Trigger warning: sexual assault, mental illness
One night, during the late days of my freshman year, I was enjoying a familiar post-party kickback with a friend of mine. We were lounging on his bed, chatting idly and listening to music as the lingering effects of our Natty Lite buzz ebbed away into sleepy 3 a.m. sobriety. My friend changed the song to a personal favorite of his: John Mayer’s cover of “Free Fallin.” At the time, I disliked that softboy with a stubborn passion, so I moved to change it. But my friend stopped me, saying, “No, wait. Just listen.” So I did. Reluctantly, at first, but then I really did start to listen. I heard the naked chords, the nostalgic twang of the guitar strings and John Mayer’s gentle vocals stretching out for miles as he sang the word “free” in a way that made me feel like I was flying. And in that moment, what I thought I had sworn off for good as whiny white boy music turned into appreciation for an artist I never thought I’d enjoy.
College is funny in that way. It shifts and molds people in unexpected ways. Turning into a John Mayer fangirl is not the only way I’ve changed since coming to Occidental, nor is it the most important. But in many ways, learning to find value in his music became a poetic reminder of the significant growing pains I did have to endure. Similar to how I learned to love the music of a man-child, my time at Occidental forced me to find value in what I thought I never could — the experiences here that were less than ideal, if not downright difficult, unfair and painful.
This may or may not be the great, parting lesson one would expect to gain from a college experience. Because as high school students, we’re sold this idea that these four years are the be-all-end-all of our existence. We’ve worked our entire lives spitting out extracurriculars and fighting our way to the top 10th percentile of our class’s GPA just to get our chance at the holy grail that is acceptance to an accredited 4-year college or university and the wealth of opportunity that awaits us once we get there: freedom. Independence. Self-discovery. PBR. An experience that will change your life.
I came to Oxy expecting all of the above. And at first, it was. The first couple of months were a happy-go-lucky whirlwind of new friendships, late night Super Smash tournaments, Four Loko Fridays, chaotic hallspreads, and a budding, almost whimsical love for the place I was now calling home. This “freshman high” lasted a little over one semester. It was, and continues to be, some of the happiest moments of my life. Then I was sexually assaulted.
Soon after, what had once been the fulfilled promise of my collegiate glory days quickly turned into one of the darkest periods of my life, wrought with insomnia, social isolation and a crippling depression that alienated me from both myself and my love and appreciation for my life at Occidental. No longer was it my goal to impress friends and family back home with prestigious awards, to make new friends or even find love. My goal became to get through the day. I reluctantly declared a major that I neither cared for nor knew much about, my GPA ended up worse than it was in high school, and I wouldn’t nor couldn’t touch a man with a 10-foot pole for a solid year and a half. Needless to say, my time at Occidental ended up being very different from what I envisioned and initially experienced. It wasn’t always the blissful, sexy days MTV and Judd Apatow promised it would be. It was often sad, lonely, repetitive and difficult.
And yet, looking back, college still remains the best four years of my life. Because while I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a lot of negative memories, it’d also be a lie to say that they were all for nothing. I think about the time I witnessed my friend slash her wrist open with a pair of scissors, when my childhood friend’s mother died and I couldn’t be there for her funeral and when I watched my friends reach their own rock bottoms. I think about the number of times I’ve spent swallowing panic attacks at work, hiding in bathrooms, leaving conversations at random, taking detours, avoiding certain places at certain times, waking up from nightmares and holding back tears in class because I was forced to go to school with my perpetrator for over two years.
And when I think about these things, it’s easy to get angry. To feel robbed of the time, relationships and happiness I should’ve been able to experience. To hate this school. But I don’t. I can’t. I can’t hate the place that exposed me to the strength and resiliency I never knew I had. Where I finally started correcting people on my last name and grew grateful for the moments when I wasn’t sad or triggered or apathetic about life, and instead slapped a sweaty ceiling in Norris to the beat of Notorious B.I.G. or sang along to “Dancing Queen” with my friends on our way to the beach or held the hands of strangers raised high in the air at the end of the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center occupation.
None of this growth would have happened if I hadn’t been thrown into situations that, as horrible and unfair as they were, forced me to scrape until my nails bled for even the smallest speck of meaning, purpose and hope, if for nothing else than to get back to that paper due in three hours or get to sleep by 4 a.m. Similar to when my friend convinced me to give John Mayer a try, instead of skipping over “Free Fallin’” to a song I already knew I liked, Occidental forced me to confront what is so much easier to cast aside as another rotten waste of my time and instead, ultimately value those experiences for how they’ve made me stronger, wiser and braver.
Perhaps you, young first year I was assigned to give advice to, are still (miraculously) in the middle of feeling that freshman high. Perhaps you’re still getting seduced by the collegiate-ness of frisbee bros throwing discs on Stewie Beach and KOXY blasting hip tunes through the quad. Perhaps you’re still walking to class confident that this place can’t hurt you. But pretty soon (if you haven’t already), you’ll fall in love with someone who can’t love you back. Or get cheated on. You’ll have a falling out with a friend or your parents will get divorced. You’ll deal with so many microaggressions in a week you’ll wonder if there’s a place in this world for you at all. And even if you do somehow manage to make it through these next three years without getting shaken by the worst of what life has to spit in your face, there’s still the monotony of getting trapped in the everyday grind of collegiate life that few admit to living because hey, “it’s kawledge!” The best four years of our lives! Who wants another shot?
But the bumps and boredom are okay. That’s college. It’s normal to be disillusioned by your time here when it’s not what you expect. But maybe, if we can stop forcing ourselves to pound down shots or numb our loneliness with a sloppy hook up or go to that third party of the weekend in desperate pursuit of our so-called glory days, then we’ll find room for another little nugget of truth: that there will always be a value to whatever it is we experience here at Occidental. It won’t always be good. But if you can take a minute to stop and listen to those feelings and moments instead of fast forwarding to what you know you like, you may end up learning a thing or two about yourself. You may just end up appreciating John Mayer’s music after all.
Emily Hoguín is a senior psychology major. She can be reached at email@example.com.