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Lachow: Parents, friends should normalize tumultuous first year at college

Hannah Lachow, Op-Ed Contributor

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“Is she happy there?”

The question seems easy enough. Yes or no. I mindlessly scroll through Instagram, liking photos of distant high school acquaintances on various elevated surfaces.

“Is she?” My mom persists.

I pull up my friend’s Instagram.

“I don’t know. She looks happy.”

My mom is frustrated with my answer, exasperated with my attachment to my phone and my resistance to elaborate. While perhaps fair, I also cannot elaborate. I don’t really know how. The question, quintessential and cliche in itself, actually brings up a significant amount of discomfort and antipathy for me.

Adults, friends and even distant acquaintances would never dream of asking a random high school peer, “Are you happy?” Yet this is the intrusive and personal question often thrown around at college freshmen. It has become deeply ingrained in Thanksgiving and Winter Break conversations, phone calls and even Snapchats. This makes sense: As freshmen, our lives have just been turned upside down, some of us living far from our well-established homes and taking all new classes. My mom, like myself and millions of others who have asked the classic, “Are you happy?” question of college freshmen, is simply curious about the transition to life away from home and the respective university. The effects of this question, and the culture behind it, though, are far from benign.

Many college students are hyper-aware of their moods. There are benefits to knowing and understanding your mood, of course, but some at NU take this to the extreme. Many of us are perpetually anxious trying to find an answer to the, “Are you happy?” or, “Do you like college?” archipelago of questions. This, in conjunction with the obsession with monitoring social media, forces us to feel that if we aren’t happy 24/7, we are doing something wrong.

We are groomed to constantly take stock of our own moods. College freshmen are often terrified of bad moods and sadness, petrified that our lives might not match our carefully crafted social media presences. We might make memes about stress or even romanticize it, but deep down it scares us. That rarely used to be the case. In high school, bad moods are simply a product of life, whether a bad grade or a bad day. Being sick was just being sick, a hard test just a hard test — not anything larger. At college, however, bad moods are coined “rough patches,” emblematic of a larger issue with the school or our transition to it.

It’s not fun to be sad. But it’s worse feeling like being sad means maybe my answer to the simple “are you happy” question is not all as simple as small talk permits.

Bad moods are normal. Most of the time, struggling during the first months or year at college doesn’t reflect anything more than the banalities of daily life. During the first year in college, students should not let the “are you happy?” question obstruct them from feeling and confronting sadness and less-than-Instagram-worthy moments.

Whether from fellow college students, adults back home or friends at other schools, try to avoid boiling months of hard work, new friendships and a jarring transition down to a three-word question. Inquire about friends, classes or a daily routine, but don’t oversimplify a whole new life into one adjective — whether it be happy or sad.

It is just a quaint little question, and I’ve been asked it or a variation of it a million and one times. It’s just about time that we realize the pressure it puts on freshmen, and make an effort to avert it when possible.

Hannah Lachow is a Weinberg freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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