Imagine that you’ve just walked into King of Prussia Mall with a platinum Amex and no spending limit. Your goal is to update your fall wardrobe. The only condition is that you can only add ten pieces to your wardrobe. If you want anything more, you’ll have to get rid of something in exchange.
It sounds great at first. You quickly find ten things you love; you pick up an adorable sweater, some Steve Madden heels, and the first ridiculously-priced thing you find at Neiman that fits. After the first ten, things become hard. Is the cocktail dress from Neiman worth its place in the ten additions? Or is it worth getting rid of something you already have? Is your favorite worn-in hoodie deserving of the boot in exchange for a great pair of jeans?
The decisions become stressful. There are endless options, and each purchase decision becomes exhausting as you’re forced to weigh all of them again and again.
Okay, fine. Maybe shopping isn’t as high-stakes for you as it is for me (anyone who knows me knows I take it seriously!). Imagine shopping, however, not for things like shirts and shoes, but for values, beliefs, and morals. Welcome to college.
When I walked into the mall of UPenn, I was surrounded by an array of new activities, values, and beliefs, some of which I had never encountered before. Without the supervision of my parents and the constraints of living in a familial environment, I had the platinum Amex. I could do whatever I pleased. As a freshman, I wanted to update my life with the latest fashions. I wanted to branch out, become someone different, “find myself,” as they say.
I shortly found that even with the Amex of freedom, my spending was limited.
Like the “shopping trip,” I discovered that I would be unable to keep all of the fashionable things I found, at least not without giving something up. If I were to change my views on drug use, for example, I’d have to give up my long-standing belief that drugs were bad. If I were to decide that I believed hooking up was okay (not for myself but for others) I’d have to reconsider my view that it’s not such a great idea.
In other words, college quickly became a shopping trip through a bizarre Macy’s where I found ugly values that didn’t match my skin tone, values that looked much like the ones already in my closet, and values that looked good on the rack, but I wasn’t sure how they would fit. This isn’t to say that college is a place full of negatives. It’s just that you’re exposed to things that you might find really different. Some of them might be awesome. They might open your mind and might even become part of your daily life. Others, however, might challenge what you believe in on a fundamental level.
In such a confusing place, it would be easy to allow your values to slip, discarding them like an old tee-shirt, exchanging them for the values that are new and fashionable. This is why I believe the third person you need in your life during college is someone who helps remind you of your values.
I’ve never found myself seriously questioning a core part of who I am, or adopting a belief that I find morally problematic, but I think that is in part due to those in my life who consistently remind me of where I stand and what I stand for.
When I go back home, my friends and I catch up and share our college experiences. Part of this often entails sharing what we’ve encountered in college, leading us to discuss our values. I spent hours over summer break one night talking with one of my best friends, with whom I share a lot of similar viewpoints. I was refreshed by our conversation and reminded that although my beliefs and values might seem different and in some cases outlandish compared to those held by my peers in the college melting pot, not only are the choices I’ve made and beliefs I’ve chosen to hold not “weird,” they’re ones that I find satisfying and worth upholding.
I’m pretty lucky to find a similar support system in my family and boyfriend, and even my friends I’ve made here at Penn. While it’s important to experience new things and do a little “shopping,” at the end of the day what matters is that college has only allowed you to become a more well-cultured version of yourself, not a closet full of someone else’s clothes, to carry through the metaphor.
College can be a place for finding yourself. It can be a place for losing yourself, too. Tread lightly and assemble a good search party.