Feminism | Posted by Julie Z on 05/15/2014

What Young Women Really Need to Know About College

I went off to college my freshman year under the impression that I was headed towards the greatest experience of my life. Hastily-constructed college movies full of crappy dialogue and 30-year-old actors with perfect faces and bodies cast as 18-year-old freshmen had completely swayed my idea of what to expect, leading me to believe that instead of a liberal arts school in Manhattan, I was actually bound for some version of an orgy interspersed with classes like “The Sociological Impact of Mercantilism in Western Europe: 1600-1750″ (you know, practical, useful information that would directly impact and inform a later career). But it soon became clear that despite such unilaterally manic depictions of the college experience, it was in fact a far more complex transition, and one that was deceptively challenging to navigate.

I got aboard the struggle bus about five minutes after I stepped on campus and was convinced I was its only passenger. I began — to my abject horror — to long for my high school days. I hardly graduated high school as the Prom Queen beloved by the student body, whom teachers tearily hugged goodbye, wondering if they should abdicate their professions having perfected the student-teacher relationship with me. (I was — not entirely inaccurately — known as the weirdo with a dark sense of humor after all). But at least in high school, I could latch on to the idea (or, now apparent myth) that in college, I would seamlessly find myself, my place, my purpose. Now that I was in college, and inundated not by comfort but a new set of unprecedented challenges, I wasn’t sure what to latch on to. I felt lost and alone.

The truth didn’t come out until a study session (by which I mean Buzzfeed-trolling marathon) with some friends during my sophomore year: we all ended up admitting that, despite trying to convince ourselves and others that we were effortlessly succeeding at our new, collegiate lives, we had all deeply struggled with the freshman experience in different ways. Some set unattainable perfectionist academic standards and spiraled into depression, others developed eating disorders…the list went on. And yet, despite these challenges, it reaching out to each other and being honest about our struggles had occurred to none of us. It seemed we had ignored the fundamental truth encouraged by our feminist foremothers: openness and honesty amongst women may not erase difficult experiences, but can make them a little easier to navigate to one’s advantage, free from self-blame and destruction.

The thing is, if we were all more transparent about our struggles as freshmen (and beyond), we would find we all feel the same way — which would probably make everybody feel a lot better. In this way, college mirrors the myriad other stages in women’s lives: our knee-jerk reaction is to cloak our struggles, our humanity, in myths that uphold an unattainable perfectionist standard for us all, ultimately reinforcing the struggle. Just like our mothers have started to be honest about the intense difficulty and negative impact of attempting to be professionally successful as well as perfect wives and mothers, women need to be open and honest about their struggles at every stage of their lives, and college is no exception. We need to stop presenting college as a time when women can and should be getting perfect grades, have legendary social lives and universally satisfying sexual experiences and instead present it as a nuanced experience full of all kinds of emotional, psychological and academic experiences that are different for women.

This process probably won’t happen overnight, but we can start by communicating these myths to the young women who are about to encounter them. I’ve decided to do this by writing College 101: A Girl’s Guide to Freshman Year. I talked to women who are currently in or just graduated from colleges all over the country to create an amalgamation of knowledge and to bust all of the destructive myths about college out there in order to better prepare rising freshmen to tackle this new stage of their lives to the best of their abilities. I can’t eliminate difficult experiences with this book, but hopefully I can open the space for young women to face them with knowledge and support. Because after all, college truly is an unparalleled opportunity for young women to socially, intellectually and emotionally flourish: we owe it to ourselves to share the resources that will allow every woman to embrace it fully.

Also published on Huffington Post.

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