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Is College Really the Best Four Years of Your Life?

Opinion | September 6, 2014

Twenty-somethings lean against sweaty walls, shouting with laughter in their boozy bliss. A too-close crowd dances to the latest major-key, remixed pop song. The auto-tuned voice sings about being young and free. We’ve all been here before—your typical Tufts party, filled with a few friends and strangers you don’t know, but worry you might want to. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you worry about your fifteen-page paper due Monday, or about finishing the posters for your student rally, or about getting into grad school, or if you should be in a relationship like all of your friends, or if you have enough groceries for the week, or your GPA, or the outfit you’re wearing right now.

Right now. “Right now” is the best four years of our lives—so we’ve been told over and over. Those sugar-soaked words offer high school students pulling their hair out over SAT books and admissions essays a finish line much closer and more tangible than a stable career or a happy family. High school is four short years you need to labor through before you escape to the freedom of a mini-universe over which twenty-year-olds rule. But how does that phrase—the best four years of our lives—restructure our perceived reality of our college careers?

“You can see it potentially cutting both ways,” Professor Samuel Sommers said. “One of the basic premises of social psychology is that expectation is powerful. What we expect often colors what we do see. So if that’s your expectation, college can be the best four years of your life… At the same time, you can come up with the hypothesis that it’s a lot of pressure to live up to, to tell a seventeen, eighteen-year-old that this is it, it’s right now, enjoy it, because it’s all downhill after that. You can see how we can conceivably be applying additional pressure to people.”

You can say, and people do, that Tufts is a pretty happy place, but are people the happiest they will ever be for the rest of their lives? Probably not. As with any other period in life, college can bring high levels of stress. According to the 2009 American College Health Association survey reported by the New York Times, “Forty-six percent of college students said they felt ‘things were hopeless’ at least once in the previous 12 months, and nearly a third had been so depressed that it was difficult to function.” In any given semester, Ears4Peers, Tufts’ confidential counseling hotline, gets over one hundred calls varying in topic—demonstrating the pressure that exists at Tufts.

From a clinical standpoint, emphasizing the perception that college is the best years of life can add to psychological distress. “From my perspective, the college years are not any more or less significant than other years of the life span. I think what this does is create a lot of anxiety and pressure. People don’t know what that means necessarily, so it introduces confusion where there needn’t be confusion. The people saying these are the people that are projecting their own regrets and anxieties,” states Dr. Jackie Mascher, a local clinician who lectures at Tufts on Abnormal Psychology.

In the movie adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation (2001), protagonist and college freshman Elizabeth describes depression in words from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. “‘Gradually, then suddenly.’ That’s how depression hits. You wake up one morning, afraid you’re gonna live.” There have been times in my Tufts experience when I have felt scared I’m gonna live. It was the time I had a final paper, two presentations, and an exam on the same day of final week of class. Sure, these things got easier as I got older, just as they do for everyone. But new problems inevitably arise—regardless of a student’s age or class year.

“No one talks about the struggles that you face in college. Rather, people’s comments and media’s portrayal of college is biased towards the idealized version of college, but when you actually go into college, you realize that it’s much more complex than that image,” sophomore Rasika Sethi states.

We forget that college, like anything else in life, is comprised of times of satisfaction and times of something less fulfilling. It is neither filled with our inevitable best four years nor our worst. Thus, expecting or saying it is either creates hype that college cannot live up to.

It is also important to consider that college isn’t something that everyone is required to do: it’s a choice and a privilege: “[Exaggerating college experiences] also minimizes those folks who don’t go to college because they don’t have the opportunity… There are these imaginary timelines and time constraints that needn’t be there,” Dr. Mascher states. She adds that she would encourage people to take a semester or year off if they felt it

“Enjoy it while you can, because in the real world, you have actual responsibilities.” That’s a phrase we often hear coupled with the best four years. Tufts demands a lot from its students and vice versa, but as a microcosm we attempt to get the most out of the four years we have here. Maybe the problem is not whether or not college is the best four years of our lives; instead, it’s that we are trying to make it be.