When I signed my first-ever sublet agreement this week for summer housing, I had to make a confession to the leaseholder: I couldn’t offer him payment right then, because I don’t own a checkbook. He didn’t mind, but the implications of that admission seemed to run much deeper for me. What am I doing signing this contract if I don’t own a checkbook? I’m trying to pretend I’m a grown-up, but I’m clearly doing a terrible job.
As of late, I’ve felt acutely aware of my place on the bridge that traverses the gap between adolescence and adulthood — and it seems as if this metaphorical bridge is missing a few planks. Certain activities feel farcical, like a child playing house. When I go to doctor’s appointments and present my own insurance card, when I schedule lunch dates and meetings with professors, when I dress in business attire for important interviews — in all these situations, I’m certain everyone sees how ridiculous I look. I’m just out of high school, putting on my best front of maturity.
Recent studies, articles and even feminist campaigns have popularized the concept of “Impostor Syndrome,” when an individual is convinced his or her accomplishments are undeserved or fraudulent and that the rest of society views them as such. My handle on adulthood feels similar — even the responsibilities for which I am prepared seem to me like superficial attempts to break out of adolescence. This seems like a pretty universal side effect of the freshman transition to college life. It’s one that remains difficult to solve, no matter how many times I Google search: “How to Pretend to be a Grown Up.”
The university system, particularly the type of undergraduate environment found at Yale, is a major force in shaping this conflicted sense of personal adulthood. On the one hand, the climate for undergraduates is nurturing, concerned and in many ways parental — decanal check-ups, texts from my freshman counselor, advisor emails and even motherly reminders from professors. At the same time, we’re held to adult expectations of self-management for which we have no prior experience — like in my case, finding my own housing for the summer.
The leap from high school to college independence is a thrilling one; for freshmen in particular, the paternalistic nature of the support system here and the emphasis on nurture can feel at odds with the relative freedoms and accountability these years afford us. Like the younger sibling who protests his earlier bedtime, we’re apt to interpret a certain amount of condescension in the attitudes meant to ease our transition. But the contrasting messages can be legitimately confusing when it comes to determining our identities as no-longer-teens-but-not-quite-grown-ups, and the expectations that govern our agency and responsibility don’t match up across most situations.
This problem would be best met with a Peter Pan attitude, an eagerness to retain some hold on our childhoods and guiltlessly defend our youth — at least, that’s what I espouse on days when I still want to order from a kid’s menu. In reality, as hedge fund-bound seniors and summer consulting interns could probably attest, the perception of our maturity and adulthood clearly impacts our treatment and opportunities. Maybe that’s why I’m so eager to shed the last remnants of adolescence that make my attempts at adulthood feel fraudulent: the promise of being perceived as “grown-up” and the opportunities that come with it.
Spring semester emphasizes the gap between recent high school graduates and departing Yale seniors, and underclassmen like myself watch in mixed suspense, jealousy and excitement as near-graduates are planning the rest of their lives. That’s not to say we’re ready for college to be over, but the paths on which graduates will soon depart reflect on diverse, fascinating opportunities down the road.
Those graduates will have checkbooks and know how to sign leases and feel comfortable dressing in business attire, and they won’t be playing at grown-up the way I am now. But, I realize, those dean’s emails and froco group texts that inform me of my lingering dependency are also small comforts that will disappear in my real grown-up years. Maybe we’re faking adulthood, but the support systems that remind us we’re not there yet — parental as they may be at times — aren’t ones we’d soon give up.
Caroline Posner is a freshman in Berkeley College. Her columns run on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .