Midnight Chicken Fingers, Changing Friendships, and More: Lessons from Freshman Year

by Jessica Derr on October 16, 2017

Every year, without fail, when the fireflies begin to fade into blackness, when winds run cool, and the back-to-school advertisements hound my every waking hour, I am gripped by immense anxiety despite the fact that I am not going back to school, at least not in the traditional sense.

What I once was so certain I would loathe is now a major part of my college experience and one of my biggest sources of pride and achievement.

- Jess Derr

You see, it’s weird how time works. Sometimes I feel every bit the socially awkward, brace-mouthed, zebra print-clad kid I was years ago. To that girl, living away from home and attending college were far-off things, a part of a future that seemed as though it would never arrive. That said, it can be jarring to realize that I’m 19 years old, employed, enrolled in college, and living beyond the ever-vigilant gaze of my parents. Going from the girl who wanted to be a surgeon (because she was infatuated by a certain Dr. McDreamy) and thought she was to move to Arizona to the English major who resides 10 minutes from home, it’s evident that development is happening.

A great deal of this progress occurred during my freshman year of college. This is not to say that I’m done growing. Human beings are rarely so stagnant. This is not to say that I am claiming to have reached a single moment of grand enlightenment. There was no scaling of ancient mountains and parting of the Heavens to instill upon me a grand and glorious wisdom to share with the masses. With my college journey being far from over, I still have a lot to learn, but in the spirit of a new school year, here are a few things I gained from my freshmen year.

1. Things change.

Heading into college orientation, you may harbor hope of accumulating a group of friends— loyal, lovely, and eccentric in all the right ways, worthy of being the cast on a sitcom. There will be nothing to fear because you are going to navigate the troublesome waters of academia together! After making memories and going on adventures, you will move in together in an apartment, be each other’s bridesmaids, and then be godparents to each other’s children, who are regaled with the misadventures of your youth.

Sorry to burst your bubble, friend, but life isn’t an episode of Friends or How I Met Your Mother.

The friends you make and the relationships you forge in the beginning of your fall semester will most likely shift and change. The ties you have with friends from home also are likely to change. Sometimes this shift will be positive and a person who was little more than an uncredited guest star in the IMDB that is your life will become a treasured series regular. And sometimes, once you really get to know a person, you might not like what their true character reveals to you.

In the beginning, alone and in a new environment, everyone is so desperate to cling to the barest promise of companionship. But don’t let this allow you to become complacent in your relationships. You as a human being are constantly evolving. Your ties to other human beings should reflect this. Even at the risk of being “alone,” don’t be afraid to move on from people whether the situation is negative or you prove to be just different people with different values. People will always come and go, but enjoy the time you had while it was good. Try to learn from the situation, walk away a more informed person, and know that there are other people out there to vibe with.

2. Don’t be so certain of things you’re certain of.

My AP Language and Composition teacher in my senior year of high school was a strong believer in this mantra, daring us to try and alter our preconceived notions of the world. People are not always who they initially appear to be. Activities you never before considered may become your new passion. College is a time of rich possibility and opportunity. Don’t limit yourself just from your prior experiences. You do not have to be chained to the person you were in high school. Be open and adaptable when new things present themselves to you.

Throughout my adolescence, I always played sports. By my freshman year of high school, my club lacrosse coach already was instructing me and my teammates to create a list of potential colleges we were interested in. I allowed myself to be carried along the recruiting circuit— I went to the prospect clinics, schmoozed the coaches, played in the tournaments.

But by the time I verbally committed to Arcadia,  I began to doubt if I’d actually suit the college sports scene. Beyond my actual athletic abilities being up to par, I wondered if an eccentric introvert such as myself would fit in amongst my teammates. I was certain I wouldn’t, that making it to my sophomore season was a slim possibility, which I confided to a few friends before the season even began.  

Since then, I have been pleasantly proven wrong. I like being a college athlete. I like my teammates. What I once was so certain I would loathe is now a major part of my college experience and one of my biggest sources of pride and achievement. I still may not be your stereotypical college athlete, but I have carved out a place for myself as one all the same.

3. Treat yourself from time to time (yes, even midnight junk food).

That midnight thing will hit you more than a few times. You’re staring bleary-eyed at your computer screen, the cursor blinking mockingly against a blank document. Your suitemates are in similar states.

You can fight it— or make that Michael’s run for chicken fingers.

And while, yes, you will feel gross and greasy in the morning, you’ll also feel the joy of having stayed up late, laughing and talking amid the weirdness that only occurs when it is past midnight and studying has since reduced your brain to mush. I’ve written about it before, but striking a balance between academics and enjoying yourself is important. Trying to excel in jobs, classes, clubs, and athletics can leave you feeling overwhelmed. Allow yourself to take a break, take a breath, and know that it sometimes it wouldn’t be the close reading you did years ago that resonates with you but the delightfully weird and wonderful instances that can unravel from being with friends.

4. Expect to get out what you put in.

If you were one of those people in high school who only studied the night before for a test (or, God forbid, didn’t study at all), you have a rude awakening coming. In college, nothing is given. Unlike high school where your teachers would try to nudge you along to get you to care, it’s on you if you waste your time and money in college. Manage your time, study hard, ask for help, and you’ll be ok.  It’s not that there isn’t time to binge four seasons of Bojack Horseman on Netflix or spend nights out on the town, but you’ll pay if you play too much.  Though hard work doesn’t always guarantee perfect results (my grade in Calculus in high school is evidence of that), it sets you up in a far better position to succeed.

This ideology can be applied to social situations as well. Many may be quick to lament that they didn’t have the proper “college experience.” But even going out and making friends requires some sort of initiative and effort. No one ever made or maintained friends staying in their dorm and rejecting every invite sent their way to watch Bojack Horseman.

6. Being away makes you appreciate home and family more.

I’m going to keep this one brief because sentiment makes me want to hurl.

There was a time when I was a moody, ungrateful kid, ready to hightail it as far away from my family as possible. But college has made me realize how much they truly did for me and how much I actually enjoy hanging around them.

I also took the close relationship I have with my cousin for granted. Whereas I once saw her every day, now I’m lucky if I see her every few months. Distance is challenging but it has made the time we do spend together all the more special.

7. There’s a world outside of Glenside.

Taken during my trip to Edinburgh Castle.

I have never been one to stray far from home. All my life I’ve lived in the same house, attended the same school district. I had never been on a plane, vacations were never outside of Ocean City, NJ, and the farthest I had been in the world was to North Carolina for a lacrosse game. So it was not out of character for me to end up at Arcadia University, an institution a grand 10 minutes away from my house. Ironically enough, though, it was this local university that exposed me to the rest of the world.

This past spring semester I had the opportunity to participate in Preview, a spring semester course that culminates in traveling to another country for a week. I was involved with a class dubbed “The Scots: Creators of the Arts and Sciences” that allowed me to visit Edinburgh, Stirling, Leif, and Glasgow, Scotland. After being sheltered for the majority of my life, I was surprised that I managed to navigate foreign cities with relative ease, demonstrating to myself a self-reliance I did not even know I was capable of. Having discovered this, I did things far outside my comfort zone— trying new foods (haggis is actually good, I swear), scaling Arthur’s Seat in less than optimal weather conditions when I am terrified of heights, and leaving my usual place on the sidelines to take to the dance floor to attempt traditional Scottish dances during a ceilidh.

Going to Scotland made me realize that there is such a wide and wonderful world out there and I have seen but a fraction of it. There is a sort of fearlessness, a sort of vivacity you experience being abroad, and I long to experience that sooner rather than later.

Life can’t be all rolling Scottish hills and late-night chicken fingers, but as I embark on my sophomore year, hopefully I will be better prepared after lessons from my freshman year. Stay tuned.