Life lessons will never stop following you. They don’t have an expiration date like the milk or cheese in your fridge. We are always learning, stumbling, and returning to standing on our own two feet every day, regardless of age.
I’m not going to act like I, a college senior at Pace University, possess all the answers about life that will enrich your own beyond reasonable comprehension. There is still much I need to learn, and will.
And yet, in the four years, I have been a university student, I’ve grown tremendously in ways I’m not sure I previously imagined. I walked into college a wide-eyed, excited, and hopeful freshman. In less than a year from now, I will be graduating – and there is so much I wish I could tell that same young girl. I can’t. I’ll tell you all instead.
Here are five life lessons that I took away from my four years at college:
1. You Will Lose and Gain People in Your Life
Some of the people I considered close friends at the beginning of university are not the same people I consider my best friends currently. Whether it was an old bestie from high school or someone I met in the first two seemingly magical weeks of university, I was always hyper-aware of when this person was becoming less of a fixed presence in my life.
The case as to why this happened varied from the individual. It could be we casually drifted apart as we discovered different groups we clicked better with, unpleasant confrontations that unearthed fundamental differences in our value system, or a lack of effort on one or both of our parts to keep the friendship spark alive as the mundane responsibilities of life took precedence. But mostly, we all know the truth simply is the older we get the more we grow – just not always with each other.
None of this makes me bitter anymore, but it used to. Watching friendships die out like a burning ember, or fall apart like collapsing infrastructure, can inspire a range of trust and abandonment issues. Sometimes you admit areas where you could have done better or areas where your old friend could have as well. But what it all returns to is the old fear that people will inevitably leave us when something, or someone, worthier comes around the corner. The old fear we will be left alone in an empty room, having no one to call on a Friday night to go out with.
Some of my most cherished friends now are verifiable proof that consistent, solid human connection will never stop being a possibility. I found different people to befriend when I was afraid forming friendships was a pointless endeavor. Weren’t they all going to end, anyway? We learn life lessons from past friendships that, for whatever reason, were not meant to last in the long run. We learn it is possible to balance your life and make time for your friendships that will lift you high. We learn it is possible to respectfully communicate disagreements and resolve them with the friendship remaining intact. We learn that friendships are not just constant gossip and getting plastered on the weekends, but mutual expressions of vulnerability, love, and enjoyment. We learn to assess honestly if this the type of person we want in our life, and we’re fortunate when we discover the answer is a resounding yes.
Life lessons like this teach us: yes, some friendships will come and go. But if you learn from each of them and keep pushing forward, you’ll discover more friendships with those who may be one of the people who will stay in your life long-term – as long as you both put in the energy and effort all great friendships need to keep flourishing.
2. Falling in Love Sometimes Means (Eventually) Falling Apart
College is one of our most culturally recognized signatures of the passage to adulthood. It’s the first time where we live independently away from home. It’s the first time we start taking serious steps and measures to ensure our future career. It’s also the first time many of us enter and develop long-term, committed relationships with other burgeoning young adults.
When I was in college as a freshman, it looked as if every single person was falling heedlessly in love with someone else – their roommate, their RA, their classmate, their new friend. I’ll save you the minutiae details of the joy, heartbreak, anger, tears, and some excruciating PDA I witnessed in this whirlwind of love, lust, freedom, and some raging hormones. But I will tell you I also fell in love my freshman year – hopelessly, passionately, ridiculously in love. It was with one of my best friends who I met at the start of college. He was unlike anyone I had ever met before. He still is.
We dated for two and a half years. I could write a whole other article about the life lessons I learned from that one relationship alone. To keep the history short: it was an amazing experience I would not trade for anything in this world. It was also an amazing experience that slowly morphed into a toxic one that needed to end for both of us. And when it did, it hurt.
You know that lyric from Bonnie Tyler’s classic 80s ballad “Total Eclipse of the Heart” that goes: “Once upon a time I was falling in love/now I’m only falling apart?” I don’t recall another singular lyric in my mental arsenal that so perfectly captures the spirit of a devastating breakup. I had a difficult time reconciling that someone who meant the world to me, who was my first real romantic relationship, who I shared such an extensive and intense experience with, was simply not in my life anymore.
Breakups are one of the most universally shared experiences of humanity. Everyone has gone through one. And everyone has also gotten through one. Because I eventually did get better, and I know the person reading this probably did too. Haven’t we all reached those points in a breakup where we realize the pain will rip us in half, but it won’t kill us? We start laughing more. We appreciate our friends and family more. We go on dates and recognize falling for someone else again is possible, even if we don’t necessarily want to be in a relationship right now with anyone – and that’s okay. We enjoy the benefits of being single. We start thinking of something else besides our ex when we wake up in the morning. When we remember the relationship itself, it still stings – but it’s not this piercing pain shooting through our chest anymore. And then one day we realize the breakup doesn’t hurt as much as it used to. We may not be completely over it, but we are moving on.
Life lessons like this teach us that the truth is it’s not always going to work out with the people we’re in love with. Sometimes heartbreak is inevitable just as relationships are. But the pain of a breakup is not the end of the world. It’s a survivable experience ripe for personal growth, and we will eventually reach a place of peace. (And rest assured that that person – the one who is it for us – is out there, somewhere. And they’re getting here as fast as they can. But I will totally flirt with the cute waiter while I wait for this other person, thank you very much. Life is short.)
3. There Isn’t a Moment Your Life Magically Falls into Place
No one knows what the hell they are doing in college. Don’t be fooled by the honor certificates, that intelligent student always raising their hand in discussion-based classes, or your friend working at a prestigious internship at a company related to their major. We’re all growing and achieving, facing setbacks and personal failures the average person we see on campus won’t know about. Everyone is nervous about the future, everyone is doubtful about some elements of their lives, and are just as human as you are.
In our social media-saturated world especially, nowadays it is overwhelmingly easy to compare our lives with someone else. This has a particular edge in college, a time where there is mounting pressure from all crevices to stack up an impressive resume and form a successful career by the time we’re 23. This can have us students reeling and feeling as though our life has to be in this picture-perfect place – and we perceive any wretches in our careful plan proof that we are going to somehow “fail” in life, despite being so young.
I thought all aspects of my existence were finally clicking into place when I was a sophomore and junior at Pace. So many parts of my life – the personal, the professional, the academic – were finally falling into place. I thought to myself that if I tried hard enough, the stability in my life could last forevermore. I almost genuinely believed I was done facing serious hardships and setbacks that could throw my plan into disarray. That obviously quickly turned out to be vastly untrue. From breakups to family crises to money problems to friendship drama, I realized a hugely important component of life is conflict – and managing unpleasant, stressful situations.
There is never going to be a time where everything is finally figured out, and we can throw up our feet on the table thinking we’re off the hook forever. My true peace of mind came only when I relinquished this idealistic picture in my head of what I – and my life – should look like.
Life lessons like this teach us: True peace comes when you learn to be content in the knowledge you’re trying your utmost best, and have the skills and strengths to handle whatever life decides to toss your way. Difficulties are part of being alive, especially as an adult in the world, and always will be – but they don’t have to keep us down. We can always keep moving, improving, and one day be happy with who we are. We need to take those steps in that direction ourselves.
4. There’s a Difference Between Being Fun and Being Irresponsible with Alcohol
There is a reoccurring joke on our campus: you know there’s a wild party being thrown when you hear the ambulance sirens several times throughout the night. It’s a quick way to cajole a couple of laughs out of students (especially dormers) but when you think about, there is a sinister undertone to this statement. It’s implicitly revealing that partying so hard you put your life in danger is excessively common on college campuses. We laugh about it instead of finding something deeply disturbing underlying that fact; a sign that something needs to change. None of us want to be in a position where we learn a life lesson by putting that very life in danger.
It’s almost considered a rite of passage to become blackout drunk at a college party as if that does not harbor serious implications for one’s health, safety, and wellbeing. According to the Alcohol Rehab Guide, an estimated 50% of college students binge drink and Consequences of College Drinking estimate that students between the ages 18-24 die from alcohol-related injuries every year.
It is very easy and understandable as to why excessive drinking on college campuses is so popular. We’re away from home for the first time. We’re finally free of adult supervision. We want to experiment with our limits and have fun, as we know we’ll never be this young again. Hardly anyone likes being that person at a party who doesn’t drink or smoke, or is the designated driver or is reminding everyone to make sure they eat before drinking and stay hydrated. We may even face peer pressure which, yes, does not completely disappear from social situations when one graduates high school.
Some of us find ourselves caught in bad patterns though. Excessive drinking every weekend is not a good thing for anyone. I’ve seen some friends of mine, and even strangers, throw up from drinking too much or even having to go to the hospital because of alcohol poisoning. Believe me when I tell you that when your friend is throwing up and can’t even speak a discernible word, their skin becoming ghostly pale, you’re not thinking about getting as wild as you can; you’re just hoping they live to see another day. It can be akin to a freezing bucket of iced water being poured all over you, waking you and thrusting you forward into reality. Living life to the fullest should not mean watching people you care about having to potentially be hospitalized – or being that friend.
This taught me a larger lesson about life in general, which is it is very possible and very necessary to have a good time without putting yourself, or anyone else, on a dangerous pathway. If that sounds impossible for some people, then they aren’t just a carefree and fun party animal. They’re reckless and irresponsible. Those are two traits you do not want to carry with you into adulthood, and it will become a lot less admirable by the time you’re a college graduate.
Life lessons like this teach us: we all make careless mistakes and we can all learn from them. Know your limit when it comes to things like drinking. Don’t confuse having fun with actively harming your health without a care in the world. It can very easily catch up with you.
5. Being an Adult is About More than Making Money
Having money is important. We live in a capitalist and corporate society; acting as though money isn’t a necessity is ludicrous. We need it to survive. It’s our main way of making it throughout this world. It’s why so many people grind hard to cultivate a decent, or even envious, career and lifestyle. Traits like determination, intelligence, responsibility, frugality, and being driven can be helpful and life-changing if we utilize and hone them in an effective and beneficial way and can teach us important life lessons to carry with us.
But society has so often used money as the only indicator of an individual’s success. Our worth is measured in the number of hours we work on our feet and the amount of lucrative professional opportunities our major allows. Of course, we fall into the trap of believing if we’re making money and working on a career path, we’ve finally unlocked the door to adulthood. That’s only partially true.
I have met, and even to an extent used to be, one of those people who ignored some unsavory aspects of their life and personality in favor of the grind mentality. We think we’re more mature than everyone because of our salary, our major, or our bulky resume that barely fits on one neat page. We look down on those who we think aren’t working on our level. But some of these same people can still throw a temper tantrum when they do not get their way. Some of these people run from their problems or distract themselves to an unhealthy degree instead of dealing with them. Some of these people point fingers at everyone but themselves when something goes wrong. Some of these people are rude and condescending, or an outright bully.
In other words: some of these people can act like children. They hadn’t grown up in some of the most essential ways yet. I saw for myself that becoming an adult was about more than getting a job. There were so many other life lessons involved. Becoming an adult was about actively making decisions, practicing healthy habits, about being mature and respectful even in our weaker moment, in taking accountability when we are in the wrong, in letting go of our superiority complex, in confronting what scares us most instead of hiding under the covers, hoping it will go away on its own.
Life lessons like this teach us: if we want to have a good transition into adulthood and not remain stuck in our old ways, we need to take an internal look inside ourselves and be brutally honest about what we saw. The truth can hurt, but as the cliche adage goes: it can also set you free.