(Emory Wheel/Michelle Lou, former Editor-in-Chief)

I spent most of my first semester at Emory questioning if I was doing freshman year right. Were the friends I was making really lifelong connections? Was I going off campus enough? Was every course I took worth the years of hard work and 3,000 miles I’d spent to get here? At Waffle House, riding late night Ubers and gagging at the Dobbs Common Table’s latest creation, I tried to milk the most out of my first year experience. But as much as I loved college, I also questioned it.

Like so many others, I had been brainwashed by the expectation that college would be “the best four years of my life.” When I hopped on a plane to Atlanta in August, I genuinely believed I was leaving the last of my problems at home. College would fix everything. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. But it shouldn’t have to. 

Our glorification of higher education creates unattainable expectations and ignores the stress and chaos of transition. The intoxicating rush of newly-sprung independence. The prospect of lifelong best friends. Of course, college failed in some ways to live up to the idealized place I had in mind. The very things that made college amazing, such as new friends, new places and new freedom, were also what made it exhausting and stressful. COVID-19 worsened mental health amongst students as 53% of 2021 college freshmen report an increase in mental exhaustion, and 1 in 3 college freshmen experience depression and anxiety. I can’t help but wonder if these freshmen felt somewhat let down by the expectation of “the best four years” as I did. True, many of the things I didn’t like about home disappeared once I got to Emory, but new problems quickly arose to fill their place. 

When I first got to campus, I realized I didn’t know anyone. Why I had expected to meet lifelong friends during freshmen orientation, I still don’t know. COVID-19 had not magically disappeared, though the people in my dorm did as they contracted COVID-19 and were booted off to the Emory Conference Center Hotel. I also never knew where I was going. I got lost on campus and in Atlanta, relying on Google Maps and sheer luck to get me where I needed to go. I navigated a new region of the U.S., a new city and a new school. 

There were times when I just wanted to go home. I was ashamed of it. How could anyone want to ditch the first of the best four years of their life? I had done copious amounts of research on various colleges. I was, and still am, convinced that I picked the right place. But nothing I researched prepared me for college life. It was a huge transition, one that no one seemed to talk about. Scrolling through social media, I watched my high school friends laughing on the beach. Across the country from them, I couldn’t have felt more disconnected. I felt an endless need to prove that I, too, was having the time of my life. And though I was loving college overall, the moments I didn’t felt like something I needed to hide. On FaceTime, my friends from home and I would compare college experiences, each of us trying to outdo the other with amazing people we had met or amazing things we’d done. It was a contest of colleges and experiences, but it was mostly a contest of happiness. When we dug deeper, the imperfections of freshman year would reveal themselves. We always reached the same conclusion. Parts of freshman year are absolutely, completely and truly awful. But if that’s part of the best four years of my life, then so be it.

There were probably a million ways that I “messed up” the perfect freshman year I had envisioned, and a million more I will continue to mess up. After all, I still have three more months to go. But the truth is, I love Emory. I am loving freshman year and I am having the time of my life. Just not every second of every day, and that’s okay. We can’t expect college to wash away every problem or be devoid of new ones. No place can do that.

Calling our college years the “best” leads to an experience that will inevitably fall short of that, and make us hate it for failing that expectation. But maybe the fix is as simple as how we talk about college. So instead of calling them “the best four years,” we should, perhaps, call them “the most formative four years.” Because addressing change and development will capture actual college life in a way that “the best four years” never will. And these years will be formative, for better, for worse and for every way in between. 

For everyone reading this, when college doesn’t live up to the unfairly high standard society has placed on it, don’t worry. There will be times you love college and times when you hate it. Times when you’re glad you came, and times when you just want to go home. College might not always be the best four years you’ve ever spent, but why should it be? Maybe the golden moments of college life are what you remember when you look back. Maybe the best years are still to come. 

Chaya Tong (25C) is from the Bay Area, California.