College is not different from the ‘real world’

The university isn’t an escape from problems, it is where people try to solve them.

by Trent M. Kays

As a student and teacher, I participate in many discussions where the concept of college life versus the real world is argued. It seems that some, both in and outside higher education, continue to push this distinction. Some think college life cannot compare to the real world, or that college life isnâÄôt the real world. This distinction has always been problematic for me because IâÄôve never understood college life and the real world to be separate.

The problem arises out of a belief that even though someone is 18 years old, they may not be ready for the real world, that even though they are in college, they still are not ready for the real world. But what does that even mean? How do we decide what is and isnâÄôt the real world? For example: the University of Minnesota, like many other universities, is equal in size to a small town. The university has close to 53,000 students, both undergraduate and graduate, who attend and frequent the main Twin Cities campus. The town where I was born only had 50,000 people, so the universityâÄôs Twin Cities campus is larger than my hometown. That is a sobering fact.

It seems ridiculous to suggest that 53,000 students, many of whom work part- time jobs, attend classes full time, and engage in extracurricular activities, are not participating in the real world. When I was an undergraduate student, I worked a full- time job, took four to five classes a semester, and made time to serve in student leadership roles. I know there are students in similar circumstances, so I take it as an affront when pundits, news outlets, politicians, and other people continually push this false distinction onto college students.

If youâÄôre in college, then you are in the real world. There is no distinction to be made, despite the great amount of opinions and articles published to the contrary. The same skills students use in the university are the ones theyâÄôll be expected to use outside of the university, albeit usually for different audiences. TheyâÄôll need to budget and pay bills, theyâÄôll sometimes need to go to bed early in order to awake early for work, theyâÄôll need to navigate between audiences, and theyâÄôll need to make hard decisions about the course of their career and life. All of these skills are integral to life in and outside the university.

College is a place where students are no longer sheltered from the ills of the world by their parents. It is a place of discovery and, often, discomfort. The same could be said for life outside of college. Indeed, the world outside the university doesnâÄôt magically stop because someone is in college. ThatâÄôs not how it works. Life goes on. Furthermore, college isnâÄôt a shelter from the problems of the world. It could more aptly be described as a nexus for the problems of the world.

In the university, you have students from different economic and social classes, you have students from different cultures, and you have students who suffer physically, mentally, and spiritually. Often, little known or seen problems around the world are brought into the classroom where teachers highlight said problems and form ideas on how to fix them. Students learn about cultural appropriation and diaspora, famine, genocide, humanitarianism, financial responsibility, and governmental problems. All of these issues exist in the world, and they do not stop existing inside the university. In fact, they are brought into the university and made more apparent, so future generations of leaders, advocates, and activists can work to change them for the better.

Moreover, to suggest that college isnâÄôt the real world is dismissive of students. It devalues their experiences as if they donâÄôt matter. But they matter in dramatic ways. It is often during a studentâÄôs college experience that he or she begins to understand and form opinions about the world. It wasnâÄôt until my college experience that I began to see the world as I do, and while I had many experiences of the world outside the university, it doesnâÄôt mean I value one experience more than the other. They both are important parts of who I am, and the experiences students garner in and outside the university will be important parts of who they are.

ItâÄôs typical of American society to create strong distinctions where little to none exists. Often, a person becomes an adult, and then they are told they donâÄôt matter. It is easy to dismiss students still in college as not being in the real world because it is easy to romanticize the university. It is easy to think that the university is a wholly separate institution from the rest of society. But, the truth is that the differences between life in and outside the university are nil. Perhaps the greatest strength of the university is that the community created and maintained by students is strong and established. At the university, students have better access to a community of peers than they would outside of it. They have access to people who want to help them. They have access to people with wealthy life experiences, and they interact with political and economic situations in mostly the same way as they would outside the university.

Believing that there is a strong division between college and the real world is a false belief. It is to believe in something that just doesnâÄôt exist. The university magnifies the world outside of it, and it can remind many students of just how lucky they are.