I grew up in State College, PA, one of the premier college cities in the U.S. The downtown is quaint, full of cute hipster cafés and vintage clothing stores. I loved the vibrant feel of students bustling on sidewalks in their blue and white hoodies and pajama pants. Not knowing any of the store owners’ backgrounds, I could still maintain a close connection to the man who sold handmade chocolates and the woman who put pride in a cup of organic coffee. This community gave me a sense that I wasn’t just a floating blob in a world that puts success on a pedestal and empathy as an afterthought. Living far enough from the downtown, I could ride the bus home, copy of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants in hand, and remain unblemished by collegiate night life. I could observe the college students without having to judge—I could pick and choose which sides of this group I wanted to see, and so often it was the quiet, studious side. Oh, how little did I know.
As I entered freshman year at Penn State, I admit I had “townie arrogance”: I thought nothing the college advisors told incoming freshmen to expect applied to me. Me—lonely and lost? I knew the streets like the back of my hand! I had memories of doing yoga poses in the middle of a local hiking store. I had routines in place—milkshake Mondays at the 50’s-style diner, a local yoga studio of which I was already a loyal member. Yet what I had avoided thus far were the downtown streets after 10:00P.M. Soon I was at the same level of shock as every other freshman when I stumbled across drunken fights, well thought-out advice to “collect some bitches” and dresses that could easily fit a pre-schooler—maybe a kindergartener on a good day. A simple, late-night coffee craving turned into an obstacle course of stepping over beer cans and twisting through the line for the only pizza place that served cheap slices after 3A.M. Not once before have I heard two adults so fascinated by a blade of grass. And never in my life have I seen so many girls eagerly consuming hundreds of calories. It’s a strange world. When I was still in high school, I found accusations about the campus to be unjustified and harsh. Now, without the escape to suburbia, I’m starting to understand where these adults, tired of having their gardens peed on and their windows smashed, are coming from. Yet there is also a well-established group of people who make movies during their precious free time, or play Dungeons & Dragons, and engage in other delightfully nerdy activities. So why is it that the drunken mistakes get thrown around town gossip like a Frisbee?
While I don’t participate in drinking myself silly (my friends and I tend to act wild enough during an intense card game), I’ve observed the insanity almost like I’m watching a reality television show. But what I hear the most is not the puking into alleyways, or the ambulances—what I most hear are people bragging about how wasted they got, how ridiculous they acted. The number of high fives I have witnessed after “Dude, I totally blacked out last night” is a little ridiculous. Stupidity seems to be cause for the most bragging points. Downing a gallon of liquid in a few hours takes little skill. Falling down on a table doesn’t require hours of concentration. It may require a strong will to follow the crowd and feel like shit the next day, but that’s about it.
A few weeks ago, after I’d spent a weekend reading a Jodi Picoult novel, my classmates asked each other what they’d done over the weekend. Thrilled with my productivity, I chimed in that I was working on some short stories and that my poetry only sounded like a cheesy love story half the time, rather than two-thirds. While there were a few faux-impressed looks, later on I overheard a group of girls surmise that I “didn’t have any friends” and that refusing to go out was social suicide. Yes, obviously I am horribly messed up for not wanting to puke into a trash can and to wear midriff-baring shirts in fifty degree weather. This exchange taught me to shut up pretty fast.
Those who’ve made a few not-so-hot decisions are almost always the loudest—while the people who stay in and study, or those who vote to watch an indie film with some friends, are going to stay shamefully quiet because they didn’t do the “cool” thing. I don’t know about you, but I find having all your faculties work is cooler than flinging your body around someone’s overcrowded apartment. Somehow, embracing our Freudian ids has turned into a fad—similar to jeggings and half-shaved heads. It might not last long, but people feel mixing in the madness is the only way to survive in our culture. Maybe some of us go to college to learn, to engage, and to think critically, but I was shocked when, after a freshman orientation backpacking trip, I heard my camping-mates claim that they were most excited to party and that “college is more about socializing than learning.” $40,000 to socialize? Are these friends made out of solid gold?
As it turns out, my elementary school teachers were right—words do make a stronger impact than we think. As long as we follow the trendy beliefs that getting wasted to the point of black-out is all that’s boast-worthy, that’s what everyone is going to hear. But what about the students who get A’s, or win an internship, or fly out to foreign countries to tutor kids? So many of my peers who have put effort into their academic careers don’t mention it because they don’t want to seem self-congratulatory. I had a friend who, after receiving a winning test grade, shamefully flipped her paper over in class. A girl who blogs in her free time instead tells the world she downed a couple and felt fabulously buzzed. But expanding one’s thinking, and taking intellectual risks is much more worthy of congratulations than trying to look cool. It’s the people who stay in and create who stand to contribute to our culture. A night of drinking will be there for a few hours; an engineer’s project, a dancer’s choreography, a writer’s novel—those will be around forever. So maybe, with the shift in people’s words and views on what should take precedence, we can unleash more of our inner nerds and less of our “what-the-hell-just-happened” selves.