As droves of rising freshmen prepare to make their way to the campuses that they’ll never want to leave come four years from now, I figure now is as good a time as ever to make good on the below promise that I made before I returned to my college town, Madison, Wisconsin, for my first fraternity grad weekend as an alumnus.
One thing I learned from last October’s Homecoming weekend is that with this trip, I’m not going “back to college.” Rather, I’m going back to where I went to college. It’s still Madison, and it’s still UW, but the people, businesses, bars, restaurants, buildings, drunk food joints, etc. — everything that I remember about my college experience? Irreconcilably different, almost to the point of antithesis. One thing you learn after graduation is that college isn’t a place — it’s a time. But I’ll get into that in more detail after I get back.
The concept I described — that of college being a time, not a place — is a truth that is not possible to comprehend until after your senior year comes to an end. Of course you’ve always known that everything will change after you and your friends don your mortarboards and jam out to “Pomp and Circumstance,” but you can’t grasp the full scope of that change until you’re right in the thick of it. Until your favorite liquor store is gone. Until the freshman year dining hall at which you sustained yourself on made-to-order BBQ chicken pizzas is torn down. Until the bar you couldn’t get into until you were 21 because they carded so hard is full of 18-year-old twerps. Then you know.
The very same Greek row down which you couldn’t walk five sidewalk squares without seeing a familiar face? Take a post-grad stroll there and it’s a sea of college-aged strangers looking at you and then whispering to their friend, “I didn’t know it was Parents Weekend.” Sure, maybe you’ll see a few of your younger friends around campus for the first few years after you graduate, but after the oldest high school senior when you were in college becomes the youngest college freshman, and not a single student was an undergrad at the same time as you, the last bastion of your college experience is no longer. When not a single current student has any shared experiences with you, won’t it feel weird to call them a fellow Badger, or Wildcat, or Tiger? Feels almost like a lie, but it’s the furthest thing from it.
My freshman year college ID expired 3 days ago. Perhaps the only thing more surprising than the fact that I managed to not lose it for five whole years (I found so many Wiscards on bar floors and around campus during my undergrad years that I could’ve started a trading card game) is the fact that it’s been five years since I got it. I remember registering for it at SOAR, Wisconsin’s summer orientation. I remember combing my hair around with my fingers in an attempt to look suave on it for all the college hunnies who would soon be looking at my ID (I later learned the only people who look at your ID are slovenly, middle-aged cafeteria workers, but at least I still looked good for them). I remember holding it in my hands when it was hot off the press, staring down at it like it was the keycard that would grant me access past the Pearly Gates of a living heaven (I later learned it was).
Now, not only does it misidentify me as a student, it’s not even good for the student discounts I’ve been sneakily capitalizing on since graduation (FUCK YOU AMC CINEMAS JUST LET ME WATCH FINDING DORY AT A DISCOUNTED PRICE GOD DAMNIT). What was once a sacred membership card that afforded me all the glories undergrad life has to offer is now just a piece of plastic featuring a fresh-faced, pre-college weight gain Jared, who is almost unrecognizable to me (and not just because I’ve chosen to stop acknowledging men who don’t have facial hair). This card has my name on it, and my picture, but it’s not me. I’m not Jared, the UW-Madison student/City of Madison trash can-dweller; the in-need-of-Proactiv dork in the picture is.
This column doesn’t really have a happy ending or anything, because that’s not how life works. Not everything in life can be spun in a way that will leave you a happier person. There are some things we are forced to accept, regardless of how it makes us feel, and the fact that you can go back to your college but never back to your college days is one of them.
It’s interesting, though, because if you ask me, “Would you go back to your college days if you could?,” I’ll say “no” a million times over. Yes, I still wish I was living in that dreamland of selective responsibility, but I had my fun. And while I’m not entirely sure what all I did, I wouldn’t do it any differently..