Chen: NU students are already living in the ‘real world’

Sophie Chen, Op-Ed Contributor

I’ve recently figured out that I’m quite the interdimensional traveler. And, evidently, so is anyone enrolled in higher education. Being a lifelong student, my forays into internships and post-graduation plans have elicited bleak welcomes into what many refer to as the “real world.” As I’ve advanced through college, I’ve become gradually accustomed to hearing such phrases, yet I’m increasingly puzzled about what they mean.

The idea that college kids live in another world is a pervasive one. Articles in The American Conservative and Buzzfeed don’t usually have much overlap, yet one idea both publications are happy to not only write about but agree on (along with copious other news outlets) is that college kids seem to occupy a fantastical domain. From a misconstrued sense of multiculturalism to a mistaken work ethic, college kids are apparently coddled in a way that does not allow them to function on the same plane as people in the “real world.”

But what is the “real world” really? The concept that critics usually stick to is the slog of the cubicle native: the 9-to-5 toiler with a real knack for watercooler talk and closing Facebook when their boss walks past. This poor creature’s workspace bears a gray pallor with no hint of career classification — just an aura of adulthood-ness that is colored by strict rules, stricter wardrobes and immaculate punctuality.

If that indeed is the “real world,” then I concede — college feels nothing like it.

But that’s not the real world.

The truth is that workplaces can be very diverse and, depending on what professional moves you make, can often seem more college-like than college itself. Freelancers have debatably more flexible schedules than the ones doled out on CAESAR and the dress code at Google can be more casual than a 9 a.m. Friday discussion section. Arguably, voting sessions at the U.S. Senate have a worse attendance policy than even the largest lecture class.

And even if the “real world” did adhere to that drab depiction, naysayers assume too much about the college experience for their criticisms to be accurate. When examined critically, most popular arguments fall flat. To say that undergraduate students do not have people skills would be false: college is a hotbed of hard-to-navigate social interactions. To say that undergraduate students are not monetarily independent would also be false: there are many students who earn their own scholarships and work to repay their own loans. And to say that undergraduate students are not independent, period, would be grossly false: in fact, op-eds on this very page addressing the high costs of this campus’ career-mindedness indicate an almost callous culture of self-sufficiency.

Investing in the falsehood of the “real world” can be dangerous. As any Northwestern student will attest to, the idea of being unprepared when applying for a job is an omnipresent dread around these parts. And even those looking to continue their education after graduation are often told that their choice is simply an attempt at forestalling entrance into the “real world.”

Honestly, the issue most cynics have with college is probably the superficial stuff. Thursday partying and late-night Mario Kart tournaments may strike a sour note with some people, but they’re not fundamental shortcomings that condemn a whole demographic to unemployment. So don’t worry. The choices you make now and the lessons you learn in (and out of) class won’t suddenly disappear when you’ve entered the “real world” — not only because those lessons will certainly turn out to be valuable, but because you’ve already been living in the “real world” this whole time.

Sophie Chen is a Weinberg junior. 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.