Lessons Learned: College may not have been the ‘best four years’ of my life, but it forged me into a warrior

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Jane Hutton/The Occidental

They say college is supposed to be the best four years of your life. As a 17-year-old who was having a hard time in high school because of severe mental health issues, I felt hope.

Four years later, I ask myself, who actually believes that? To think this is as good as it gets? College was not the best four years of my life, and that’s OK. Instead, it became the foundation of the best that is yet to come.

Occidental was my early decision school. I was certain that the grass here was undoubtedly greener than in New York. Right away, I felt drawn to Oxy’s community and the warm weather. Nonetheless I learned that no matter the distance, you can never take the New Yorker out of me. I quickly found myself longing to be back in New York.

I applied to Oxy with this naive confidence I would find my people. My experience here differs from that of my peers. Interpersonal skills have never come naturally to me, and that made college tough for me. I was so quick to act on Oxy that I always asked myself, “Did I pick the right school?” I have concluded that there will never be a straightforward answer to this question.

I spent my first semester attending classes from my childhood bedroom. My scheduled afternoon classes felt like night classes, with the time difference. It got to where some of my days ended at 9:00 p.m. Between online classes and being a part of the Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) as a first-year class senator, blue-light glasses became necessary to survive my first year at Occidental.

My time at ASOC was short-lived, as I lost the passion and sense of community I felt during my first year, a common theme I later discovered was part of my Oxy experience. Feeling desperate for closeness, I joined a sorority in my second year, only for it to disband in early February. At that point, all I had to look forward to was studying abroad in the fall.

I never saw this as Oxy’s fault or anything Oxy, as an institution, did wrong. To feel isolated and on the outside looking in, I wondered if this was self-sabotage and that I would never find a community.

After returning from the high of being abroad in Rome, Italy, adjusting to life in America was more challenging for me than I thought. Still, I had to be optimistic. Coming from the other side of the country had its perks. I gained a sense of independence and felt confident enough to study abroad. I was comfortable being alone, making eating at the Branca patio or going to flea markets with myself as company less of a burden. Nevertheless, I felt myself isolating in my single room at Erdman, buying more yarn to crochet with instead of making plans to see friends. I did not want people to see me eat alone, so I often skipped meals at the Marketplace.

I joined The Occidental during my spring semester of junior year as a last resort to save myself from what felt like rock bottom. I knew nothing about journalism, but wanted to revive my love for photography. I already knew two people that were heavily involved at the paper, and they encouraged me to give it a shot as a staff photographer. At the end of the year, I realized that this was the community I longed for — found in the least expected place and least expected time I thought possible.

I always look back on my first year, wondering what having friends online meant and why they all left when we started school in person. But life is not a choose-your-own-adventure that you can restart, learning about every possible outcome. And if I had never come to Oxy, I would have never met the people I’m friends with, whether they are still in my life or are now strangers.

College was a time of growth, and I learned to give myself more credit for getting through my first year in a pandemic and finishing with a newfound hope different from what I felt after getting accepted into college. I learned that trusting your intuition is vital regarding the classes you like and the peers you gravitate towards. And yes, the imposter syndrome fades as you become an upperclassman.

Now, less than two months out from leaving Occidental and entering graduate school at Teachers College, Columbia University, I realized I can never truly leave New York. However, choosing a school closer to home would have been the safe route that would not have led me to where I am now.

I can’t help but think of where I started as an 18-year-old, collecting crystals in her room with a freshly shaved head, not knowing if I would ever set foot on campus because of the pandemic — now, I know I found everything I was looking for.

Contact Mali Abel at mabel@oxy.edu

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