In a recent conversation with a beloved professor of mine, I asked “Why are you answering emails at 11 p.m.? What are you, an undergraduate?” Now mostly I was being cheeky at the fact that my very-much-past-undergraduate-aged professor was answering emails way past times ordinary laborers consider ‘working hours’; yet I think that, beneath the surface, my question got at something noteworthy—the character of the undergraduate experience.
Undergrad is a truly unique experience. Think about it: the average undergrad spends four years learning, crying, stressing, growing, laughing, partying, spiraling, falling in and out of love, enduring, throwing up, missing home, replying to emails in the wee-small hours of the morning and night and making new connections while severing old ones, all within the same few thousand square feet of a campus. Unless said undergraduate attends New York University (NYU), in which case, the undergraduate does all the above in the borough of Manhattan—but I digress.
I do not think we spend enough time nor brain power truly appreciating how unique this experience is. I think that such an experience is acutely enhanced on a small campus, such as Brandeis, in a small college town, being Waltham, as all our life is utterly consumed by this place—for better or worse. Sure, many of us travel home during breaks, some spend summers out of state and many choose to study abroad for a semester or a whole year. Yet, the nature of the undergraduate—the modes of thinking and being—transcend the physicality of Waltham, Massachusetts.
What I am getting at is that undergrad is a completely unique period of life. Now, obviously, this can be said for most, if not all, periods of life, as each can be categorized through its differentiation from the rest. However, I think undergrad’s effect on our habits, the kind of creatures it turns us into and the profound effect it often has on the trajectory of our lives makes the period particularly distinct.
I think it all starts at the beginning. For many, though importantly, not all, undergrad marks the first time one truly leaves home. You know the old phrase, one “leaves the nest” when they go gallivanting off to college. This is no small feat, especially given how many students here were raised by nice Jewish mothers who poked, prodded and/or pampered them throughout the last 18 years of life. Even for those who did not have such upbringings, of which I am one (though my mother is indeed Jewish, she is also an Israeli, and that makes all the difference), leaving home for the first time is jarring. Even if it is not ‘hard,’ leaving home and being semi-independent; being wholly responsible for you, your relationships and your unexpected trips to the pharmacy or a local office of the Department of Homeland Security is something which takes some time to adjust to for most. Even for those who were expected to be independent from a young age, things come up, shit happens, you cannot predict all the bumps in the road.
The experience only gets more exceptional from there. For instance, housing? Try and name one other period in life when most people are expected to live with another human being(s)—whose personality, background and habits they are completely unaware of—for nine months. Exactly.
Although, in the ways I have just discussed, undergrad necessitates that one makes some kind of a jump from nearly holistic dependence on their parents to some degree of self-sufficiency, private universities in the States lend most students an incredible amount of freedom from adult life. Many students do not yet have relationships that demand serious tradeoffs (no, the so-called “love of your life” which you began seeing four months ago does not count); many do not pay rent at all, or if they choose do so, it is not until their third or fourth year (which is often partly subsidized or paid for entirely by their parents); finally, the major-track often provides just enough structure for a student to graduate within the standard four years but also provides one with the flexibility to take classes which simply stir curiosity. Obviously, I have taken the liberty to make some generalizations here, but you get the gist.
I think this freedom is among the most uniquely exciting things about undergrad. We are given the freedom to study whatever, whenever and however we choose. Nobody else picks your major but you, no one chooses your classes but yourself, no one forces you to write a thesis or embark on a capstone. This is all self-chosen. The autonomy to do or not to do is wholly your own and that liberty is so rare in our lives.
We live in times of should-do, ought-to-do and have-done or actively-doing. Undergrad marks a distinct period in which those choices are forked. What I mean is that the undergraduate makes the choice regarding whether they should or should not do x, ought to or ought not to try y or have to agree or disagree to z. Simply put, these choices are not available to you in grad school, med school or law school. In those institutions of higher learning, many of those choices are already made for you or are presented to you in such a manner that eludes you into believing you have some choice in the matter, when, in actuality, you likely do not.
I think we neglect the liberty of undergrad much too often. I have been thinking a lot about this lately as I am nearly finishing my second year here at Brandeis. In the interest of being frank, I hate how fast time is flying by. Time is most definitely not of the essence. Dafka, time really ought to consider taking its sweet time in these next two years because, so help me God, I am not ready to leave this place.
Real talk, I love Brandeis. I love this university with all of my demented heart and half-crazy mind.
I could have never predicted how much I would adore my time here. This university was not my first choice when I was making my college decision and yet, looking back now, knowing the kind of person I have become and the sheer amount of intellectual development I have undergone because of the material I have been exposed to here, I could not imagine myself anywhere else. I know we often laugh (and let us be honest, gag) at being referred to as ‘Brandeisians,’ but I cannot help but think that this title encapsulates all that I am and all that I hope to become.
Now, here I will posit that I am incredibly lucky to have had this kind of experience at Brandeis. I know that not all students have this experience here, and my comments on the university should not be read as a universal narrative on student life. Nor will I say that my experience has been flawless, because of course it has not been. No place is perfect, and no l’effet de réel one has is a fairytale. Life is not La La Land. However, as far as I can tell, I think Brandeis has been as close to spontaneous singing and ballroom dancing as I could ever hope to get.
Here I am free to study as I please, to think as I would like, to learn from who inspires me most, to love as I am inclined, to party and cry and spiral and stress and endure to my heart’s and mind’s end. Is that not a lovely little liberating thought? Who would ever, in their right mind, want to give this up? Evidently, those who still reply to emails at 11 p.m. never did.
I think I can understand why. Why would we ever want to give such liberty back? I want to feel this free, let us be frank, this untethered forever. Think of all that I could do. And yet, we know that, given the progression of time, I will not be this unrestricted forever. The time will come when I will go on to higher education, have ‘a real job’ and will likely have to account for another person’s interest other than my own when making a potentially life-altering decision.
So, where does this leave us? Well, at least as a start, I like to remind myself, carpe diem: “seize the day … make your lives extraordinary.” Even in 1989, Robin Williams knew. Read some Camus or Sartre or Nietzsche and you will know what comes next. Have the will to power some form of life in the undergraduate period that makes you excited to live each day that you have left in this unique time of life. It all sounds corny, but that is what reading existentialist literature does to an individual, so do not kill the messenger (or in this case, the writer).
Have a great summer, all. “And when we meet again, introduced as friends,” I hope that you all have had a relaxing summer and have perhaps given second thought to your time in this charming, bizarre and ever-unpredictable place.