Great expectations: should university really be the time of our lives?

Illustration: Zoe Schooner
Illustration: Zoe Schooner
Illustration: Zoe Schodder

What are doing after you graduate? Do you have set plans? Are you going to graduate school? Are you getting a job? Moving back in with your parents? Hasn’t this just been the time of your life? Those are just a sampling of the assortment of questions that any fourth year is being asked at this time of year, when so many people seem to develop an insatiable amount of curiosity about a university graduate’s future. So many of these questions can be answered with a simple yes or no, except for that last one. Has this been the best time of your life?

While it is phrased like a simplistic yes or no question, it is in actuality so much more complex than it seems. Perhaps the reason it is complex question is because we are often told that college will be – or rather should be – the best time of our lives. But when expectations are that high can anything actually live up to the hype? There are eternally lists, articles and confessionals on Buzzfeed or Thought Catalog declaring the time spent in university is undoubtedly the best time of your life, providing generic reasons for why it should be. These lists often perpetuate myths about university life, like that everyday can be a party if you make it so. Or that time does not exist on a university campus and that university is the last frontier where you can do anything (and anyone) without any significant consequences. These myths sustain a certain aura when it comes to talking about university and what the experience ought to look like. However, such a narrow definition – work all day, party all night – is limiting and exclusive. It implies that if your experience was different, it is somehow wrong or less than what it should have been.

Regardless of whether or not the actual experience has lived up to these prescribed expectations, some students truly do feel that this has been the best time of their lives. Fourth-year student Noa Bricklin certainly feels this way. “I think it has absolutely been the best time of my life, up to this point of my life,” she says. “It’s the first time in our lives that we actually get to live our lives, from how you handle a ‘grown-up’ situation to how you wake up and eat breakfast. That may seem trivial, but it’s the little things in life from how we go about our day that are ultimately the nuances of who we are, and we figure that out here out of the shadow of our parents.”

For others, university has not necessarily been the best time of their lives but a time of significant change. Alexandra Sugarman states that it is almost impossible to state whether or not university has been the best time of her life “because there have been an equal amount of both highs and lows.” However, she does note, as does fellow fourth year Anna O’Connor, that university has certainly given them both great things in their lives, such as friends, finding a passion and and a new perspective on the world that they did not have before. Ms O’Connor feels that University has been an overall great experience. She attributes that to the fact that she did not come in with specific expectations for what university life was going to be like. She says: “I think that culturally we’re set up for a certain magic to happen when we leave home, and plenty of my friends has those expectations disappointed.”

But what about those people who do come in with the expectation that college is all about partying, drinking or even meeting your future spouse? Are they left entirely bitter by their university experience? A fourth-year student who wished to remain anonymous said that while they were happy overall with their experience at St Andrews, they did feel slightly cheated, having missed out on some of the things they saw their friend experience at other university. The student thought going into their final year that their life might have really changed while at university. However, today they say: “As it stands now I feel the same as at the beginning. Time has stood still while I have been here, and I don’t know if that has been for the best.”

Another student, who also wished to remain anonymous, thought: “I might meet my future spouse while I was here.” They add: “You know the expectation that you go to college, meet the one and life changes after that.”  When asked what they would do differently if they had the chance to experience university again, both students said they would try and keep in mind that university was not going to be as life-changing as they once thought it might be, that it was not the stepping stone to their imagined dream-life. Such expectations are grand but also common, and they are built up by others who reinforce such unrealistic standards.

Most graduating students seem hesitant to label this time in their lives as the best ever. Fourth-year student Imogen Hawley says that while university has been an overall positive experience, leaving St Andrews will feel like “coming out of a shell” and that she imagines the process as similar to a mutual break-up. University life is something that it seems most graduates are ready to let go of and move on to the next phase in their life.  Most students feel incredibly grateful for their time at university, that it made them more fully-rounded human beings. But asking them to apply superlatives seems a little premature when there are decades of life ahead. Years that, similar to university, will be full of highs, lows, new friends, new jobs, families, careers and more. In other words, the best is yet to come, despite what Buzzfeed might tell you.


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