Promised peaks, occasional valleys

The problem of seemingly pervasive feelings of loneliness on college campuses is earning increasing concern from counselors and parents. Frank Bruni’s New York Times piece, “The Real Campus Scourge,” revealed a survey of 28,000 college students, 60 percent of whom said they had felt “very lonely” over the last 12 months. And Cornell University freshman Emery Bergman’s video about her struggle to make friends has received over a quarter million views on her YouTube channel, buoyed by its inclusion in the parenting section of the Today Show website in a piece entitled, “This freshman’s video nails what loneliness in college feels like.”

Both the article and the video point out the adverse effects of social media, how kids today are electronically pummeled with photos and videos that have been rigorously culled to showcase only the high points of their friends’ lives. But I wonder if this might also be yet another symptom of the increased attention to, anxiety over, and obsession with getting into college.

Much of the admissions pressure kids experience comes with the implied or outright stated promise that this will all be worth it once they get there. They’re told that college will be the best time of their lives. They’re told that the experience will be transformational (especially if they attend a highly selective college). They’re told that the social ills of high school will be left to the past and that things will get better in college. I’ve certainly perpetuated some of that messaging here.

It’s a lot to promise kids, and an unreasonable expectation of colleges unless you include a disclaimer. College can and will likely be all that. But it might not happen in the first week or semester. It might not even happen the first year. Great things take time to make. And the value of any life experience is the sum of its parts, not the speed with which all the expectations are fulfilled.

Maybe the way to combat this is not just to ease off on our college fixation, but also to tell kids the truth. College is your first big step into the real world as an independent adult. Colleges, much like friendships, jobs, and romantic relationships, are never perfect. You’ll have good days. You’ll have bad days. You’ll have long stretches of each. And it will be much easier to wait patiently for the promised peaks when you’re not surprised by the occasional valleys.