Valerie Pavilonis

When I was in 5th grade, I thought I would get to middle school and ooVoo my first real beau. When I was in 8th grade, I fantasized of more taboo rendezvous. When I was 16, I thought at 18 I’d sneak my first tattoo. After I applied to college, I thought I’d spent my entire senior spring not caring about anything at all and generally acting a fool. And during my senior spring, I thought I would get to college and fully ascend into the best years of my life. 

When I arrived on campus the fall of 2019, it was with an entirely new mindset (now I would be noncommittal and carefree), an entirely new wardrobe (think more grunge and mom jeans), and an entirely new value system (no longer would I aspire to climb the ranks of the white patriarchy!!) than high school me. In fact, I changed my preferred name from my given name, Karla, to my middle name, Marie. 

The reason for the name switch had a lot to do with the crippling anxiety that plagued me senior year, and my desire to self-manifest a rejuvenated energy. It also had a lot to do with me wanting to separate myself from my stuffy prep school where I spent — I can confidently say — the most formative years of my life. At boarding school, since I arrived in 8th grade, I’d been assured that college would be a breeze. I’d gotten used to living away from home in a relatively high stress environment. What more could one need to succeed in the Ivy League? 

But when I got to college, high school lingered in unexpected ways. For one, it was really weird and hard to text new friends — having to text my friends to hang out rather than just exiting my dorm being a novelty. I felt suffocated in my triple — an experience a lot less kooky-but-in-a-funny-way than my mom’s stories made it seem. In terms of classes, I hadn’t anticipated the difficulty of 100+ person lectures — the in-person focus required, the out-of-class office hours, TA and review sessions. In general, the lack of order — teen freedom, ironically the thing I was craving — felt more sour than sweet.

The media likes to portray college as a place full of partying and sex and going out with your friends without accounting for the fact that pop culture also conditions us from a young age to want financial success and career esteem. It is against the latter ladder, sadly, that many American high schools set their standards for excellence and measure their students’ esteem. So clearly, there would be some cognitive dissonance for students entering an institution like Yale, or my previous institution Wesleyan, desiring both to stay on “the path” and enjoy four years of unbridled abandonment. 

This past May when I transferred universities in the middle of a pandemic, I found myself at the crux of that question: What path am I on? More explicitly, what do I want? It took me weeks before I actually gathered the courage to make a note labeled “What do I want?” and in despair, I realized the only things I could articulate to myself were specifics about what I didn’t like about Wesleyan. I’d never given myself the luxury of the space to measure my own priorities and rank them and say this is what matters to me and why.

After I transferred, I realized the problem with college, and the problem with the transition from high school to college in particular, is that many people never step back and question their path. In high school, we are taught to “achieve,” and I’d be inclined to add “whatever that means” except we all know it precisely means: get into a good college, which becomes this weird stand-in for “good life.” But I would assume that my questioning this past May would have been a lot more damaging if it happened for the first time mid-life.

Over my freshman winter break, I knew I had some thinking to do about how I wanted to shape my life at school. In some ways, I knew I was letting Wesleyan happen to me. So, I made a list, three accountability goals, three intentional acts. 

  1. Take time for myself 
  2. Separate emotions from reality
  3. Stay authentic to myself (RIP freshman fall friends)

My second semester of Wesleyan GLOWED up, and not because college magically aligned my universe, but because I had intentionally built a physical and mental space — that was when I “became” Marie and could leave the mental confines of Karla behind. That was a time I can confidently look back on and say was one of the best of my life. 

This year, with the perspective of a wise and omniscient sophomore, I have often found myself breathing a silent sigh of relief and thinking: “Thank god that’s over” when talking to my freshmen friends. The central theme, whether a partygoer or a homebody (two college archetypes the media has normalized), is confusion — Is this really college? Is this it? 

Finding one’s “people” may be what is most evidently uncomfortable at the beginning of college, but I think there is this other unspoken fear, that you are at a huge university with thousands of opportunities and you could be anyone, you could be anything. You could also be nothing, purposeless. Nobody talks about that. 

With one and a half years of college under my belt, I can say that I wish they’d told me the transition would be harder. Not for the obvious reasons but precisely because of the freedom of choice. I wish they’d told me that changing my wardrobe would simply not erase the 5th grade girl who wanted a middle school boyfriend or the anal high schooler who thrived on the grind. At the same time, I’m glad they didn’t, because now I can see the presumed path and have the agency to choose my own. How could it be the best years of your life if you don’t know what you want? But then again, maybe the real reason they say that is because things get a whole lot shittier from here. Next up: my 20s. Oh man.

Marie Sanford | karla.sanford@yale.edu