It’s late August, which means that some of you are gearing up to start college for the fall semester – maybe for the first time. While you sort through course catalogues and make packing lists and plan the last hangouts of the summer with your home friends, you also are possibly freaking out about what’s going to happen when you show up on campus. In light of your impending education, dear college-bound butterflies, we have compiled all our wisdom on everything we could think of with regard to College, and compiled it into this College Advice Megapost Situation. We hope it helps quell some of your fears, empowers you to take on whatever challenges you face, and gets you excited to jump into this new exciting life endeavor!
For quick reference, here are links to the many bits of this post:
- making queer friends
- coming out
- hooking up and dating
- drugs and alcohol
- college resources
- navigating college bureaucracy
- college and MONEY
- mental health
- changing your name and pronouns
- being an international student
One of the reasons why this post is so long is because so many of us had drastically different college experiences. It turns out that college is like real life, in that some of it is great and some of it sucks and a lot of it is Really Hard, and it’s going to be different for every person. And while this post incorporates a lot of perspectives from the Autostraddle staff, it isn’t even close to being comprehensive. There are so many ways to get a degree and have a valuable college experience.
Veering from your initial plan is fine, normal and can often be really, really good in the end.
Very few people’s lives turn out how they plan when they are 18 or 19 years old (or really any age). You are growing up, and you will change as a person during college. You will meet new people who will teach you things you didn’t know about yourself. Your interests may shift. Your priorities may change. I encourage you to embrace these changes and shifts. Sometimes your dream school doesn’t turn out to be the fantasy you imagined. It’s okay to leave if you need to. It’s okay to do something different than what you said you wanted to do on your application. It’s also fine if you have no idea what you want out of college, yet. Veering from your initial plan is fine, normal and can often be really, really good in the end. If you told me five years ago when I started college that I’d be where I am right now, I would have been pretty surprised.
It’s nice to surprise yourself.
It’s also important to find people that will support you through these surprises, good and bad. It is more likely than not that you are constantly being inundated with advice from people who think it is VERY CRITICAL you do college in a SPECIFIC way. These people may include, but are not limited to: your parents, your roommate, your friends, college administrators, your professors, children you babysit for, and strangers you meet on the bus.
Some of these people will offer you good advice. I recommend you figure out who you trust and who you believe wants what’s best for you. When you have a decision to make, talk it over with those people, and try to make the decision that is right for you, not someone else. That doesn’t mean you should be an asshole and only look out for yourself; it means to learn to discern what you actually need from what people tell you you should need. You do you, as they say.
And even if you start out solid, and you’re “on-track” to graduate on time, to fulfill all the major requirements, to get the exact degree you planned to — know that it’s going to be okay if things suddenly shift. I wish I’d understood that when I went to college. I was pretty afraid to mess up, and I definitely avoided taking some risks because of that fear.
So here we go.
Just so you know, this post reflects my and other staff members’ experiences, mostly at four-year American universities. If that’s not what you’re doing, I hope you still find things here that apply in useful ways to your situation, and I hope you all post your own tips in the comments!
On Finding Friends and Meeting People
College is an intense social pressure cooker, and it might take you a while to find your people. Give yourself time, or, as Riese said, “if you have social anxiety, it will probably take longer than a few months to find your place at college and possibly the entire year to find friends you really click with, and it’s gonna be hard but YOU CAN DO IT.”
A good first step: Get out of your dorm
Probably you will be provided with some sort of pre-made friend group upon your arrival on your campus, possibly in the form of the people living around you that have all been entrusted to the same Residential Adviser (RA) or RA-equivalent. These groups will be hit or miss. Maybe these people will become your best friends for the rest of your life. It’s more likely that you will find your feelings about these people somewhere between “these are nice people who I enjoy living near” and “this is my own personal hell.”
Regardless of whether or not you feel these people are your new chosen family or your new nightmare mandatory family dinner, take some time to intentionally get away from them. Find an activity, a class or a group where everyone is coming together based on a common interest or experience. Go hang out at a center where people gather based on a shared culture or identity. Join a team. The point is, that it might feel like there’s no way to meet friends outside your dorm, or that if you don’t immediately click with the people in your dorm you are in some way “doing it wrong.” You’re not. And even if you love those people in your dorm to death (which can happen and be amazing), go meet other people anyway. There are a lot of people at college. See who’s there.
And getting outside your dorm can be especially necessary if you are looking for queer community. Which brings us to the next thing:
How do I find Queer Community?
Even though my school was super queer, my dorm freshman year was not a place where I found any queer women, and it took me almost a year to find a group I clicked with. Try looking in your school’s LGBTQ or Women’s centers, feminist and/or activist groups. Other Autostraddle staff found queer people in theater, volunteering at women’s organizations, sports, and a class called Queer Visual Culture.
It is possible you won’t feel particularly comfortable in your school’s de-facto group of queer people, whoever they are. If your school has a large, visible queer community, it will either be really easy to jump in, or it will feel really hard. Finding your queer group might be as easy as going to the LGBTQ center ice cream social during first year orientation. But then it also might feel like you don’t fit in with them in the way they expect you to. “The queer community at [my school] was really intimidating and I never thought they’d include a femme bisexual so I never tried to get included,” said Hannah, who found queer community online. Fikri similarly found queer community off-campus, “I think I’ve met a grand total of like, two people I’ve actually liked in LGBT societies over four years and two schools/countries. But yes volunteering especially outside school changed everything for me.”
Cecelia offered some wisdom for people at schools that aren’t obviously super queer:
“Don’t feel bad for choosing a school that isn’t a queer hotspot. Even if there isn’t a visible queer scene on campus, usually the LGBTQ resource center has a lounge where you can hang out or study in a safe space. If you stake out for even an hour there, you’ll definitely find others building the same kind of community you are looking for. If this isn’t an option for you, find time in your degree plan to take an elective class in a strategic subject area. You may have to spend hours searching the course catalog in a sea of ‘Marketing 101’ classes until you find ‘The History of Witchcraft.’ Rule of thumb: if the subject of the class is useless to anyone interested in maintaining the patriarchy, you could find your next girlfriend there.”
If you don’t find queers you jive with on campus, see what’s in the area around your campus. Find an Autostraddle meetup, find a lesbian bar or party, find a feminist bookstore or a community activist group. “Especially if your campus is huge,” Cecelia added, “it’s very probable that you’ll meet someone at a local protest or film festival and realize only after introducing yourself that you go to the same school.”
KaeLyn went to a college in a rural area without a big queer community. “You have to band together when you are so few and there is real beauty and intimacy in these isolated queer communities,” she said. She also talked about navigating safety as a queer person of color in a rural place.
Safety is a real concern in these smaller communities, though. For black and brown queer and/or trans people, especially, personal safety is an important consideration. At my rural upstate NY college, we drove over an hour to our nearest gay bar because our folks often got harassed at the popular bars around the college town area. QTPOC should think about how comfortable they are in spaces that are mostly white. You may be one of the only QTPOC on your campus. I can count the number of out QTPOC at my school on one hand and I was often the only one in any given space. All that said, our queer family was very tight and I am glad that I got to come out in an environment like that, where everyone knew each other and looked out for each other. I would make the same choice over and over again.
Try new stuff
This is possibly the most cliche thing on this list, but that’s because it is so important. Just because something was “your thing” in high school does not mean it has to be “your thing” in college. If you want to keep swimming or playing violin, that’s awesome, but maybe you are burnt out on it, or maybe there is something more interesting available to you at your school that you never had access to before. Maybe you want to do rugby instead of soccer. Do rugby! Maybe you want to learn ceramics even though you’ve never done anything remotely artistic in your entire life. Do ceramics! This also applies in the academic sphere, too. If you have an extra class to fill into your schedule, pick something different! Audrey concurs: “I took an African American studies class my last semester and it unlocked a whole world of theory and practical understanding, and I wish I had done it a lot sooner.”
No one is too cool for you
I know! I know! You are suddenly in college and in these classes where everyone is so smart and interesting. But how could you ever approach that person in your sociology class even though you really want to ask them more about that thing they said in your small group about Foucault last week? Guess what?? YOU CAN GO TALK TO THEM. You are just as cool and capable as any person at your school. Approach them and strike up a conversation!
How and when do I come out at college?
However and whenever you want to! Do it explicitly and directly if that feels good to you, but you can also do it over time by dropping casual references to ex-girlfriends, or the fact that you really want to get involved with queer stuff on campus. Maybe put a really gay poster up in your room.
There’s also no rush. There are a variety of reasons why you might not want to come out immediately upon landing on campus. You might feel like you need to build trust with people and get a feel for the campus as a whole. Yvonne wishes she’d come out sooner. Chloe said, “I didn’t come out until the end of my sophomore year, like halfway through college, so my advice from that would be that it is totally one million percent ok to spend a semester or a year or two years figuring that out. I still made wonderful friends and had a community.”
As for me, I think I pretty much announced my queerness to everyone I met upon my arrival on campus. Like, often I literally shouted it. I am kind of embarrassed about this now, but if that’s going to make you feel as good as it made me feel at the time, I think you should do it.
How do I navigate potential awkward feelings from my roommate?
Your call. There are a variety of factors in play here, and two things that are always true: 1) You are not obligated to come out to your roommate, or to anyone, ever. 2) You have the right to feel comfortable in your living space.
So if you come out to your roommate and they are uncomfortable with it, that’s their issue. If they make the living space unsafe for you, it’s your school’s residential life office’s job to make the situation safe for you. This might mean you or your roommate changing rooms, which might be a pain in the ass, but I just really want you to know that you have the right to feel safe in your living space.
But that’s me jumping to worst case scenario! Chances are, your roommate will be chill about it or even pumped for you. On our first night, my roommate tacked up a pride flag above her bed immediately after telling me all about her long distance boyfriend. I think I asked her something along the lines of, “Um, are you bisexual, or just cool?” She became an amazingly supportive friend during the ups and downs of my first year, and we were placed together via a questionnaire that mostly focused on sleeping habits and level of neatness!
On Sexytimes and Dating and Stuff
I hope you have really awesome sex in college, if that’s something you want. I hope you have really nice relationships, romantic or otherwise. How does that happen?
Consent! Consent! More consent!!
Guys, this is just so important. You deserve to be asked for consent; your partner deserves to be asked for consent. Probably, your school will talk about consent, and probably whatever video or skit they make you watch about it will be SUPER heteronormative. So here is my friendly and urgent reminder that sexual assault can be perpetrated by any gender person, against any gender person, and if you need resources about that, here are some.
Seriously think it over before jumping into a relationship with the first person you sleep with
Sometimes people fall into relationships immediately upon arriving at college. Sometimes this works out. Sometimes it doesn’t. I think it’s most important that you figure out why you want to be with that person. I wanted to jump into a relationship situation with the first person I hooked up with, and thankfully she turned me down. It wouldn’t have worked as a relationship at all, but I was so anxious for that kind of intimacy without really knowing what I wanted or needed from it.
Lindsay King-Miller over at the Hairpin had a great thing to say that I found very relevant to this, that I wished someone had said to me six years ago: “Be aware that there’s lots of sex in the world, and you don’t need to get horizontal with anyone you feel lukewarm about just because you’re afraid you might not get a better offer. You’ll get lots of better offers.” It’s so true, you guys!
But all that said, if you do end up u-hauling into someone else’s twin bed, that’s great! I bet you are super cute together. To ensure its cuteness endures beyond fall break, make sure you are building lives and support systems at school independently from each other.
Don’t be afraid to tell someone you like them
Seriously! Once upon a time, I had a huge massive crush on a girl in my freshman dorm. I told her this. She very kindly rejected me. I moved on. We remained friends. Today, five years later, I live with her and her boyfriend, and she is one of my closest friends. It’s not weird, and I’m not pining for her! This all to say that rejection is not the end of the world, nor does it have to be the end of a friendship. Also, maybe the person will end up liking you back! That has also happened when I’ve told someone I liked them.
Drugs and Alcohol
I feel like I have to include this part because this is a post about college, so here are my main thoughts:
Be smart. Be safe. Remember that abstaining from drinking/drugs if you want to doesn’t make you any less cool.
How to interact with an instructor
Our Senior Editor Rachel was an actual instructor at an actual college, and she has some ideas for you:
Hello Rachel here! Ideally your instructors won’t just be educational ships that you pass in the night and who you turn work in to, but people you have some sort of relationship with. And like any relationship, the most important thing I can emphasize to you is communication! Please talk to your instructors — both in general, like chatting and getting to know them, but also actively letting them know about things on your end. Here’s an incomplete list of things I’d really recommend you actively reach out to your instructors about as soon as possible:
- anything going on in your life that you think might impact your schoolwork — this could be a job, a mental illness, a death in the family, a challenging housing situation, etc. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students who struggled with absences, missed schoolwork, or falling behind only to let me know in the very last week of the semester that they were dealing with a lot of anxiety, or that they had lost someone in their family — things I would have been happy to work with them on or accommodate if I had just known. Not all of your instructors will be willing or able to make changes or accommodations for stuff like this, but I can pretty much guarantee that both you and your prof will be better off if they at least know. If you’re nervous, please know from my experience that you are definitely not the only person who has ever had this conversation with your prof — you’re probably not even the only person this semester or this class.
- learning or other disabilities — let your professors know what accommodations they should be providing to you. The office of disability services (or something similar) on your campus may be able to help you draft an email or provide you with a sample email on this topic.
- if your name or pronouns are different than what your instructor may have been given on the class roster. There’s a section below that deals with name and pronoun changes at university more broadly, but please do let your instructors know as soon as possible!
- questions you have about the material! Hopefully, your instructors will provide lots of ways for you to do this easily, from office hours to check-ins to emails. The bottom line is that helping you learn is our job; help us and also help you by asking questions when you have them.
Communication is a two-way street, so make sure you’re also paying attention to the things your instructor communicates to you. Read the syllabus closely, and keep it throughout the semester to refer to; if your instructor has rules or guidelines for the classroom or for quality of work, make sure you’re remembering to follow them. (For instance, in my syllabus I explained I wouldn’t check or respond to email after a certain time at night; I still got lots of emails at 11 pm about work that was due at 9 am the next morning. Those emails did not get answered and it didn’t make me think super highly of those students.) Make sure that you’re communicating with your instructors in a way that’s respectful and compassionate; they’re people too, and likely underpaid and overworked people. If you wouldn’t yell at your friend “Give me a ride to work on Tuesday!” don’t email your instructor “I’m not going to be in class — send me all the reading and explain what you said during the lecture.” That request is fundamentally totally reasonable, but take the time to say it in a way that’s polite and understanding — “Dear [Person], I’m sorry, I have to miss class on Tuesday! When you have time, would you mind sending along any online reading that we were assigned in class? I’ll come by your office hours to talk to you about what happened during lecture in the class I missed. Thanks!”
Finally, while I hope that all your instructors during your university tenure are wonderful humans and fantastic educators, they likely won’t ALL be. You’ll have some instructors that range from ineffectual to really unpleasant. Check out the time periods for class add/drop options carefully; be aware of when your window to drop a class without a penalty ends, so if a prof seems really bad, you can still drop the class. If a prof is actively harmful — saying or doing things that are racist, transphobic, etc — or otherwise personally vindictive to you — you do have some options. I’d recommend trying to keep all of your communication with them (and really all profs) in email, so that you have it in writing; that way if they try to deny they promised you an extension or something later, you have the proof. You can also look up your professor’s higher-up in their department and go see them if things don’t improve; they can help mediate something between you and the professor. If a professor gives you a grade you feel is unfair, universities generally have a process through which you can appeal grades.
Lastly, for the most part, your instructors are people who really truly want you to do well and to learn everything you need to know — if you work with them towards that shared goal, you can succeed academically and maybe also build some mentorship relationships that you’ll really value.
Find a studying situation that works for you
Whether it’s at a table in the library with all your friends, at a table in the chemistry lounge alone at 3 am, or early mornings in your dorm room, take the time to figure out what kind of studying vibe you need to get things done. This varies so significantly for different people. If you need to try a bunch of things before you find a good combination of noise, light and human interaction, that’s fine. It’s going to take really varied approaches for everyone to get their work done how they need to.
Utilize your school’s resources to the max!
Access to academic journals. Academic resource centers. Your professor’s office hours. Lectures and workshops. Free food at lectures and workshops. Fancy computer labs and video editing software. Free safer sex supplies. These are all things available to you as a student that can be much more difficult to come by when you aren’t one anymore! Make the most of them while you’ve got them, because you’ll miss them when you don’t have access to them anymore.
On the next page: jobs, navigating bureaucracy, authority figures, campus activism, pronouns, mental health, transferring, and being an international student
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!