How college changed me

As a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter, I spend most of my time interviewing college professors and administrators. In the course of these conversations, alma maters often come up, and they ask me where I got my degree and when. I say, “I just graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill.”

But in recent weeks, I’ve had to start correcting myself. I didn’t just graduate. It’s been nearly two years.

It’s also been nearly two years since I wrote a post on this blog, which I’m not happy about. Things have been busy: news, apartment hunt, job hunt, more news, friend gatherings, traveling, another apartment hunt, more news (seeing a pattern here?). But really, I don’t have a good excuse. I’d like to get back into writing for fun.

Maybe, sometimes, I’ll write about non-higher-ed-related things (*gasp*)! But not today.

One of the major topics du jour in higher education is the value of college. What does going to a four-year residential institution and paying tens of thousands of dollars and earning a degree (or two) actually do for you?

Now that I can’t play the “I’m a clueless recent college grad who doesn’t know how to adult” card anymore, I figured it was an apt time to reflect on what, exactly, I did get out of college — beyond getting a degree, finding a job, and learning how to drink.

I learned how to spell “Tar Heel” properly. This is embarrassing to admit, but when I excitedly posted a Facebook status about my acceptance to UNC in January 2011, I wrote, “IS A TARHEEL!!!!!!!!!” Tar Heel is never one word. Never ever ever ever. It is two words. Thankfully, I avoided further embarrassment by learning this critical lesson during my first semester, shortly after I joined the campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel.

I became a vegetarian. UNC’s incoming freshman class of 2011 was assigned to read Eating Animals, a Jonathan Safran Foer book that raises questions about where our meat comes from and what implications eating meat has for animals, the environment, and ourselves. Foer writes about how poorly animals are treated on “factory farms” — which, honestly, are not farms at all. So I became a vegetarian, as a sort of personal protest against industrialized farming.

I un-became a vegetarian. The unraveling of my commitment to vegetarianism began with a single bite of Philly cheesesteak in June 2014. It was so meaty, so cheesy, so greasy, so unhealthy. But y’all, it was so delicious. I was in denial for a little while (i.e. I would publicly profess my vegetarian morals while sneakily eating chicken once or twice a week). By the time fall classes started, though, I had pretty much completed my transformation back into a carnivore.

I stopped spelling poorly on purpose. Whenever I scroll through Facebook memories I have to be reminded of all of the statuses I used to post with “u” and “2” and “evry1” and “rele” and “cuz” and no punctuation — which, circa 2011, I genuinely thought was cool. No, 18-year-old Sarah, that was not cool.

I stopped spending an hour a day doing my hair. As a freshman, I would straighten my hair almost every day before class. Then I would immediately step outside into Chapel Hill’s stifling humidity and walk in it for 15 minutes, rendering my efforts entirely futile. Those are hours of my life I’ll never get back. By sophomore year, I learned that my hair actually looked pretty good if I just pulled the towel off my head after a shower, didn’t brush it, and let it air dry. 

I learned how to actually talk to people. I was very shy in high school. College taught me how to get off of social media and interact with real people, whether I was studying in the student union, attending social events, or doing man-on-the-street interviews for newspaper articles. In recent months I’ve spent a few Sunday afternoons at a local bar watching the NFL and chatting with whoever happens to sit nearby. I’ve gotten to know a former DEA special agent, a civil-rights lawyer, a dairy farmer, and numerous other people I would never have met otherwise.

I discovered coffee. This enlightening discovery has probably shaped who I am today more than anything else.

I learned how to survive for days on very little sleep. This is one of those life skills that you tend to develop during high school and build on once you get to college, with the assistance of caffeine. Even after I had mastered the art of barely sleeping, I would still fall asleep in class from time to time — once, I passed out while my professor was asking me a question. But bottom line, for most of college, I was getting somewhat respectable grades while running 25-30 miles a week and maintaining a social life, on an average of five hours of sleep a night.

I realized that getting eight hours of sleep is essential (for me, anyway). Breaking my no-sleep habit was difficult. I felt anxious if I went to sleep before 2 a.m. because I always had so much to do. But one night, during the first semester of senior year, my boyfriend coaxed me into bed just after midnight. I woke up at 9 a.m. and, just like that, I was a functional human being. It was mind-blowing.


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