College will be the best four years of your life, they told me. I hope they were wrong.
I don’t say that because I had a bad four years — I didn’t. I had a great time, a fun time, an enlightening time.
I say that because I also had a stressful time, a restive time, a regretful time. And I value those aspects as much as the good aspects of my time here. I value the fact that I am now better equipped to deal with stress and restiveness and regret than I was when I got here. So when I say that I hope college won’t be the best four years of my life, it’s because I hope that college will have prepared me for other years that will be even better.
Especially at a place where students sunbathe while studying for midterms in February, it’s important to say this clearly and repeatedly: You can have a less-than-idyllic Instagram account — or no Instagram account at all — and be happy with your college experience. You can be less than cheerful at times, have regrets that keep you up at night, own absolutely no rally gear, and still have a great experience — even, dare I say it, a great “Stanford” experience.
I think we should all leave here with regrets. I think that regrets make us better — the gained knowledge buoying us above future obstacles rather than weighing us down. The people (nobody in particular, by the way) who told me that college would be the best four years of my life also, of course, said to live my college life with no regrets.
For the most part, I’ve tried to do that — most people try to, I imagine — but the danger in disseminating that philosophy is in most people’s inability to actually live by it. Does anybody honestly have no regrets? I doubt it.
It’s not like I’ve gone in search of things to regret, I just don’t mind that they’ve found me. I wouldn’t be as ready to graduate as I currently am if I hadn’t had the opportunity to regret things and, later, to embrace the regret. All the way through high school, I don’t think I had any real, life-long regrets. Now I do, and I’m an adult for it. I can sleep easily, maybe more easily than before, knowing that I can handle it, knowing that future regrets won’t keep me up at night.
The same danger applies to telling high school kids that college will be the best four years of their lives. What if it’s not? What about when times get tough, when college doesn’t live up to the hype? What about the kid who’s sitting in his dorm room, wondering what he’s been doing wrong, wondering if this is really as good as life gets? (Adults said so, after all.)
That’s been me at moments, for sure. A couple of years ago, I would have been embarrassed to tell you that. Embarrassed that I was questioning myself, embarrassed that I couldn’t live up to the hype, embarrassed to be embarrassed. Now, I’m just embarrassed for the people who preach the “best years of your life” business as if it’s a given.
Then again, maybe those people regret saying it.
I’m from Los Angeles, and since sophomore year I’ve always driven the five-plus hours through the Central Valley to get home for breaks. It’s not a difficult stretch of freeway for the most part, so I put on some thinking music and mull over the quarter that just ended.
I often think about my regrets (among other things, like where the speed traps are — don’t fret, Mom and Dad). At first, I worry about the nights I wasted, about the classes I neglected, about whatever else I happen to be regretting at that moment. But by the time I get to Los Angeles, I’m not worried about the regrets anymore — I’m buoyed by them. Buoyed enough that I don’t even mind when traffic on the 405 comes to a grinding halt.
Unless I start regretting not leaving campus sooner.
Contact Alice Phillips at alicep1 ‘at’ stanford.edu.