10 Lessons I've Learned From College

I’m no expert on anything, really. I’ve spent the last four years of my life walking back and forth across the same university campus. My school is literally designed like a strip mall, meaning I’ve been walking the same half-mile long sidewalk full-time for four years. From lectures to meetings to meals with friends, this oblong rectangle and the single path within it has held an immeasurable amount of moments. 

I’ve definitely been learning this whole time. However, my experience learning at college was in every single place but the classroom. As a graduating senior and die-hard lover of reflection, here are the 10 most important lessons I’ve learned from my time in undergrad.

These lessons are all mostly hypothetical. Not everything is going to click with you, and that’s okay! You’re learning your own lessons. This is some of what I have picked up and remembered along the way.

 

1. Invest in Your Learning

Safe to say I learned very little transferable knowledge in any lecture attended over the past four years. It was easy for me to feel disheartened by this. Why is school not fun? Some classes are dull and unfulfilling. Some classes are with professors you won’t be able to stand. Some entire semesters may be entirely too frustrating. These chunks of imbalance are met with nuggets of goodness. One really phenomenal and driven professor can change your whole world-view. Though there is some to be gained by learning how to suffer, my most memorable college lessons were gained outside of the classroom.

I’ve learned about friendship from putting myself out there. From being vulnerable with new people. From introducing myself. Putting like-minded friends in the same room. Showing up to anxiety-inducing events. Existing in public. Distancing myself from peers that I don’t connect with as much as possible.

I learned about perseverance by pulling all-nighters in the library. Doing scary emotional tasks. Sleeping for forty minutes and then working an 8-hour shift. Going and going and going and going. 

I’ve learned about leadership by trial-by-fire. As a sophomore, I had more responsibility over others than I have any time before or after then. What does it mean to lead, and what does it mean to be lead? I reflected on this immense responsibility of leadership when I was in the thick of it. 

I learned about loss from heartbreak, love from friendship, struggle from immobility, humility from hubris and passion from teamwork. I’ve learned about impact from compliments and intention from causing and witnessing a lack thereof. 

You learn no matter what in college, and a shocking amount of learned behaviors are about relationships and interacting with others. Make hard decisions, take risks, and know that you will come out on the other side. Life’s a risk anyway.

 

2. Pass What You Can’t Carry

Some things you can’t let go of. However, it’s surprising to learn that the extra burden doesn’t always have to stay in one place. Sometimes these are mental health struggles and sometimes they’re obligations for things we’re involved in. It’s never a bad time to say you don’t have the capacity to do a task. Let as many good things as possible fill your days. 

Everyone I’ve met in college has been stressed beyond belief for different reasons at different times. In crisis, it’s impossible to carry all that weight on your shoulders. Let one person in to what is going on, and move from there. It’s never a bad thing to spread goodness and joy, but a part of finding that balance is practicing taking up space and asking for emotional or physical help. Sometimes it feels like you have nobody to talk to about problems or stresses--it’s worth it to take risks here. 

 

3. Assess Relationships Constantly

If something is supposed to stick around, you’ll find yourself putting in the work to keep it healthy. Everything needs attention, and it’s okay if there are way too many facets of your life and people you know to give them all 100%. It’s okay to practice setting boundaries. 

My dad told me, “if there’s smoke, there’s fire.” This kernel of wisdom came to me when it felt like my whole world was falling apart. If something is on it’s way out, it’s going to be gone at some point. This viewpoint reminded me of wildfires--that something so scary and destructive has to happen for forests and ecosystems to begin anew. Not everything leaving your life is going to leave because of fire, and not everything in your life is going to leave. Give water and love to that which feels good.

You’ll be able to tell if something, someone, or an experience leaving needs to stay gone. Trust your gut when saying goodbye to an obligation or a friendship or relationship. 

 

4. Some Seasons will Suck A Lot More Than Others

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Every semester and every summer and every weekend is going to feel entirely different than the one before it. That’s okay. Some stuff is going to be really, really rocky. Nothing, especially the worst things, will last for too long. Be gentle with yourself when things get hard. Be gentle with yourself when you’re hard on yourself. If you don’t like change, be gentle when it comes along. If you like change, prioritize small shifts every so often. If something or a season is turning sour, lean into what you’ve learned about yourself prior and wean yourself into a better headspace. 

In college, I’ve found myself in similar situations around the same time every year. Seasonal depression aside, sometimes even knowing small things like “oh, I’ll be in a hard science class next semester, so I’m going to go for a smaller role in this organization” can help ease any burden or mental distress. As your classes change, your housing situation changes, and your obligations change, let yourself shed potentially outdated habits. Practices and behaviors that helped you get through one season may be toxic or even just not helpful now, and that’s okay!

 

5. Take Up Space

I’m a very, very shy and equally as proud person. Taking up space sucks for anyone like me who hates feeling like a burden or asking for help. You’re going to have to eventually learn that taking care of yourself and being independent means letting people in to at least bounce ideas off of. If emotional unloading is the worst thing in the world, practice asking questions to professors or leaders. Start by asking questions for things you already know the answer to, so the bar is incredibly low. Ask for opinions in class. Get used to talking and from knowing that people are listening to what you’re saying and how you feel. 

From there, it will be easier to tell your friends any concerns you have. It will be easier to tell someone you have feelings for them. It will be easier to quit a job. It will be easier to seek therapy. It will be easier to open up. 

 

6. Practice Hard Things

Taking up space leads into this one pretty easily. Let’s say it’s time to end a relationship with someone. Whether that be a romantic or platonic situation, saying this string of really difficult words is going to be immensely harder if speaking your truth is already tough. I learned this lesson the hard way time and time again.

My experience in college nearly centered on practicing hard things. Though it may not seem like it from how much I overshare on the internet, I really really really struggle opening up about anything. I absolutely hate taking up space. I hate potentially causing strain on relationships, letting anybody down, or feeling needy.

Vulnerability is tough for me, but if honesty or commitment are hard for you to follow-through with, give those a try. You’ll get used to it before long, so don’t give up if it’s tough at first.

 

7. What’s Around You is What Matters 

Prioritize your living situation. Prioritize the professors you have. Prioritize members of your “normal” and chosen family that make you feel safe. 

Those who you spend the most time with will have the biggest impact on your mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. Live in a building with natural light in abundance. Live in a building with your friends if possible. Take classes with your friends...the list goes on.

 

8. Healing Sucks; Do It Anyway

What an absolute doozy! I came into college with some emotional density. Experiences throughout undergrad have also had their own weight and impact on my life and on my mental health. 

Healing, for me, was incredibly difficult to begin. Healing is also, if you would benefit from therapy or SSRIs, incredibly expensive. There are so many barriers for so many people preventing them from many ways to get help. There is largely no way around these barriers. If you’re in a tough spot and can’t afford therapy or medication, you are not alone. 

Whatever means by which you are working on healing, know that doing so is draining. Healing is exhausting. When I was putting some work in on myself, sometimes I felt almost worse than when I wasn’t healing. Of course, it was so incredibly worth it. 

 

9. Please Make Mistakes

I’m an ardent perfectionist. Every decision has been thought-out for hours. Every meeting has been planned with intentionality and feminism in mind. I wouldn’t dare say something risky with anyone. For years, I tried to not take up space and be as passive in spaces as possible. I didn’t want to deal with any consequences. I didn’t want to seem messy or to make a mess. 

What an absolute struggle it has been to learn how to not be perfect! Somehow, through all the healing and space-taking, I was able to slowly open up to others and to be myself in rooms and in conversations. 

Fail a class! Disappoint someone! Be stupid or silly! Any mess you make you can clean up! Whatever! Just know when to apologize and understand that any situation is able to be overcome. It’s gonna be okay--be yourself anyway. 

 

10. Balance is Not Stability

I tend to dive off the deep end with things - throwing myself into them and letting everything about it consume as much as it can. For a while, I despised this part of me for leading me into dark and challenging situations. I tried to be the same person in every room, all the time. I tried to be a rock for others to lean on, a leader in every room and a good person at all times.

When I was “stable,” I wasn’t asking for help when I needed it. I wasn’t showing signs of crisis visible enough for anyone to read. I wasn’t leaning onto people or asking for help from professors or delegating responsibilities for clubs. 

Balance is not stability. Balance is falling off the beam over and over again for different reasons. Balance is knowing how many hours of sleep you need and going out with friends anyway. Balance is wearing a bold outfit because you’re feeling good in your skin. Balance is pulling an all-nighter for school and giving yourself a day off to rest. Balance is learning how to give your energy to where you want it to go. Leading with dignity. Speaking with honesty. 

Over winter break one year I farmed in southern Ireland in County Cork. I started farming days after my semester spent studying in Bologna, Italy, and I was absolutely exhausted in every way. One of my roommates at the time, an incredibly intelligent woman from Germany named Lea, knew that I was in the midst of a gigantic recalibration. She painted a poster for me that read “Balance comes in the moments when you stand up for the life you truly want for yourself by making choices that align with that.” 

How your body needs balance will change per season. Give yourself time to recalibrate with each big shift. Test your balance, make a mistake, and get back on track. Listen to what’s going on, and figure it out afterwards.