Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Declaring Your Independence

When we talk about teenagers growing up and becoming independent, it usually refers to monetary independence or living on your own. But after a semester of college, I've found different kinds of independence that are important to develop during, or better yet, before you hit college.

1. Health and Self Maintenance Independence
This seems obvious, but between classes and work and social life and planning out your future, it's easy to forget to take care of yourself. Sleep and showers and food are important, people. Food has always been something I'm good to let go of. On my nineteenth birthday, I woke up sick for the first time that semester. After vomiting breakfast and lunch, I decided food was a bad idea, and didn't eat that day or the next. That's a legitimate reason for missing a day and a half of food, but I kept extending it. I ate eight meals in five days (including the ones that didn't stay in my stomach) before I got back on a normal food schedule. I wish I'd learned more about taking care of myself before I came to college.
Sometimes parent can be a barrier to self maintenance. At age three I was diagnosed with a hair loss condition called alopecia areata. This causes my hair to fall out in patches and grow back a few months later. Most girls I know were doing their own hair each day by late elementary school, but my mother wouldn't let me until I was eighteen. Once, in middle school, I ran off to catch the bus while she was still brushing my hair. I was called down to the office during homeroom. She was standing there with a hairbrush, ready to finish what she'd started. I could fix my own hair if it was Saturday and I intended to stay home, but that was it.
During my senior year, I started answering "Do you want me to do your hair?" with "I didn't ask you to, what makes you think I want it?" If my mom pointed out a hair flaw, such as a bald spot or bump I'd created by combing my hair to hide one, I'd refuse to fix it. I shut the bathroom door the morning of my graduation and, for the first time in my life, did my own hair for an event. I wish I would've started my hair independence quest long ago.
Me on the left
These are special circumstances and you'll have different ones. Every day I meet college boys who have yet to discover deodorant. I pass girls who don't have a lick of fashion sense. And yes, people can tell the difference between "I don't know how to dress myself" and "I was up until three last night and didn't have time to care how I look." Health problems, especially mental illness, becoming challenging in new ways when you're living on your own. Whatever is hard for you, learn to take care of it before you need to.

2. Ideological Independence
I took a government class in my last semester of high school. In the first week, we were assigned little strips of paper with issues on them and signed up for presentation dates. We were supposed to present the pros and cons of the issue, state our own views, and then moderate a discussion between our classmates. Usually that didn't happen. The presenter would mumble a few key facts from google and then perch in the teacher's chair while three of us debated: Liberal Girl, Conservative Boy, and yours truly.
Sometimes the brief presentation consisted of sentences starting with "My mom says..." or "My dad told me...". Once a boy stepped to the front and apologized. He wasn't able to put together a good presentation because "My parents are out of town."
All but a few of us turned eighteen over the course of the semester. Some voted at the beginning of the school year, we were all able to do so this year, and next year we'll pick a president. Young adults over the age of eighteen can't vote if they didn't have opinions as teenagers. I don't pretend to be a political expert. I care about issues more than candidates and really only understand a few issues in depth. But when it comes time to vote, I can vote for someone who feels the same about the issues that matter most to me.
When I'm troubled by an issue, I research and weigh it from both sides. Then I talk it out with people. I trust, usually my parents. I can't tell you how many times in high school my mom and I would sit on the couch arguing about the LGBT movement. We're both pro-traditional, but they were arguments nonetheless. We'd sit there for an hour jabbering about why we support what we support and whose reasoning was better. Liberal Girl told me once that I must be conservative because "that's just how you were raised." Wrong. I know she comes from a liberal family herself, but like me, she became socially conscious in middle school and started finding her own answers. You can't help if your views match up with your parents, but you can help whether you have views of your own or not.
This doesn't just apply to politics. If you are a person of faith, it's necessary to obtain your own testimony instead of relying on your parents. Know for yourself what is true and how those truths should govern your life, which brings me to number three.

3. Moral Independence
Back in my elementary school days, a DARE officer told us that if we were offered drugs, we should respond "No, dude, my mom would kill me." But that's only good so long as you're living in your parents' house. Even in high school it only half works. You and your friend both know you could keep drug use from your parents if you really wanted to. So you have to really want to.
You could try to invent a college equivalent of this excuse. "My RA would kill me." Now invent a curfew college equivalent too for when your date's pushing the limits. "My...building locks at midnight and I lost my ID card, so...I can't swipe myself in. Gotta go." But those excuses will only work while you're a freshman living in dorm housing."
The parental shield is handy if you want to avoid trouble without convincing your friends you're boring. And be a liar. What's the point of getting out of a morally compromising situation if you have to lie doing it? Figure out what your standards are and stand up for yourself.

4. Lifestyle Independence
When people ask where I'm from and the answer is Utah, lots of them follow up with "So do you go home a lot?" My answer is a flat no.
I live thirty eight minutes by freeway from my home base. Sometimes I have doctor appointments that can't be done at the student health center of local hospital. So when one of those comes up, I go home, but I don't make a day of it. I get on the freeway sometime between 11:00 and 1:00 at night. I say hello to my dog, pick up an outfit I left there last time, and sleep. At 8:00 AM I go to my appointment and I'm back at school just in time for my 11:00 o'clock class.
I went back to see a movie with a friend. My roommate paid for gas once so I'd take her to a party near my hometown. But other than that, I only meet up with my family for holiday breaks and big events.
One of my roommates last semester asked nearly every weekend if I was going home. I thought she'd catch on after a while, but she never did. Meanwhile she met up with her grandparents every Sunday for family dinner. All the out of staters have some sort of aunt or grandma nearby. What's the point of moving out if you're going to cling to your family?
If you live at a college close to home, people will treat you as if you're still around. The mother of one of my high school friends texted my mom, asking her to ask me to find a date for her daughter that weekend. I couldn't even find a date for myself when a friend asked me to double with her over winter break. A different friend, my unofficial self-appointed mentee from our church youth group, asked me to join her for their annual ice skating activity. I had to explain to her that I couldn't just show up to youth group events when I wasn't a part of it anymore. You have to build a whole new life for your self. Living half in one and half in another won't cut it.

5. Social Independence
My friend Jessi thought it would be a good idea to room with a high school friend. That way she wouldn't have to deal with the craziness that comes from living with a random stranger. This friend had a boyfriend who was off serving an LDS mission for two years. Before he left, she wrote in his journal that she would marry him as soon as he got home. Then she began dating a boy she found at college. Things escalated quickly. One night she disappeared. When she came back, Jessi discovered her roommate had taken a road trip to Vegas and eloped at a drive thru chapel. Instead of emailing her ex-boyfriend to let him know she was taken, she let him keep thinking he could come home to her for several weeks post-wedding. Eventually Jessi had to Dear John him for her.
This is an extreme example, but just because someone was a good friend to you in high school doesn't mean you can count on them once you hit college. My graduating class was six hundred and twenty five. One semester later, I'm only in contact with two of them. You need to learn how to make new friends.
I'm in on-campus dorm housing and have to take nearly all my meals in the cafeteria. After one week, I was disgusted by all the people choosing to sit alone. Not because they were sitting alone, but because I'd go to weekly hall meetings and church meetings to hear them talking about the struggles of being alone. If you sit in the back corner table of the cafeteria behind the partition, you are asking to be alone. That's fine if you're the solitary type, but don't do that to yourself and whine about it at the end of the week.
Sometimes I go to the cafeteria with people. Usually I'm alone. Unless I'm in a hurry, in the middle of a crisis, or so sick that I can't talk, I sit with a random person every meal. If they get up and leave, I find a new friend. Sometimes I eat with four single-table people over the course of one meal. This way I meet at least three new people a day. Some become friends and I'll seek them out again. Most give me the companionship I need for the space of one meal, then they're gone forever. On the rare days when I chose to eat alone, I have never been approached by someone trying to make a friend. I think you're justified in feeling lonely then, when you reach out constantly and no one reaches back, but don't complain when you're bringing it on yourself. You are responsible for your own social life.

Independence is a multifaceted achievement. Learning to take care of and stand up for yourself is more important than supporting yourself by far. College will throw you into alien situations and you have to build up a new skill set to deal with them. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

College and Complaint Culture

For the first month of college, I was sure American Heritage class would be the death of me, and I wasn't even taking it. Everywhere I went, people were complaining about it. When I told somebody "I'm stressed about a test on Friday" or "I have to go write a paper", they would automatically assume it was for American Heritage. Never mind that our school offers a few thousand others courses. If my test stress or assignments coordinated with their American Heritage schedule, they'd assume I was in the class too.
There's required, and then there's required. Most general education requirements give you a lengthy dropdown list. "You need a civilzations course? Okay take philosophy or music or theater or art history or or or-" but American Heritage only gives you American Heritage. There are a few ways to get out of it. My New Zealand born, U.S. permanent resident roommate told me she planned on putting it off as long as possible and would try to make the multicultural student center acknowledge her as an international student so she could take an easier course. But most of us don't have a hope.
For a long time, I assumed American Heritage must be some monstrous class. Then I realized the real reason everyone complains about it: everyone's taking it!
This means:
1. I'm statistically more likely to run into a student who complains about American Heritage than any other class, say, Survey of Judaism and Islam.
2. Misery loves company. People are more comfortable commiserating when they know everyone around them has the same problem.
3. Since there's no decision making involved, lots of freshmen take it their first semester, especially the ones who didn't decide on a major while still in high school. Living in freshman housing, I experienced the brunt of it.
My first day of American Heritage is Monday. I've decided not to complain about it anymore than my other classes. Just because I'm going to college doesn't mean I have to be part of collegiate complain culture.
I recently downloaded Yik Yak, an app similar to Whisper, which college students occasionally use to make witty insights about student life, but mostly complain about homework and talk about sex. I was disappointed. I discovered Yik Yak through their facebook page, where the wittiest responses from colleges all over the world were reposted so people outside the OP's radius could enjoy them. Once I had the app, it was all things I didn't need to hear.
When I was fifteen, I did a community theater production of Cinderella. Some kind of backstage drama put me in a mood during rehearsals one day, so I went and hid behind a ladder to sulk. Allan, my eleven year old castmate, found me there. "What are you doing?" he asked.
Since he was willing to listen, I spewed this rant about hating everyone and everything about the play. He sat through it. Then, the instant I was done, he asked me honestly, "Then why did you audition?"
That got me thinking. I could quit. I knew a few people who'd done so. But I was already there, and I'd come there because I knew there were things about the show I'd enjoy. The production hadn't taken some drastic turn that would stop me from enjoying them. It was simply everyday stress and drama. So I crawled out of my ladder corner and rejoined the cast.
Four years later, I can't remember what sent me behind the ladder, but I remember Allan's question. I remember that it was a question, not unsolicited advice. He was honestly bewildered at why I'd choose to do something I hated.
You can choose to not do something you'll hate, or you can choose to not hate something you do. It's hard. Life is hard. During finals week, I decided to stop complaining about finals, but that was the only topic of conversation and there's no positive way to spin it. I had my complaints during my first semester, and I'm sure there will be more this coming term, but I think there will be a lot less. I've snapped to certain realizations.
I have friends who aren't in college. Some lack the money, some the motivation, some have pressing mental health problems, and some are simply doing other things with their lives at the moment. But all of them chose not to go. And that reminds me why I chose the opposite.
Not for the dating scene. Not to move out of my parents' house. Not even to get a degree that would lead me to a higher paying job. I came to college because I wanted to learn.
Before I left for college, a neighborhood woman told me, "Everyone should be able to go to college three times. Once for all the classes you need to take, once for all the fun classes, and once for all the club and social activities." I thought that was crazy. Why stay any longer than you have to? Why lust after the whole buffet when sampling a few from each tray will fill you up just fine?
But now I get what she was talking about. I spend at least an hour or two each week pouring over the course schedule looking at what I could take. Instead of doodles, my notebook margins are full of dozens of versions of my four year plan. I want to take political science, child development, archaeology-but all those are out because I'm already doing psychology. There's a nutrition class? Why didn't I discover that before I took plant science for my biology credit? Just one arts class? Really? Why am I using my high school AP credit when I could've had excuse to take women's studies or World War II? Honestly, I don't know why everybody talks about their generals as a burden. I'm kind of pissed off that I need to have a major.
I'm here for four years. Well, unless I use the Speed Student version of my four year plan I cooked up in the margins of my physics notebook. Oh, did I mention there's an entire physics class around time? I might as well enjoy those four years while I have them.
Last month, my cousin Melissa, who is graduated, married, and the mother of two children, invited me down for dinner and a girls' night. While we were trying to decide what to do, she suggested going to a lecture at her city's art museum. I was surprised and a little weirded out. Go to a lecture? For fun? I'd been going to lectures all day. That's when it really hit me how valuable learning is to someone who's no longer in that stage of life.
To all my teen reader friends who are considering going to college, do it. If it is at all possible with your financial situations and compatible with your life circumstances, go. You won't regret it.
Yes, I have hard days, but I could have hard days anywhere. Different types of hard days, but hard days still. I chose to have them here.
So I'm going to enjoy school while I have the chance.