Navigating Bureaucracy and the Institution
Okay, so far we’ve mostly focused on social relationships and being open to new things, and all the great possibility of college. But I think it’s important to talk about how hard it can be, especially for queer and trans people.
Being queer at college can be amazing. I know, personally, that so much of my sense of self and community today was built on the relationships I had with my queer friends I met during college. But I feel it would be highly misleading to say that the minute you step on your campus you will be enveloped in a rainbow hug. Colleges have white supremacy, misogyny, class hierarchy, transmisogyny and transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and every other form of oppression, written into how and why they exist, and college administrators don’t typically like doing serious internal work to deal with that, even if they talk a lot about diversity. Just because your campus claims to be LGBT friendly doesn’t mean everyone is going to celebrate your particular way of being queer, and even the most LGB-friendly schools are still far from well equipped to give trans people the support and resources they ought to have. This sucks, but you aren’t alone in it. This section has some starting places for finding support and community when your school falls short.
On Navigating Authority Figures
Your college experience will be determined in some part along your interactions with these authority figures: Deans. Housing Directors. Registrars. Professors. Campus Center Directors. Coaches. Some of these authority figures will be THE BEST. You will have the professors who invite your seminars on capitalism to their house to get boozy, will let you cry in their offices, and make you a better writer. You will have the LGBTQ center director who will bring her dog to the center and offer extremely candid career advice. You will have a coach who has been the beloved den mother of the swim team for thirty years.
Then you will have the dean of students who doesn’t believe your depression is grounds for an extension on a paper. Maybe the college president says to your face that she doesn’t think sexism or racism are issues on her campus. Perhaps your stats professor will say you are hopeless at statistics because you are a feminist. It’s possible the Title IX investigator shames you for not reporting your sexual assault sooner. These things aren’t okay, but it can feel really confusing and disempowering when they happen, because they are the actions of people in power.
If you feel this happening, via micro- or macroagression, trust it! Talk about it! Find other people who also see this happening, and talk about it with them. Support each other, and speak out about it if you are moved to! You can also seek out support from the professors and administrators you trust – they will have strategies and institutional memory that will help you navigate these dynamics.
Because once you figure out what needs to change in your college, you’re going to want to change it.
Being involved in campus activism was a huge part of my college experience, and I really recommend you get involved in some way or at least keep your ear to the ground so you know what’s going on. Like I said before, colleges are big institutions that have to make money, and fucked up shit will be going on inside your school’s administration and student body. I encourage you to join groups (or start groups) that understand and resist the ways in which your college will inevitably be tied to systems of oppression. You will learn a lot, you will make close relationships, you will gain important organizing experience, and hopefully you will help your school be a better place for those who come after you.
Please, make sure you are taking care of yourself and each other while you do this. It is hard to be a campus activist on top of a full course load, other activities, jobs and attending to your other needs. It can be easy to put campus activism before everything else, but this can take a serious toll on your mental and physical health. Self care is necessary and important to avoid burnout or break down. It’s okay to miss an organizing meeting or a panel or an action because you need to go to the gym or take a nap. It means you’ll be able to show up the next time. If doing art and/or physical activity are important for your mental health and clarity, it’s okay to make that a priority. And encourage others to do the same! Pick up the slack for each other.
Be aware of micro or macroagressive dynamics in your own queer spaces
Fucked up dynamics that perpetuate racism, homophobia, classism, transphobia and transmisogyny, ableism and sexism will always creep up in college friend groups, organizing groups, student orgs and classes. Your insular queer community and humanities classes are not immune! Make an effort to acknowledge and resist these dynamics. Listen to each other and respond accordingly.
College and MONEY
Y’all! College is expensive! Pretty often, it’s prohibitively expensive. Tuition is no joke, and it’s likely you will, in at least some way, shape your student life around keeping your financial situation stable, whether that’s making sure your loans and grants are in order, or working a full-time job on top of your studies.
Financial Aid and Long-Term Planning
It’s really important to understand your financial aid package from your school, and to know what your debt will look like after graduation. That can feel a long way off if you’re just starting your first year, but it’s worth putting in the time to make sure you have the best possible option. “I received financial aid in the form of many federal student loans and parent loans,” Yvonne said. “I had a part-time summer job and a few contract writing jobs while in college to help me offset some living expenses and to save for study abroad however it wasn’t enough to make a dent in the tuition and costs I racked up. I urge you to really read into the different loans and figure out what you’re actually borrowing and what that number will look like once you graduate.”
Your college financial aid office can help you make sense of what your financial aid package means, and they can also help you identify make the best choices about the loans and grants available to you. Yvonne also had tips for maximizing savings on looking beyond your financial aid office:
“The thing you have to remember is that college is a great investment but you should definitely find ways to make your degree as cost-effective as possible and limit your borrowing only to what you absolutely need. Also there’s just a shit ton of things your university offers that can help you offset living costs like free food, entertainment like concerts and events, student discounts at stores and restaurants, etc. Check out websites like FastWeb and apply to scholarships, even little ones. You can check with your major’s department and find out if they offer any scholarships for current students. I know it’s hard work to do this with a full course load and your social life and whatevs but I promise you’ll be happy when you can pay off your students loans in a few years instead of eternity like me.”
There are various options for working while you’re in school, including off-campus employment and work-study jobs on campus, each of which have their pros and cons. Work-study is typically offered as part of a financial aid package, which generally means it’s tailored to your financial situation and designed to be balanced alongside your academic life. It’s also often possible to find work related to your major or extracurricular interests, and if you can get paid to do something you’re passionate about, like being a student assistant in the Women’s Center or as a research assistant for your physics professor, that’s awesome. However, it’s important to note that your work-study hours and pay are based on what the school thinks your needs are, so if you have additional expenses that your school assumes you don’t have, for example if you support your family or have out-of-pocket healthcare costs, work-study probably won’t be enough.
It’s always an option to seek employment away from your school. Chelsey worked 40+ hours a week while going to school full-time to supplement the scholarships she got from her school. She said,
“It was ROUGH. I’m not going to lie. The only way I kept my head on straight was to make lists for school, work and home. It’s important to make study and homework schedules to ensure you are going to have enough time, as well as allowing yourself some time to spend with friends and on yourself. It is easy to overwhelm yourself, but if you try and keep things organized and on a schedule, it is much more manageable. Also, Red Bull. Lots of Red Bull.”
Riese worked 20-30 hours a week at Macaroni Grill while attending the University of Michigan full-time, and she pointed out that if you figure it right, you can kill a lot of birds with the stone that is your job:
“I intentionally got a job a 15 minute drive from campus ’cause I didn’t want to serve beer to kids I knew from class, or, worse, work at a place where my non-working friends were hanging out and having fun while I was working. I also wanted to get away for a bit and serve pasta to families. So it honestly was a nice mental and physical break from school, plus it was an active job so I got some exercise as well. And they gave us free food!”
Riese also pointed out that strategic scheduling can be key:
“Get a job that enables you to work and make money during time periods when you probably wouldn’t be studying anyhow — e.g., Friday and Saturday nights, summers, and winter break. If you’re at a big state school and don’t like football, you should really be waiting tables — I never attended a game, but those were the busiest days at work! I was also very realistic about whether or not I could plan on doing homework AFTER a dinner shift (I couldn’t) and planned my life accordingly. Also my friends would come in and sit at my table so I’d still get to see them. I’m pretty anti-social though, and I didn’t really like “the scene” at Michigan, so it wasn’t a big deal for me to have to give up my social life in order to work. It was almost a relief. And if I really wanted to go out, college parties don’t get started really ’til 11pm anyhow, so I still could! I just smelled like olive oil. Dry shampoo, febreze and cologne would be my advice.”
There is no magic wand to wave to magically have enough time to be a full-time student and work a full-time job and have a social life and do whatever other extracurriculars you’re interested in. However, there are places where it will be easier to do this than others. As Riese said, “I learned quickly that UofM isn’t a very work-friendly school, despite its size and the diversity of the student body. Almost all my co-workers went to Eastern, a less expensive and selective school one town over, and I was amazed by how their class schedules seemed catered specifically to people who worked full-time while in school.”
Juggling a job with academic work is definitely a challenge, but being financially prudent is really important, especially when looking ahead beyond college. Generally, challenges you face in college will be resolved relatively fast. Debt is not one of those things. Do what you need to do and don’t be afraid to prioritize it! Your friends will come visit you at Olive Garden or at the checkout desk at the library or during your office hours in the Women’s Center. Caffeine is readily available in many forms. Chelsey also wants to say, “Forgive yourself if something falls through the cracks, it’s all gonna work out in the end!”
Transferring or Dropping Out
I hope your college experience is fun and also challenging in a satisfying way that lets you know you are learning and growing.
Sometimes, there’s a reason why you might decide you need to switch schools, or even leave school for a while, partway through! There are so many reasons why college might not be right for you, or maybe your specific college isn’t right for you. Maybe something during your childhood really fucked you up and you need to take a pause from school to sort some things out. Maybe you aren’t going to be able to sit still for one second in a lecture hall until you’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail. Maybe you or a family member has a health thing you need to prioritize. Or maybe your school is just really fucking expensive and you don’t feel like it’s worth the thousands of dollars of debt you’ll have, after all.
Riese, Mey, Nikki and Anna all transferred. My friend Molly transferred. My first year roommate thought really seriously about transferring but ultimately decided not to. Riese left Sarah Lawrence after a semester and transferred back to the University of Michigan where she could pay in-state tuition and not go into massive debt for a private college she didn’t love. “I wasn’t necessarily in love with Michigan either,” she said, “but at least it wasn’t putting me into debt.” Anna spent two years going to school at the University of Alaska in their hometown of Fairbanks, before transferring to art school away from home. They said,
“So I transferred and got into a lot of debt, which I don’t really recommend, but now that debt is so large it’s not even a real number that I can fathom and I had a really great time at art school. The bigger city challenged me and forced me out of my comfort zone and I can say it changed my life for the better. Feeling stuck and stagnant in school is a real feeling, but you don’t have to actually be stuck and stagnant. I think it’s better to make a change than have that feeling for four years straight.”
Nikki started at community college and then to a bigger school after two years:
“I did two years at a community college near my hometown. They did not have on-campus housing; it was a 2-year college to get your associates. I went this route because being 18 I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had very low self-esteem and high school didn’t help because I always felt stupid because the style of learning just didn’t fit and I always struggled. I could go to school, work my part-time job, and live at home.”
If you don’t want to transfer, you can take time off to work or travel. You can pursue something else. Leaving college is definitely not a decision to make lightly, and it definitely might not be easy, but it is a thing that can be done. There are a lot of pressures to do college right after high school, and then do the whole thing in one straight shot. Sometimes we can’t do that, or don’t want to. That’s okay.
Your mental health is important. Please, please do what you need to do for it. Find out the resources your school has available. There may be a counseling center where you can go to speak to a therapist. There may be peer or administrator-staffed hotlines that you can call if you are in crisis or need confidential support with a difficult issue. These resources are there for you to use! No problem is too small to seek out their help.
At some universities, the health center and/or disability services center can help you with academic accommodations for mental illness, sometimes including anxiety and depression. It’s worth contacting them and finding out what kind of support they may be able to offer.
You may also come to a point that in order to work through your mental health issues, you need to leave your school either to go home or to go somewhere else, even if that messes with whatever plan you might have had, even if it means you won’t graduate on time, even if it means leaving your dream school. “Don’t be afraid to prioritize your mental health over going to your first choice school,” Mey said. “I went to [college across the state from my hometown], but I was depressed and really suicidal and since it was in a new city, I had zero support system. So I transferred to Idaho State in my hometown and even though I was still depressed, I had a support system there.”
Changing Your Name and Pronouns
Starting college can be an amazing moment to start using a new name or pronouns. Policies vary school-to-school, so it’s worth checking to see if your school has a set policy for changing names and/or gender markers. Lambda Legal has an FAQ about this process and the legal obligations of your college to comply with your request.
However, even if your college is willing to implement your name change, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be simple. Lii changed their name in their junior year, and said, “It wasn’t the worst but also not the easiest. I had to give [the college] various legal proofs of my name change, which was hard and expensive. I remember having to inform various entities at different times because there was no way of changing my name identity in the entire system at once, I had to go to [every office] separately. I still was running into access barriers occasionally in my senior year (like niche library/research privileges I couldn’t log into).”
On top of navigating the administrative side of their name change, it also came down to Lii to explain how they wanted professors to refer to them.
“What I ended up having to do was send individual emails to professors or employers or others disclosing information about my name and pronouns. By the end I felt like I had gotten it down to a science, but it was tricky figuring out who to disclose to and how to make the ask, especially when experience has dictated that it is often more trouble than it is worth (for me anyway) in terms of confusion, embarrassment, shame, awkwardness, and creating distance between myself and the adult in question. I made different pronoun asks of different professors depending on how I gauged their ability to use the one I preferred. By the end I defaulted to ‘he’ pretty often because professors, even ones who liked me, are incapable of retooling their hard and fast academia grammar.”
Mey pointed out that it can be really helpful to reach out beforehand to people who might have your old name on a list, like your professors or your RA. Email them ahead of time to let them know what name and pronouns you go by. That increases the chance that they’ll mark that down and just go with it, before they meet you and briefly associate you with the wrong name. Chances are pretty good that your RA will put a sign with your name on your door before you get there, so letting them know ahead of time what name you go by will help the people you live near get to know you by the right name as well. (Also, just a note if you are reading this as an RA or RA-type person or a professor, please enable and empower people to determine what they are called – give people a chance to introduce themselves and their pronouns to everyone in your group or class.)
On Being an International Student
Culture shock AND reverse culture shock are real things, so give yourself space to feel unsettled, displaced, or just plain upset. Sometimes it is hard to feel like your feelings are legitimate because of the immense privilege that is associated with studying overseas. They are legitimate, just don’t be obnoxious about it. Especially on social media because you will regret that shit a year down the road when your new and shiny place away from home gets significantly less new and shiny. Don’t ever use the word “quaint” to describe anything in your hometown/country in front of people in your hometown/country (or maybe just in front of anyone, ever) because you will deserve whatever comes your way for it.
Visiting and Staying Connected
It is okay to want to visit home. It is okay to not want to visit home. It is okay to want to Skype your family regularly. It it okay to not want to.
Seeing the Sights
Get out of school/campus more! Honestly the only thing I regret is not doing more stuff in the cities I lived in, even the tourist traps, because being a resident, even a temporary one, allows you to experience things so differently (and often more cheaply) than a tourist ever could. Exams/assignments are always happening around the period when the best stuff happens, but yo, in the future you’re gonna remember like zero Plato and a lot more whatever else you did.
Build a Support System
You’re probably going to have to work three times as hard as everyone else to build a support system around you, especially if you’re finding it hard to adjust to cultural stuff (e.g. drinking), but you have to do it. In-person support is important. You cannot actually survive off of four years’ worth of Skype calls with your long-distance girlfriend. (I have tried a lot.)
If you’re planning on going back home after university, it’s really important to make sure you have things/people to go back to. It’s super tempting to cut everyone off now that you’re a million miles away — and it does make a LOT of things easier, and I have done it often — but you don’t want to have to start from scratch twice. (And it will be starting from scratch, because you can’t take for granted that things will stay the same when you’ve been gone.) Volunteer work both at home and overseas was really important, because it surrounded me with people who cared about the same things as I did (even though we often came from completely different places) and helped me start build communities/families that really mattered to me. Actually volunteering probably helped me get through everything I’ve listed here. Also meeting people on/from the internet.
How do you feel? Overwhelmed? That’s okay. You are a resilient person and you will figure out what you need from college and work towards that. Plus, you just read more than 8000 words! Did you know that? That’s shorter than a lot of the things you’ll need to read at college, but longer than most of the papers you’ll need to write.
My parting words for you are strictly practical advice: get a tiny stapler and keep it in your backpack. Inevitably you will have to print papers immediately before class, and the last thing anyone wants in that situation is to have a stack of papers with nothing to hold them together. If you have a stapler in your backpack, you won’t have that problem, and then you can also be a hero when half your classmates need to staple their freshly-printed papers, too. Maybe also put a bottle opener on your keys for a similar reason.
Good luck, all of you! I hope you surprise yourselves in the very best way. Please leave your own tips and stories in the comments!