Friday, February 29, 2008

College Culture Shock

I have thought about this for a long time, and comments I have received on my last blog, Moving On, have prompted me to write about it...

When I went away to college, I was really ready to get away. In know many young people feel this way, and others dread the day when they will finally have to make that move out of their parents' house. But I was ready. I couldn't wait.

I think the thing that surprised me so much about my Freshman year in college is how hard it was. I was ready to be away, but I had no idea exactly what that meant. I was unprepared for the culture shock of college.

I don't know what your experience during Freshman orientation was like, but at my school, we spent a lot of time talking about what was going to happen next. We talked about expectations for class. We talked about responsibility. They talked to us a lot about consequences for underage drinking, partying, sex. We saw slides of genital herpes. Honest.

We also spent a lot of time bonding, making friends, and participating in large group building activities. In all of this, however, I missed something. I didn't even know I missed it until years later when I was attending another orientation, this time as a fledgling missionary to Cameroon. What I missed at Freshman orientation, and in some way what would have been the most helpful, was a discussion about culture shock.

Cuture shock is the phenomenon that happens to you when you leave behind a place and people that you know and enter an entirely new situation that you are totally unfamiliar with. Oh, you may think you know about it... I thought I knew about Cameroon, for example. I had read about it , studied its history, been in other parts of Africa, and had even talked to other missionaries. But, I didn't know about it. How could I? I had never been there before.

That's the way it was with college. I was ready. I thought I knew about it. But I didn't because I had never been there before. I wasn't prepared for the fact that I would miss my parents (I would never tell them that!). I wasn't prepared for leaving so many of my personal belongings behind, or getting rid of them. I wasn't ready to miss my friends. Some of those friendships will never exist again; they were only for the small time and place I was in during high school. Oh, I was ready for college... except for the fact that I had no idea what that meant.

Cuture shock has some very interesting symptoms. Despite the fact that I had chosen to be there, I spent much of my first months in Cameroon mourning the world I had left behind. Much the same was true for me when I went away to college. I really wanted to be there. And yet... I was mourning my old life and busy trying to find a new one all at the same time. This led to some interesting experiences. For example...

  • What is it about Freshman year relationships? Many of the friendships I made during that time did not last beyond that year. The ones that did are the ones that I will probably always treasure the most. Those people saw me at my ugliest and still loved me. And they still love me today.
  • There must be a connection between finding yourself and throwing up after drinking WAY too much... not something I would promote, by the way.
  • Things were very strange in general. Take church, for example. I wanted to go, but not really. And, I didn't have to. My mom wasn't there to make me. She also wasn't there to make me eat well, do my laundry, or finish my homework. In fact, I could pretty much do anything I wanted, as long as it wasn't illegal or got me expelled. I did some of those things. Some I regret, and some I don't.

The reason I am sharing this is because I don't think our college students are often prepared for what it really means to go to college. Oh, most of us find our way. I turned out OK despite those things I did. And, I still remember my college years as the most fulfilling, envigorating, educational, wonderful, magical years of my life.

But I never had a name for the difficult parts of it until I went to missionary orientation. That was when someone finally told me that it was OK to be in between worlds, mourning your old one while celebrating your new one. No one had ever put a name on it before. Naming it made a huge difference in my perception of what had happened my Freshman year.

All this to say that no matter how excited we may be, going away from home isn't always easy, no matter where we go. But, that is OK. It's got a name. And, it won't last. Chances are, you are just experiencing a rough patch at the beginning of what is going to be a life-changing, incredible, memorable experience.

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