will mean empty chairs where this year I’ve grown accustomed to typically finding a friendly face. It will mean emptier courtyards and libraries and dance floors with zero chance of unexpectedly running into so many of the people who this year guarantee bringing a smile to my face or at least some warmth to my heart. It will mean facing the cruelty of friendship limited to four years, at most, but often less.
This has all made me more determined to maintain as many friendships as best I can, but there’s still no avoiding or denying these changes. There’s no ignoring how challenging it is to finally find some peace and assurance in one’s friendships and feel like things are finally coming together in this regard only for people to move on, for life to change as it ought to, for time to pass as it has and will.
In the days since I wrote up to this last paragraph, I have struggled to find a happier, or at least more optimistic, conclusion to this essay, as I so often try to do when I write. So far, I’ve failed to find it — likely because of my tendency to accelerate and anticipate change and endings and loss. I still have my friends around for a little while longer; no anticipation can prepare me for when this is no longer the case.
And maybe there’s also a part of me that sees this past year and finds for the first time such a rare satisfaction: for the first time in too long a time, I would be okay with things remaining as they are; I haven’t felt as much of a need to find comfort in looking forward to a promised future as an escape of the present circumstances.
Maybe that’s what’s making this all so difficult. Regardless of how content I’d be with life continuing as it was this year, surrounded by these friends, life moves on. Maybe in a year when it’s my turn to do so, I’ll have a happier, more optimistic retrospect on this whole affair.
Or maybe, it’s because the happiness and optimism in this situation is not my own. Rather it belongs to my friends, to those moving on. They and all those graduating can find some bittersweet joy in knowing what tremendous, beautiful roles they’ve played in the lives of those sticking around for another year on this campus, those getting used to the soon-empty chairs.
José Pablo Fernández García is a junior from Loveland, Ohio and Head Prospect Editor at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at email@example.com.