When you’re in college, it’s impossible not to think that the entire world revolves around you. It’s all about your needs, your studies, your career ambitions, your vacation time, your value as a person. This isn’t an accident, but an intrinsic feature of college life. It’s all about putting yourself in the position to acquire the opportunities that will allow the best version of yourself to shine through.
This becomes immediately apparent when you look at the whole dating-relationship structure in college. Between 2006 and 2010, I knew maybe about 20-25 real boyfriend-girlfriend pairings. This may seem like a pretty big number, but considering the size of Brown, it’s really not. Everyone else I knew was hooking up, often with many different people at the same time (and sometimes simultaneously). The idea of going out on a date was totally archaic by Brown standards, and hooking up allowed you to maximize gains with minimal effort. Again, a very self-satisfying approach to “love” that only focuses on ME and I.
The spectrum of, for lack of a better word, selfishness ranges from blowing off your roommate’s birthday dinner to study for a midterm to drinking to pushing your drinking limit every weekend to see how high your tolerance can go. It’s almost as though you feel like you’re immortal. Nothing…not a single consequence…could ever come back to get you. Carpe diem. #YOLO.
But, then it hits. At some point in your college career or early twenties, the “real world” punctures a hole in your college bubble, and you start to realize that you’re not invincible, it’s not always about you, and you probably won’t live forever.
I can give you two moments in my life that really hit that home for me.
During my senior fall in 2009, I was totally obsessed and preoccupied with trying to line up a job. I literally attended almost every info session my career center offered, and I think I got accepted to interview on campus with 10 different companies. In addition, I was also taking 4 insanely time-consuming classes, including Arabic. Between Urban Regimes, Globalization, and Shakespeare, I am pretty sure I wrote 30 papers that semester. And, I had all of my extracurriculars piled on top of that.
It really was all about me.
The fall of 2009 was also the time when a lot of universities were dealing with the fallout from the H1N1 outbreak, also known as Swine Flu. It hit its peak around the end of November, and I distinctly remember coming down with it. No illness I have had up to this point can account for the total fatigue that I felt when I had Swine Flu.
I recovered after a week, went off for Thanksgiving, and came back in December for the insane long haul that would be my finals period. 10 of the 30 papers I had to write that semester would be due in a span of 2.5 weeks, and I slept maybe 4 hours a night…being the last to go to bed and the first to rise on my floor. I had very little tolerance for anyone who tried to complain about their workload because quite frankly I was attempting to do the impossible–none of my professors would allow me to get an extension.
It was the night before my last paper was due– a 20 page monster of an essay on the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. I was making good time, considering I had started writing the paper at noon, and I had about 3 pages left to write at 11 PM. I went on Facebook in order to treat myself. Immediately, the first five or so statuses I saw said “Prayers for Lillian.”
It took me a few seconds to think of which Lillian it could possibly be, and when I clicked on her profile, my eyes widened and I started to sob uncontrollably. Lillian, was the only sister of my best friend from 5th to 10th grade. She was a girl I had grown up with, had gone to the mall and had water fights with, and had witnessed her go from girl to woman at her bahtmitzvah. And she had passed away due to complications created by Swine Flu.
I hadn’t seen Lillian or her sister for years, but I knew that Lillian had transformed from the shy little girl with long brown hair into a vibrant actress and performer. She was extremely popular in high school, and as a freshman, she was friends with more people in my senior class than I ever was.
She got accepted to UNC, Chapel Hill in the spring of 2009 and had just begun her first semester freshman year of college. Already, she was going places, and from what I could gather on Facebook, she was making every attempt to live life to the fullest. Yet, all of that was cut down, by a stupid version of the flu.
I don’t know how I did it, but somehow I managed to finish my last paper and email it off. Then, I called my mom up at 2 AM, told her what happened, and sobbed on the phone with her until 4 AM. It felt as though I had lost my own sibling, and I couldn’t shake the sadness that I felt.
In the weeks to follow, after attending Lillian’s funeral, heading to China, and returning for my spring semester, I couldn’t help but feel a sort of helplessness and also a sort of emptiness. Almost, a lack of purpose. It seemed as though everything I was working for, everything I wanted seemed so trivial compared to the grand scheme of things. What was the point of studying all of this nonsense when it had nothing to do with what I wanted to do with my life? Why did I care so much about finding a job and what other people thought of it? Had I just spent 4 years staring at a single tree without scoping out forest? Did I waste my time?
In the fall of 2011, 2 years older, I began my first semester of law school at Georgetown University. There were a lot of rules to follow and there was a correct way to “do law school,” and I was obsessed with making sure I got the most out of my law school career and didn’t squander my time the way I did in undergrad.
My first two months, I absolutely loved law school. It was hard work, but I loved the challenge of trying to figure out what was going on in the cases and of finding loopholes in statutes. Yet, at some point at the end of October, I did start to get completely disenchanted with the fact that my entire career path depended on my grades from my first year of law school. By the way, the only grades we got were based on our final exam, which was 100% of our semester grade. No pressure or anything.
I also started to get really sick and tired of just spending every single night doing the same thing over and over again: reading 5 cases a class, highlighting the holding, writing up the case brief, writing up the rule in my outline that was the size of a fairly large hornbook. I was so bored that not even the Contracts case about the chicken size dispute could hold my attention.
I was starting to feel some of the same feelings I felt right after Lillian passed away. What was the point of all this?
Around that same time, my father began to get very seriously ill. No one could figure out what was wrong with him. Every two weeks or so he would go through a cycle of high fevers, chills, nausea, coughing, etc. He got shipped off to everyone from a Physician to an Ear and Mouth specialist to Infectious Diseases to Oncology.
Things were starting to get rough at home in Rhode Island. My dad had to stop working because he was constantly sick. My brother was struggling with school and was considering dropping out to get home-schooled. My mom was crumbling under the pressure of dealing with my dad, my brother, and all of my unhappiness with law school.
Come December, I really couldn’t take it anymore. Living in DC while my family was struggling with the uncertainty of my dad’s illness was killing me inside. I was fed up with the bullshit that was all of the rules and procedures of “doing law school right,” and I didn’t even study for my Contracts exam the night before (and miraculously got an A-).
I peaced out of DC straight away, and I spent most of my winterbreak taking care of my dad and my family. Towards the end, he started to get a lot better because the doctors had prescribed him steroids, which seemed to be suppressing whatever illness he had. I was ambivalent about returning back to law school at this point, partially because I was kind of over it and partially because I was still worried about my family. Eventually, my dad did convince me to get on that plane to DC.
I lasted a little less than a week into my second semester when I got the call that my dad was getting sick again. In a moment of stealth, I quickly moved out of my apartment (it was owned by Gtown so I could do that) and flew back to Rhody within the week. I took a leave of absence and moved back in with my family.
It wasn’t until March 2012 that my dad was finally diagnosed with stage IV Lymphoma. After traveling with him up and down the eastern seaboard for 3 months, we finally felt a sense of relief in at least knowing what kind of animal we were dealing with. He underwent extensive chemotherapy and is currently on the Recovery side of the spectrum.
I think had I stayed in law school for my second semester, I probably would have regret every single day I was there and not with my family in Rhode Island. At the time, which actually was not that long ago, I thought I was being a total chicken…that I was just giving up and not finding a way to do it all. I fell into the trap of thinking I was invincible.
But, I wasn’t. I couldn’t handle all of the turbulence at home while dealing with the turbulence of law school. And my family needed me. Law school seemed like such a silly, frivolous exercise in making me into an unnecessarily competitive self-involved person, and I didn’t like that I was reverting back to my undergrad senior fall self. My dad’s illness really made me feel a lot of apathy towards law school, and even though I’m still on a leave of absence, I don’t think I’ll go back.
So, that’s my story, which is obviously still a work in progress. But I think, and I’m starting to appreciate this more and more now that I’m a teacher, is that it’s so important to take “ME” out of “TEAM.” Devoting your life to other people, to making them do better, is truly so much more fulfilling even though it seems like a risky endeavor. But, in truth, take a look around you at your college campus and genuinely ask how people are doing. If you see someone stressing out or on the verge of tears, talk to them, help them out, offer up your time even though it may cut into what you want to do. It well help open up your bubble, so that when reality hits, it won’t hurt as much.