The First Semester of College

Well I don’t know about you, but things have been a tad too serious around here lately. Let’s lighten things up with a funny story. And since back-to-school time is coming up, what better time is there to talk about how AMAZING* my first semester of college was from the perspective of an 18-year-old?

*may indicate sarcasm

I think I’ve mentioned this several times before, but even though I’m not a student anymore, the end of August/beginning of September always brings a familiar feeling of anxiety in my stomach. School, especially college, stressed the fuck out of me. I guess it’s still going to be a while before this feeling completely goes away.

But for whatever reason, memories of my first semester of college have been popping up lately, so here’s a story about that.

I had a lot of difficulty adjusting to college life. I was terrified of change; I went from taking a bus to school to driving 45 minutes away, in a town I wasn’t familiar with, on roads I wasn’t familiar with; the friends and acquaintances I’d grown used to seeing on a daily basis were either gone from my life or made brief appearances around campus; I had trouble juggling work and school; my friends that were still in high school didn’t understand why I couldn’t see them as much because they didn’t have as many new responsibilities as I did.

Looking back on it, how I arranged my schedule played a key role in making the adjustment period difficult (or at least more difficult than it needed to be). I went on a group trip to the community college I’d be attending to tour the campus and pick classes. I was told our community college would be like 13th grade by a lot of my friends that already graduated high school. I honestly didn’t expect a heavy workload, so I made some wonderful choices when making my schedule.

The following is a rough summary of 18-year-old me’s thought process:

Well, this whole college thing doesn’t seem as bad as I thought. Touring the campus kind of reminded me of a theme park, what with all the signs pointing towards the different buildings. Maybe this will be fun! I can choose any class I want!

Hmm… most of these classes are pretty long. 3 hours? That’s like… half a school day. And I’ll need to take four classes to be full time, so I better spread them out so I don’t get too overwhelmed. One class a day for this commuter seems like a good strategy where absolutely nothing could go wrong. Now let’s see what classes are available to make this possible.

Well, this math class is required, so I’ll take that. And it’s shorter, too! Only 2 hours. Oh, but it meets two days a week. Okay, well I can still make this work. I need to take this English class, too. And they really wanted me to take this 1-credit course on college success strategies. Oh, but it meets on the same day as the English course, and I’d have to wait a few hours for it to begin. I guess I can bring my PSP to pass the time (I’m shaking my head even as I’m writing this).

But come on! I’m starting college! What classes do I want to take? Well, I love drawing. Art was always my favorite subject in school. And I want to do something with art eventually. Hey! This entry level drawing class fits my schedule perfectly! And look! An interior design class is available! I bet that will help me draw backgrounds better! Let’s see how this schedule looks…

Monday: College algebra, 12-2 pm

Tuesday: Intro to art, 8-11 am

Wednesday: English, 8-11 am and College Success Seminar, 3-4 pm

Thursday: Interior design, 1-4 pm

Friday: College algebra, 12-2 pm

This. Looks. Perfect. Most of these classes are pretty early in the day, so there’s plenty of time to still work a couple nights per week. And since everyone says community college is like 13th grade, I’m sure there won’t be much homework. I mean, if classes are this long, we must be working on it during class, right? And two art classes! How fun!

What could possibly go wrong?

End best logic train ever by soon-to-be college freshman.

Was there enough sarcasm? I don’t know if there was. But no, things didn’t go well. Algebra was fine; I was fairly good at it, so I didn’t struggle much (not to mention I’d taken it in both middle and high school; still don’t know why I was required to take it). English was okay, too, but I was pretty intimidated when the professor wanted me to read half of an entire book before the next class (oh, 18-year old me; just wait until you transfer schools and switch your major to Literature). And the college success seminar was useful, but ridiculously easy.

Interior design was more challenging; it wasn’t an intro course like I had thought, so I always felt behind the rest of the students. There was more work in that class, too. There were a lot of tools to get used to. I had to practice sketching rooms quickly for future clients (this in particular let me know I wasn’t in the right place). I had to become familiar with a lot of furniture and time period designs. It was intimidating, but my professor was very sympathetic and helped me out. Maybe I shouldn’t have been in the class, but it still counted towards my degree requirements, so I stayed.

However, art was the worst. Let’s run down the list:

Early class. Check.

Pretentious, unhelpful, critical professor. Check.

Expensive required materials. Check.

Time-consuming homework. Check.

Intro to art represented everything a shitty college course had. And it was intro.

My first major lesson was the difference between high school and college art. High school art classes, at least in my school, consisted of two types of students: the art kids and the kids who wanted a free period. The kids who wanted to get better at art could get help or advice from the teacher, and the others passed as long as they were working on something. The art room was practically divided between aspiring artists and people that doodled or played with the art supplies while talking all period.

My community college art course consisted of critically analyzing our homework for the first hour, being taught a new technique for a half hour, being lectured about my professor’s life as an artist for another half hour, and drawing still-life for the next hour while he walked around the room, getting frustrated because we couldn’t draw as well as he’d like.

Damn our limited, fresh-out-of-high-school abilities. How dare we waste his fucking valuable time?

My art professor was the type of instructor who was mad he wasn’t teaching at a high-ranking institution like Pratt, but instead at some lowly community college. He was the kind of professor that arrived an hour early to an 8 am class so he could tell tardy students that he was able to wake up and make it to class an hour early, so there was no excuse for them to be late. He was the type of guy who would encourage questions about how to improve your work, but when you asked, he kept implying you were being lazy and needed to put more time into it.

He was the type of guy who, unprovoked, introduced himself on the first day as someone that didn’t watch television because it made people lazy. He only owned a small TV that he used to watch art videos.

Thanks, guy. I was just about to ask about that.

During the second week of class, a few car accidents slowed down traffic on the way to campus. I was going to be late, no doubt. I usually leave early when I need to be somewhere, but the extra time wasn’t enough. I arrived on campus 10 or 15 minutes past the start of class. I was probably 20 minutes late by the time I actually made it to the classroom.

Upon entering the classroom, my art professor had the following speech prepared:

“You’re the seventh person late to my class this morning. The next time you’re late to my class, I won’t allow you in. This will count as an absence, and starting with the second absence, your final letter grade will drop by one.”

So cold. So ruthless. He freaked me out so much, that next week, I left 90 minutes early for the 45 minute drive to campus. This would, unfortunately, be something I’d do for every class during my time at community college. But on the plus side, I used the spare time to do homework, and I was never late to class again.

The homework, though… ah, the fucking homework!

We never got homework in high school art class. Maybe, like, once, if we needed to complete a project and somehow didn’t have enough class time to finish. But college art… I mean, if you went to art school or were an art major or something, I could understand, but this generalized intro class being the cause of the majority of my homework and anxiety? What the hell?

At first, it wasn’t that bad. Our professor wanted us to draw something every week, and he wanted us to time ourselves. Each week needed to have a minimum amount of time spent working on our assignments, and we were supposed to write how long it took on the finished art. He started us out small at first, having us draw apples, spheres, and other basic shaped-objects for 30 minutes. But within a few weeks we were drawing more complicated things for hours. I remember spending 15-20 hours on the final project alone. But after looking through all my old assignments, I didn’t have the time written on it, so I can’t be sure.

I’m not going to lie, after attending two colleges and the entire time put into my Literature courses… working 20 hours on an assignment was fairly common. Not every assignment, mind you. Mostly term papers. And final portfolios included work from throughout each semester, including revised and reworked short stories, so I easily put in 20 hours for those.

But for someone that was used to coming home from school at 2:30 every afternoon, with maybe 1 or 2 homework assignments from all my classes combined, most of which took 15-30 minutes and were already done during lunch… it was incredibly intimidating to come home with homework assignments from every class, every day, and one of these classes was requiring me to work for hours during most weeks.

I mean… I was already working 25 hours a week at my part-time job. I spent another 14 hours a week in class. 7 more hours a week were devoted to the commute. That’s 46 hours a week, and now I had all of this time-consuming homework to do? By the next class? And one of these classes wanted me to spend hours on every single assignment???

I started getting up at 5 am just to find the time to get more homework done. I would usually either be at class or start driving a few hours later. I’d come home, work on more homework, go to work on my now exclusive 5-10pm schedule, and try to get more homework in before going to bed around midnight. I was fucking exhausted. 13th grade, my ass.

I know what you’re thinking. Why not just draw something for a little while and make up a time to put down? Or why not drop the class? Or that interior design class, if it was also taking up so much time and I didn’t even need it?

People, I was unfortunately an honest student. I didn’t have it in me to lie about an assignment like that.

But I did think about it.

I had fantasies of starting off small, writing down an extra few minutes at first, and over time working my way up to a few hours.

A few weeks in, however, someone else had the same idea and the balls to try it out. We had to spend 2 hours on that week’s assignment. When the time came to critique our work, our professor looked over his art.

“… This took you 2 hours?” he asked.

“Yeah,” the student responded.

This… took you 2 hours?”

“Um… yeah. About 2 hours.”

About 2 hours?” our professor asked.

“Well, it was almost 2 hours,” the embarrassed student admitted.

“How long did this actually take you?” our professor inquired.

There was a momentary silence as the student fidgeted in his seat.

“Like… 45 minutes,” he finally said.

Our professor took his art down, tore it up, and told him to do it again (okay, he didn’t tear it up, but I’ve heard of art students who had professors that tore their work up). We were then lectured about how real art takes time, and work, and time, and that we need to be putting in all of this time to become better artists, and that none of us were going to pass his class unless we put the time he required into our work (and yes, I know he’s right, but keep in mind I was 18 and absolutely terrified by this point).

He knew. He just… somehow knew whether or not we were working as long as we were supposed to be. And needless to say, I was too scared to take any chances.

As for dropping the class, well… I didn’t really understand the concept of dropping classes at that point. The option was simply unknown to me.

Eventually, I’d crawled my way to the end of the semester. I felt pretty broken by that point, but I’d passed all my classes for my first semester of college. I’d even gotten all A’s, something I hadn’t done since elementary school.

At the end of the final day of art, my professor told me I’d done really well. It was weird, seeing him act kind and supportive. Maybe this was one of those classes where the professor tried to weed out the weak by acting brutal. But he said I had a lot of potential, and wanted to know if I was going to take any art classes next semester. I told him no, and he was a little surprised. He wanted to know why.

I honestly don’t remember what I told him, but what he’d been saying to us throughout the entire semester was one of the most important things college has taught me:

Whatever you end up doing for a living is going to take up the majority of your time. So you’d better love it.

And the truth was I didn’t love art. By the end of the semester, I hated it. When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be a cartoonist. I loved Garfield and FoxTrot, and I cut out strips from the Sunday paper into a notebook, using them as a template to make my own comics. During high school, I fell in love with video game art from the RPGs I was playing. I redrew them all the time, and eventually wanted to make art for video games. Although I didn’t look into art schools while applying for college, I really thought I wanted to do something with art, and I hoped community college would help me find those stepping stones to a future school.

I loved drawing. During my free time. But after spending 15 weeks of drowning myself in art assignments, I knew this wasn’t for me. I wasn’t happy. And I was glad I found that out when I did, rather than at some art school I had to take a loan out for. Of course, now I truly had no idea which direction to take, school wise. But that’s another story.

So yeah, my first semester was pretty rough. It sounds kind of silly now, though. But what can I say? I had a hard time adjusting to everything. Almost every hour of every day was either spent driving, working at my job, sitting in class, or working on some assignment. It’s a lot for any recent high school graduate to get used to. I don’t know if I’d say it was the most difficult semester of college for me, but it was definitely up there. Getting used to it all was a really big challenge. College completely took me by surprise. I really wish I learned earlier the benefit of grouping all my classes into 2 or 3 days. The extra time really would have helped.

And to anyone reading that’s just about to start college, I hope I didn’t scare you. This just happened to be an unfortunate set of circumstances, but at least now I can laugh at it. You’re probably going to run into some shitty professors, but with any luck the good ones will outweigh them. Good luck, and don’t underestimate your workload! A good planner will become your new best friend!

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One thought on “The First Semester of College

  1. Pingback: Dealing with Depression — Revisiting Community College | sometypeofartist

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