Defining the typical college experience

I won’t insult your intelligence by dropping the words “hooking up,” “beer pong” or “Twitbook” like those white-haired pundits do every time they’re trying to connect with our generation.Lately, the tone of wittier-than-thou bloggers, lofty New York Times columnists and Asher Roth songs have made me overly sensitive — and possibly overly self-critical — to the cheesiness that inevitably becomes a part of the discussion of college.And we’ve all heard the one-liners: “College is what you make of it!”  “These are the best four years of your life!”  “Don’t worry, you’re going to grad school anyway.” While I appreciate people telling me how to feel, I think we need something a few words longer than the advice from a fortune cookie.Maybe I’m alone. Or maybe I’m not the only 17- to 23- year-old who’s made more anxious by the conflicting messages — the paternalistic and entirely too simple kernels of “what college is or means” — while I’m already struggling with tough life choices and outfit decisions.Consider this: an exhaustive 1986 Carnegie Foundation study found that 90 percent of high school students and 88 percent of parents related a college education to finding a job.  It’s painfully clear that more than just Reaganomics and big hair have faded since the ‘80s. The importance of a college experience as a period of social and personal development has become so obvious and accepted that Mark Twain’s quote, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education,” has become a touchstone of convocation speeches, residence hall bonding initiatives and professors’ late-paper policies nationwide.We’re told the mosaic of academics, a social life and getting to know yourself should be seamless: getting an education, meeting the friends you’ll have for the rest of your life and realizing you’d rather be President than a doctor seem to all be pieces of the “normal college experience.”Stand a little closer to the mosaic and pretty soon, the little jagged edges of the stones and the grout that holds them all together become apparent. And instead of a step-by-step assembly sheet, we’re left to freehand what we hear the experience is supposed to be like. (And putting mosaics together is sticky, confusing and frustrating.)But therein lies the beauty: the stickiness, confusion and frustration give way to a work of art, no two of which are alike.  College is complicated. It’s not just about hooking up, getting a degree or figuring out what you’re going to do after graduation. In fact, it’s not about anything—until you decide it is. It’s time to shush everyone else’s idea of what this period is supposed to be. It’s time we make sure that we’re each living our own mosaic of a Normal College Experience, and not Asher Roth’s or anyone else’s.