Everybody’s heard about the mythology of college—the late nights, the wild parties, the fun times without parental supervision. Every single university has this kind of story. It’s the universal college experience. When I was preparing for college, everybody recited the same mantra over and over: college is a time to let loose and party hard. It’s all part of the experience, everyone said. It’s what every student does. So when I packed up and moved down to Los Angeles, I prepared myself for these wild experiences. Granted, I never really attended many late-night raves before; I’ve always preferred to stay inside and read a book than go out and party hard. But it’d be different in college, I thought. On Friday nights, I’d meet up with my friends and explore the wonders of college kickbacks.
As it turned out, though, I ended up exploring the opposite: the intricacies of staying late at a coffee shop.
Specifically, the on-campus coffee shop. Tucked underneath the main dining hall, the coffee shop offered a small, cozy space and sold a wide variety of drinks and pastries. During the day, though, finding a seat was absolutely impossible.
But at night, the place emptied out, leaving behind vacant seats and free pastries. Only the baristas remained in the shop and they probably couldn’t wait to get off their shift to go elsewhere. For me, however, I couldn’t picture going anywhere else. It was quiet and peaceful, just how I liked it. Most Friday nights I claimed a table and absorbed myself in a book or my laptop, completely in my element. After a long week of classes and exams and socializing, unwinding in the coffee shop was just what I needed.
But it was also the opposite of what everyone told me how college would be.
Truthfully, I’d envisioned the complete opposite, too. What about the parties? What about the wild kickbacks, which everyone seemed to remember so vividly? I told myself that if I heard about these events, I’d make myself go to them. But time passed and I heard nothing, nor did I seek out information. So instead of heading off-campus every Friday night, I made a beeline for the coffee shop, where I could tuck myself into its quiet familiarity. It was nice, of course. And relaxing. But also very different from mine—and everyone else’s—expectations.
Frankly, I worried about this. I wondered if I’d started transforming into a social recluse, or if I’d experienced college all wrong. Yet despite these thoughts, I knew the thought ridiculous. After all, I’d done a fair share of socializing: I had study sessions with classmates, met up with friends for lunch, joined the Chinese and Japanese culture clubs—all of which were teeming with people. Whenever someone wanted to hang out, I always said yes. But I seemed to miss out on the parties held both on and off campus, the myth that should’ve shaped my college experience. I didn’t understand why.
But the more nights I spent in the coffee shop, the more I realized that I didn’t fit the excessive partying type—nor did I need to turn into one. Going to college didn’t mean I’d suddenly shed my introverted skin, forgo all my old comforts. It didn’t mean I’d become a wild partier. It just meant that in this strange, new, limitless place, I’d discover myself, based on what I liked to do. And if that meant going to a coffee shop instead of a party, then so be it.
I didn’t need to meet other people’s expectations of college; they’d had their own experiences. But this was my experience and I could enjoy it how I wanted to.
I stopped measuring my experience through others’ expectations and did what I liked. I met up with classmates for instant ramen and movie marathons, explored my heritage through the Chinese and Japanese culture club outings and of course, drank tea and read several books in the on-campus coffee shop.
These weren’t exactly wild outings, but they became fond memories that helped me understand my own identity. College didn’t mean following the footsteps of everyone who came before, I realized. No, it meant forging your own path, opening doors of possibilities.
And if that path leads to the doors of a coffee shop, well, there’s nothing wrong with following it. After all, it’s another step forward into the future.