Jim Campbell, Dynamism of an Observer (Clock), 2002. Courtesy of the artist and Hosfelt Gallery San Francisco/New York.

The College Years

Armed with personal histories and transfer credits, grads from ’88 to ’15 hold a fall-semester seminar on majors, dorms, and the types of roommates to avoid.

Our panelists:

Laura Barge-O’Sullivan graduated in 1988 from Florida State University College of Business.

Pasha Malla graduated from York University in Toronto in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in Humanities. He started in film studies and sucked, moved to screenwriting and sucked worse, ended up with some generic nonsense degree, taught elementary school for a couple of years, then went to Concordia University in Montreal to do a master’s in English. He now writes and teaches writing.

Pat Murray went to Dartmouth College, graduated in the top 10 percent of the bottom 50 percent of his class with a biology major in 1998, and recently started his own company in Fairfield, Conn. He is currently 40 percent thrilled and 60 percent terrified about the decision.

Eric O’Connor graduated with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Maryland in 2005. He is currently working for a plastics manufacturer where he watches big expensive machines make tiny cheap widgets.

Catriona Buchanan is an 18-year-old entering Buffalo State University this fall. She will be majoring in fashion merchandising with the class of 2015. She is currently a full-time student.

Darcy Bullock is a 2011 graduate of Colby College, where she majored in English and Creative Writing. She’s currently a part-time editorial assistant at Routledge, which publishes academic books.


What were/are you most afraid of doing wrong in your freshman year? What was the biggest mistake you wound up making?

Pasha: I moved to Toronto, where I knew no one, from London, Ontario, where I knew lots of people; I was mostly afraid of being alone. This resulted in hysterical, cloying attempts at making friends—unprompted compliments on strangers’ T-shirts and/or inviting them to my dorm room to look at my posters. Embarrassing, though not necessarily a mistake: Fifteen years later, I’m still good pals with at least half a dozen folks I met in Frosh Week.

Pat: I was most afraid of flunking out and being unmasked as that one “admissions mistake” that slipped through. I skated through most of my high school classes with a knack for standardized tests and that kick of adrenaline that comes with knowing a paper or project is due in 38 minutes and it’s only halfway done. So the biggest mistake I made happened years earlier, by not learning how to really study and learn. Oh, also not knowing how to separate whites from colors before going to the laundry room.

Laura: I was really worried the classes would be hard and I wouldn’t have the discipline to get everything done on time. I floundered a bit my first year, but figured it out—and in my senior year I made the dean’s list. Once you choose a major, if it’s one you really are interested in, getting to class and getting the work done is easier.

Catriona: My one worry is falling into the wrong schedule. With one week of classes under my belt, I’ve been getting my work done on time, but as the months go on I may start slacking. I hope that with the extracurriculars, sports, and organizations, my social life won’t outweigh my academics.

Pat ’98: I was most afraid of flunking out and being unmasked as that one “admissions mistake” that slipped through.

Darcy: I think one of the things I was definitely most afraid of was not fitting in. In a new place, especially so far from home, it always takes a while to figure out where to situate yourself, and I remember feeling very aware of that. I had to learn all of these new rules—what time to go to the dining hall, which professors to avoid, which social events it’s OK to attend sober and which are not…and it was terrifying at the time. I think one of the biggest mistakes I ended up making was not trying enough different things. I was so nervous about where I fit in that I ended up not pushing myself to follow up on the things that I really cared about and wanted to talk about. It wasn’t until I was an upperclassman that I ended up getting more involved in student activism on campus.

Laura: My incoming class was offered an elective (for the first and last time) called “The University Experience.” It was worth one hour of elective credit and you met with about 15 kids with nothing in common except being freshmen. The professors were random—probably the ones who needed a little extra income—and ours, who I believe was in the history department, made us use that hour and 15 minutes every week to do something on campus we didn’t know existed. Ballroom dance club, the university bowling alley, canoeing, art show at the gallery, free movie night, concert, archery, architecture tour, the list goes on and on. I always had the 411 on fun, low-cost campus things for the rest of my years at school.

Eric: I was really afraid of making new friends. I’m from New Jersey and went to University of Maryland, where it felt like 99 percent of the people were in-state and already had groups of friends. I started off the year by hanging out with my roommates and their friends, but eventually felt that I didn’t really fit with them, and moved on to a group of friends that I was much more comfortable with.

Catriona: This is exactly what has been worrying me recently. My roommate and her friends are the people I mostly talk to, so I hope once I find my comfort zone of friends that I will really start to experience my college for everything it has to offer.

How important is it to know what you want to major in when you’re a freshman?

Pat: Unless you’re going into a professional program, zero percent. I, along with 75 percent of my classmates, started college in the pre-med track. Most of us wandered away as we learned about ourselves and were exposed to wider areas of study. I was a little thicker than most, and by the time I realized I had no interest in medicine, it was too late to change it. But I have no regrets about my major, and I don’t find it held me back at all.

Catriona: Not at all. It’s always nice to get ahead in school, so if you know your major, you can start taking some classes involved with it. If you decide to take all of your general education classes your first year, then you can fill your second year with the classes designed to let you graduate successfully with your major.

Pasha: For me, not important at all. I started in film, made the worst movie in the history of cinema, changed majors to something less self-loathing, took off to Australia for a year, and in some roundabout way ended up doing the thing with my life I’ve wanted to do since I was five.

Eric: I was a mechanical engineer, and if I hadn’t decided my major by the second semester of freshman year, I don’t think I would have been able to graduate in four years. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter.

Laura: I never worked in my major, and frankly, I don’t think I was cut out for business, but now that I’m a parent with a household to run and college to plan for, business school has given me a firm foundation for family finances. Now in my forties, I have a part-time position, and I can file papers pertaining to investment portfolios, insurance, real estate, lawsuits, and financial reports, and I’m at least familiar with the terminology and the basics of economics. (Thank you, weird professor whose name I have forgotten!)

Darcy: I agree with everyone else—it’s not very important! It’s nice to know that there are subject areas that interest you, of course, but one of the great things about college is that you get to try new things. People always say that, but it’s true. I went to a small liberal arts school that had tons of requirements, so even though I started my freshman year thinking I’d be an English major, I ended up taking classes in biology and philosophy and women’s studies. I even thought about double-majoring in women’s studies or history, but I didn’t have enough time in the end. So I think if you want to double-major, it’s nice to know ahead of time so you can plan out your classes, but other than that, it’s not too big a deal.

Catriona: It seems that most people decide to change their major. I have heard this from other students and I’ll probably do the same. Maybe major in business or communications and then minor in fashion merchandising so that I can always have a basic foundation to fall back on.

How important is your major upon graduation?

Pat: Obviously, it would be tough to get into investment banks with a dance major, but if you’re happily in the rest of the pool I think one should study what is interesting and save the rest until later.

Catriona: In my specific major, there will be a lot of competition. The fashion world only takes the best of the best, so getting the best grades in college and networking with people in the business will be important for landing a job.

Pasha ’01: I appreciate that you don’t want to come out of school with zero career prospects and a shit-ton of debt, but I think that it can ruin the experience of college to just think of it as a stepping-stone to a career.

Darcy: It depends on what you’re planning to do after graduating. Obviously if you want to go to medical school, you’ll need to have taken all the necessary science and math classes. But generally among my friends, it hasn’t seemed to matter too much so far. I know a lot of people doing Teach for America right now, and they’ve majored in anything from sociology to biology. For me, others generally assumed that since I was interested in publishing, I was an English major, but I never got the impression that I absolutely had to have majored in English in order to work in publishing.

Pasha: I have a friend who majored in saxophone and is now a doctor/research fellow trying to cure AIDS. After bumming around Montreal’s jazz circuit for a couple years, he just went back to school and upgraded his sciences so as to get into medical school. And also, I don’t know, I appreciate that you don’t want to come out of school with zero career prospects and a shit-ton of debt, but I think that it can ruin the experience of college a little to just think of it as a stepping-stone to a career, and not a valid and potentially awesome experience unto itself. And zeroing in on a career at 18 is admirably focused, but maybe don’t shut out other possibilities along the way.

Eric: I got an engineering degree, because it’s a requirement in order to be an engineer. If you’re not following a career path that requires a specific degree, I think you can get away with anything. I would have majored in candy!

Graduate school: Yea or nay?

Darcy: I have no idea! I remain undecided. Right now, I’m just planning to work, but I do think that I’ll end up at grad school at some point. I’m not exactly sure what for—I’ve thought about getting my master’s in fiction writing, but I keep hearing conflicting things about if it’s worth paying to get an MFA or not. So I’m still thinking about it.

Eric: I went, and I’ve seen the benefit, but it’s not for everyone. I have a number of complaints about grad school, but it was due to the school I went to, and most of the grad school students being jerks.

Catriona: I say nay. Find a job that’s perfect for you and as you work toward the top position, grad school can become an option. After college I feel like most students usually have some debt, so working for a few years in between college and grad school can help pay off some loans.

Pasha: I went, and it was definitely beneficial to me in that I met a lot of good people and started reading better books, got into the habit of writing every day, etc., but I don’t know, I don’t think it’s imperative or anything, at least in my “field,” as much as my job exists in a field. Maybe if you want to be a math professor or astronaut or something, or if you’re one of those weird lunatics who loves school.

Pat: The yea-est. After a few years in the workforce I finally found that I had a passion and aptitude for solving tough mathematical challenges that businesses face, and I count business school as an absolutely transformative process.

Laura: Graduate school works out great for lots of people; others finish with a mountain of debt and no value added as a job candidate. For most students with a nebulous sense of what to do when they “grow up,” a year or two of work can help you focus your ambitions and you will be more realistic about working life, debt, income, and whether you want to be broke another two or three years. Earn a little, travel a little, think a lot, and then decide if you simply must go back to school.

Eric: I do think working at least two years before going back to school is a good idea. By that time you’ll actually have figured out if you really do want to keep studying and working in the field you’re in, and you’ll have a better idea of how it can actually help you.

Pasha: I’ll add too that this is a hell of a lot of an easier decision in Canada. Grad school cost me $800 a semester.

What’s the most important dorm-survival item?

Laura: You’ll survive without whatever you’ve forgotten—until you get your parents to buy it for you at Thanksgiving.

Darcy: I had a pair of really good computer speakers that my roommate and I would play dance music on all the time. We probably annoyed the rest of the people in our dorm, but those speakers were nice for hosting parties in our room. My roommate and I also had a really great couch in our room during our senior year. It was old and had mismatched cushions, but it was the most comfortable couch of all time, and if we had friends coming to visit they could crash on it. Friends would even crash on it if they lived across campus, because trekking home through the snow in Maine at night can get pretty old.

Pasha: A samurai sword, hung menacingly above your bed. Otherwise: a gym membership.

Catriona: I definitely have to agree with this one. The gym membership, that is. The gym is a great place to tune out the world and work through stress.

Laura ’88: You’ll survive without whatever you’ve forgotten—until you get your parents to buy it for you at Thanksgiving.

Pat: Ooh, can I steal Pasha’s answers? Also, a roommate, or even better, multiple roommates. Others might say a good solid laundry basket or a coffee maker, but neither of those things can keep you sane, get you through calculus or organic chemistry, or introduce you to your future wife.

Eric: Clearly you don’t have the right coffeemaker­—a good one can do differential equations for you. I didn’t have a specific survival item, but I found having a place to escape the dorm was nice. The dorms can be their own bizarre little world, and getting out of it every once in a while prevents it from screwing up your perspective.

Darcy: I agree with Pat—roommates are the best! It’s good to learn how to live with someone, and it’s fun to live with all of your friends. And if you wind up getting an apartment and moving off campus, you’ll need roommates. Some of my best memories of college are of coming home late from the library and watching dumb old movies with my roommate, staying up till 4 a.m. for no reason.

What’s your worst roommate story? Did anything about your future roommate seem alarming ahead of time?

Pasha: Discovered underneath my roommate’s bed: an industrial-sized container of baby oil and the sawed-off shaft of a hockey stick wrapped in duct tape. Now, that same week I shat my pants during an intramural soccer game and ran home across campus with a T-shirt wrapped around my we’re all someone’s worst something, is what I’m saying.

Laura: My freshman roommate thought I was a dweeb, and it was true that I arrived at school less “sophisticated” than many of my peers. But the behavior that makes a girl target for gossip in high school is nobody’s business in college. And many of those world-wise girls made good grades and didn’t end up in some of the situations that the more sheltered girls did. My roommates were all great—or at least, we accepted our differences and did our best to be respectful of sleep and study time.

Eric ’05: The school somehow placed the rest of us with three larger-than-life people just waiting for their own reality show.

Catriona: You know in the movies where there’s a typical geeky roommate who has weird quirks and odditites? Well I just so happened to get the real-life version. She’s allergic to half of the food pyramid, can’t inhale heavy scents, is the biggest theater geek I know, and has many odd habits. The good thing is, she’s also the nicest girl I know, and I already trust that she won’t steal my stuff or shave off my eyebrows in the middle of the night. You can’t go through college based on first impressions.

Darcy: I lived in a two-room triple my freshman year, so I had two roommates. One of them actually lived about 20 minutes away from me in New York, so we were able to swap stories about mutual friends. I wasn’t too worried about meeting her, and we ended up becoming great friends and staying roommates all throughout college. My other roommate, who was from Massachusetts, didn’t have a Facebook page. At the time I remember being really concerned about this. Of course, lots of people have good reasons for not joining Facebook, but as a high school senior I thought only completely antisocial people wouldn’t be part of it. After meeting this roommate, I realized that we definitely wouldn’t be the best of friends—we had differing views on lots of things—but we did manage to live together for a year. She would always leave these really passive-aggressive Post-It notes all over the room, but that was about as bad as it got.

Eric: When I was in my junior year, three of the six guys I shared a suite with went on semesters abroad. The school somehow placed the rest of us with three larger-than-life people just waiting for their own reality show. Mid-semester, one of them ran into money trouble and decided that my stuff would fetch a higher price tag at a pawnshop than his would. He even went so far as to pretend that our place had been robbed, but miraculously none of his stuff was stolen. In the end, campus police got involved and I eventually got my things back. I left the evidence stickers on the stuff for funsies.

Pat: I’ll turn this around a bit, and share a story that they would tell about me instead. One might say: “My roommate in the lower bunk had this annoying habit of bouncing me awake by kicking up against the bottom of my bed, which he found hilarious. He was alone in this assessment. Anyway, one day he wanted to give me a very big wake-up call, and ended up lifting the entire bunk off the posts, which then tipped sideways and gave me a quick ride to the floor.” The other roommate, who majored in Being a Pompous Ass and eventually transferred to Harvard, might say (in a snooty tone): “On a whim, I challenged my roommate to a game of chess, that game of kings, at which I proudly excel. Despite his obvious subpar ability, he somehow bested me. Surely recognizing he could never repeat such an outcome, he refused my daily requests for a rematch for the rest of the year, the knave. Quite distasteful.”

Eric: Also one time I had a girl sleeping over and she awoke to my roommate being romantically engaged...with himself.

Pat: With that many dudes in a confined area, Eric, it’s just a matter of time until that happens.

Are you still friends with your freshman-year pals?

Pasha: Yes. Very good friends with several.

Eric: Not with my roommates, but definitely with the guys I had classes with. Christ, I’m a nerd.

Laura: All the girls I still keep in touch with from college lived on my floor freshman year. My one piece of advice is to live in a dorm your first year. You could get your own apartment and hope to study more and be tempted less, but in a dorm you learn discipline and time management and make the closest friends of your life. (Like the girls who will hold your bloody towel when you need stitches and are too woozy to stand.)

Catriona ’15: It’s hard to imagine I will find any friends better than my own from home.

Pat: I married one of them! We were on a co-ed floor, and eight of us quickly became a gang. I catch up with many of them, though with kids and geography it’s become a lot less frequent. Facebook is a help, at least superficially.

Catriona: For me, it’s hard to imagine I will find any friends better than my own from home. Meeting new people is awkward and forced, but ends up really helping with college life. In the beginning I would assume the people I’m meeting could never know everything about me and I wouldn’t trust them with my secrets. I hope this changes and that I really do meet the people who I can relate to and happily spend my time with. As for whether I’ll be friends with them 10-plus years from now, only time will tell.

Darcy: Yes. My freshman year roommate (the one from New York) ended up becoming one of my best friends. We’re still in very close touch and planning to most likely live together in New York City (once we both find jobs!) I had three other really close friends from freshman year, and I stayed close with them all throughout college, even though friend groups changed as we went through the years. One of my best friends from freshman year even transferred to a different school, but we’ve still stayed really close. Skype is a great invention.

What’s something you wish someone had told you ahead of the college experience?

Pat: Well, specific to my experience, I wish someone had told me to relax a bit. I probably missed some great opportunities for all the great stuff that goes on around and during college, if not specifically in college classes. Certainly many others have the opposite problem, experiencing a little too much of the other things and not enough of the classes, but for me I wasted some opportunities sweating the small stuff.

Eric: I had the same problem. I was really concerned with graduating in four years, and wound up sacrificing some things I wish I’d done.

Darcy ’11: Belatedly, I wish I’d gotten the chance to take that modern dance class or a sociology class. I never did take an art class.

Catriona: I wish that people would be more honest about the bad parts of their experience. All you hear is how great it is and how far you’ll go. It’s the bad parts (homesickness, dangerous situations) that I would like to know more about just so I can learn how to handle them.

Darcy: This sounds cheesy, but I do wish someone had told me to not be afraid to try new things. I came to college positive that I’d be an English major and that I wanted to study abroad in France, so I mostly took English and French classes. Belatedly, I wish I’d gotten the chance to take that modern dance class or a sociology class. I never did take an art class. Also, go to any and all lectures on campus that sound interesting. You’ll probably never live in another place again that has so many opportunities to listen to really smart people talk.

Pasha: Eventually you will be 33 and out one night with people who did a lot of drugs in college and when they start swapping stories and you’re feeling alienated, you don’t want to say, in total earnestness, “I’ve always enjoyed a cup of coffee and an Ativan,” and have them all laugh because they think you’re kidding. But you’re not, is the thing. You were just a fucking coward in college. Anyway, the lesson here is not to do drugs—though you probably should do at least some drugs—but not to be afraid of stuff. College and university are a great time to try shit that you won’t get to try later; you can flounder around a little bit, get a little lost, take some risks. Real life is kinda on hold for a bit. Don’t be afraid. Enjoy it.

Darcy: I definitely agree with Pasha—college can be like a little bubble where you can try all the stuff you want to try but would never do in “real life.” So take advantage.

Eric: Everything I can think of sounds too after-school-special, so I’m going to go with: Don’t take calculus classes at 8 a.m.


TMN Editor Bridget Fitzgerald lives, works, and generally makes merry in San Francisco. More by Bridget Fitzgerald

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