The following excerpt is from a book about the year I lived with students at 23 of the most interesting colleges in the United States.
While growing up, I always assumed I would go to college. When I was eight years old, the daughter in a family from our church was accepted into Stanford, and all the adults fawned over her. I wanted the adults to fawn over me as well, so I told my parents that I would also go to Stanford. They were proud of me just for the idea—“Wow, our son is going to Stanford!” Starting in kindergarten, our education system was designed to prepare us for college. They did a good job—by high school graduation, 97% of my graduating class was going to college, and our school was ranked nationally for college preparedness. We never questioned whether or not we would go to college, we just wondered where we would go.
Sometime during high school, I decided not to go to college. I was in my bedroom when I had an epiphany that it was possible to not go to college at all. To my surprise, the thought flooded me with euphoria. It gave me a sense of directing my own life, it satisfied a rebellious instinct, it took away the stress of applying for college, and it meant that I no longer had to compete with my peers for the highest grade point average. I also liked the idea of being self-made and self-taught. I quickly told my parents my plan.
“Drew, classy people just go to college,” my mom said. “You can’t not go.”
I was so stubborn that my mom’s response turned my half-formed idea into a fully formed decision: I was no longer going to college. For a couple of years, this decision gave me a great feeling of freedom and autonomy. I was living alone and working as a wedding videographer. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life yet, but I felt that there were an infinite number of possibilities before me. For a couple of years, I believed I had made a good decision.
But as time passed, the exciting life that I had dreamed of for myself became much less exciting. Until then, I had never experienced loneliness. Now my friends were across the country at their colleges, and I was mostly alone in my hometown. Living alone, I could sometimes go a week without talking to anyone. Meanwhile, other people my age were experiencing what were supposed to be the best times of their lives.
I also learned that it was far more painful to lose my family’s approval than I had imagined. My great grandmother was the matriarch of a large extended family of college graduates, and we took pride in the fact that she had gone to college as a woman in the 1920s. Whenever she spoke, the whole room would respectfully quiet down to listen. The last time I saw her before she passed away, she asked me, “Andrew, where are you going to college?” The room full of my relatives went quiet.
When I told her that I wasn’t going to college, a terrible look of disappointment came over her face and then spread to everyone in the room, then she slowly turned away from me and said nothing more.
In her old age, she was losing her short-term memory, so five minutes later she asked me again, “Andrew, where are you going to college?”
The room quieted down again. I gave her the same answer, which was followed by the same look of terrible disappointment and turning away.
When she asked the question a third time, my mom interrupted and said, “He’s going to the University of Texas!” then looked at me for support.
I played along, though with great discomfort. This time a satisfied smile came to my great grandmother’s face. She looked at me warmly and said, “That’s wonderful.”
Before long, I learned that girls were not interested in dating a guy who didn’t go to college. When I decided not to go, I’d had a girlfriend of many years, and I naively thought we would be together forever. When she left for college and our relationship didn’t survive the distance, I was newly single and saddled with what I repeatedly learned was a massive deal breaker. Girls would ask me, “What’s your major?” and I’d have to tell them that I didn’t even go to college. Rather than coming across as cool or self-reliant, I was often seen as beneath them and ineligible for anything romantic. Despite her not-so-tactful way of saying it, my mom’s phrase that “classy people just go to college” contained more wisdom than I had realized.
Sometime during this period, I started to wonder if I had made a mistake.
As an adolescent, however, I still had a great deal of youthful confidence and arrogance. People loved to debate me about the value of college, and I would always entertain them. The most interesting and compelling argument I kept hearing, and often from trusted adults, was that the most important part of college was not the degree, the education, or the networking opportunities. The most important part of college was the college experience, the mystical totality of four years spent living as a student among students. I heard this argument so frequently that I began to wonder what exactly it meant, and if I was missing out on something important.
When I graduated high school, I went on a couple road trips to visit friends at their colleges, and I caught brief glimpses into their social worlds. I saw the lives of anarchist college students in California, musical theatre students in Ohio, and fraternity members in Oklahoma. Student life was drastically different from college to college. It made me wonder how the college experience could be something that everybody needs, while also being so different from school to school. What was it about the college experience that turned children into adults? Why was college our society’s rite of passage?
One lonely night in my apartment, I began to daydream about visiting more colleges. I thought it would be fun to go on a road trip to a bunch of different colleges around the country to see what it was like to be a student at each one. Next I realized that this would make an entertaining book that I’d like to read, and then I thought that maybe I could be the person to write it. If I said I was writing a book, I could probably find students who would host me. This thought also flooded me with euphoria.
Here was the plan: I would travel around from college to college and live with one student for a week at each school. I’d sleep on their couch, sit next to them during class, watch them study, and go with them to parties. Each week I’d write a slice-of-life biography of what it’s like to be a student at that school. But would anybody agree to let me write about them?
I began emailing around the country, looking for friends of friends of friends who would host me. To my surprise, lots of students were willing to be the subject of a chapter. Nobody asked if I had an agent (no), a publisher (no), or if I had ever written anything before (no). They just said yes. Since I had never written anything before, I’m not sure that I ever fully believed that I’d be able to turn my experiences into a book. In some sense, I felt I might just be lying about writing a book as an excuse to hang out with college students, but I believed in my lie so intensely and for so long that it came true.
So here you go. This book is the product of the strangest year of my life, the best year of my life, and perhaps the worst year of my life. I spent the year living with both men and women, at state schools, private schools, Ivy League schools, at fraternities and sororities, with athletes and art students, and at party schools and religious schools. I began with the noble intention to write straight journalism entirely about the students I was visiting. However, less than a week into the trip, the pressure to fit in, to be liked, and to have a good time completely eroded my original intention. I quickly started partying with my hosts and participating in their lives. I didn’t intend to write about myself, but I realized that my story was interesting, too—the story of an outsider taking a tour through all that he was missing out on, trying in vain to somehow belong.
As I finish writing, I’m a 25-year-old who no longer approves of my behaviors from when I was 20. If I had to choose the most shameful year of my life to write about and share with the public, it would be this year. When I started this project, I didn’t understand the implications of detailed self-disclosure; now I understand, and I have the deepest of regrets. But I have to finish what I started, and I’m grateful that I now know never to do something like this again.
Today I think that college is wonderful and that everyone who can afford it should go. If I had children, I would want them to go to college. As for me, I think that if I could live ten lives, I would go to college in nine of them. But for this one life, I’m still glad I didn’t go. I learned that there is value in the story of an outsider, and I hope you find some value in it too.