As I type this sentence, I am sitting in my bedroom. A small bedroom in a small apartment which is in turn part of a large student housing complex. The semi-curated wine and craft beer assortment and the growing literature collection on my bookshelf could belong to an adult. The mismatched assortment of cheap furniture and the movie posters Scotch-taped to the walls belong to a teenager. The person sitting on the bed, typing at her laptop feels like neither.
I’ve always heard that college was the transition between childhood and adulthood, and I do think that in many ways it is. The undergrad lifestyle leaves much room for mistakes, and is incredibly forgiving of those mistakes in a way that fosters personal growth. One semester of poor grades is unlikely to ruin your cumulative GPA, and one ruined friendship is unlikely to ruin your entire social structure. You get a little better at thinking, and a little better at being. You grow up a little bit.
But living in a dorm and eating in a dining hall are different from living on your own. Mostly likely, your tuition and living expenses are paid by some combination of your parents, student loans, and part-time employment. You are not directly working to support yourself. You divide your time between class, the gym, and social events. If you’re an underage female, you’ve probably never had to pay for a drink. College campuses are incredibly insulated environments. A college degree is not a badge of adulthood.
I’m not even sure if graduate school makes you an adult. I could divide my life into two lists of adult (financial independence, filing taxes, the craft beer and the books), and not-adult (the meals of frozen ravioli and Ramen noodles, the subsidized student housing, the cheap wine bottles hiding behind the nicer ones), but I don’t think that having a 9-to-5 job, being a homeowner, or even having dependents of your own necessarily makes someone an adult. I don’t have a good definition of what makes an adult, or at least not one that is both neat and satisfying. Yet, I can point to certain acquired habits, experiences, and life lessons that I would count as definite moments of growing up. And I know that everyone has these moments, whether they occur before, during, or after college.
In the past year, I have had to support my parents in ways that I’ve only ever counted on them to support me*. I’ve wanted to protect my friends from their own lives and cried with them when I couldn’t. I’ve learned that being in a relationship with an adult doesn’t necessarily constitute an adult relationship. That people have different expectations of undergrads and grad students**. That first impressions can be lasting impressions and you are accountable for how others perceive you. That I might not always know exactly what I want (career, personal growth goals, romantic prospects) but knowing what I don’t want can be just as important in guiding decisions. More and more often, I’ll mentally stop myself before I make a decision. My life will be so much easier if I keep up with by budgeting. This has to be the last drink if I don’t want to make a fool of myself in front of this person whose opinion I care about. I should skip this unnecessary weekend trip to NYC in case I need the vacation days for another family emergency. I should learn how to bake a layer cake/whole chicken/souffle.
I’m thinking of the future.