I Loved High School and That Made Adjusting to College So Much Harder

Before you roll your eyes at the title (and what I know is a very, VERY unpopular opinion), just hear me out. Yes, I’ve always been unnecessarily nostalgic; and yes, graduation goggles are a real thing, but I truly did love high school. I loved knowing the names of almost everyone I passed in the hallways each day (studying the yearbook was a serious passion of mine), I loved being ignored by my younger brothers when I yelled a too-enthusiastic hi to them on my way to class, I loved my teachers and how well I felt I knew them by the end of the year, I loved my extracurriculars, I loved driving my brothers to school each morning (not that they talked to me then either), I loved the sports games (this was before I knew what a Notre Dame football game was like, of course) and I loved the very idea that I was in high school (thank you, High School Musical). 

Most of all, though, I loved my friends. I lived for the 10:57 am lunches we spent together, updating each other on the drama of the day and laughing about stupid stuff until our stomachs hurt. If you don’t believe me, just look at my graduation pictures. There isn’t a single one that isn’t ruined by my red, puffy, tear-streaked face (what can I say? Pomp & Circumstance…it really gets ya); and I cringe every time I see them. The complete emotional overwhelm I felt at what I knew was my life changing irreversibly before my eyes is so clear—my face in each of the photos screams denial and discomfort, as if I shouldn’t be there at that moment, that this shouldn’t be happening. I shouldn’t be graduating high school with a pit in my stomach, terrified for college and broken-hearted at the idea of leaving the life I loved so much behind. I shouldn’t be smearing my graduation makeup with hot, unstoppable tears as the horribly sentimental notes of Pomp & Circumstance swell in the background and I definitely shouldn’t be wishing I could stay in senior year forever, frozen in the time of post-college acceptance confidence and the freeing feeling of being friends with everyone after four long years together. 

While I knew my friends were special during high school (that’s why they were my friends, duh!), I didn’t understand that that wasn’t the norm until I got to college. So many of the people I met during the first few weeks of school said that they were just happy to get away from high school and all the friends that came along with it; and as a sad, homesick freshman in her first few weeks of college, this was the exact opposite of what I wanted to hear. I desperately wanted someone I could commiserate with on missing home and longing for the familiarity of old friends, to validate the heavy sadness I felt I wasn’t justified in having and to make me feel less alone in my grief. I was so mad at myself and so embarrassed that I even felt this way in the first place—I was at Notre Dame, the Notre Dame and despite all its magic, I still longed for my old life. My high school friends and I had always promised ourselves that we wouldn’t be the type of people to “peak” in high school, and now that I was finally out of high school, the possibility that I was going to be one of those people was so embarrassing. 

Everyone says that adjusting to college is “hard,” and they’re right. It is. It’s really, really hard, and I’m so happy that I never have to do those first few weeks again. But loving high school and all of my high school friends made it so much harder—even though I met so many amazing people in those first few weeks of college (many of whom are now my best friends), deep down, I was holding back. I irrationally believed that I could never again find friends as true and as important to me as my friends in high school, so why even try? College was so cool and new and exciting, but underneath it all, I was sad and anxious most of the time. I had never experienced anxiety before, and the constant and unexplainable sense of panic I felt all day every day in those first few weeks of school was impossible to bear by myself. I started going to therapy (as the Counseling Center so eagerly reminds me, college is the only time that health care will ever be free!) and I slowly began to feel more like myself. The panic in my chest subsided, and I was finally able to sleep through the night again. But my frustration at myself and my inability to adjust to college life persisted—even though I knew that adjusting to college is hard for everyone, it still seemed like I was dead last in the race to forget all about high school and embrace college with open arms. I explained all of this to my therapist during one of our early Monday morning sessions and his response completely changed the way I felt about myself in college. He explained that of course the adjustment was hard—I was “mourning” high school and with it, my old life. I had to give myself the space to grieve such a significant ending and I couldn’t keep hating myself for the way that I was feeling. I was lucky enough to have loved the life that I left behind, and not everyone can say that about their lives before college. 

Now, almost four months (but what feels like a lifetime) later, I can confidently say that I’m no longer holding back in college. I’ve made incredible friends here and I feel so lucky to have the college life that I do. I love it, but I also love home, and I will never stop loving my home friends—going home for Thanksgiving this year only confirmed that. I still get sad when I realize (for the millionth time) that my life will never be the way it was again, but it’s morphed into a different kind of sadness: a happy-sad, or as Kacey Musgraves so wisely puts it in her iconic song “Happy & Sad,” “happy & sad at the same time.” And I wouldn’t want it any other way. 

 

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