Now that I’m a senior (and graduating in four months—yikes), I’ve had a lot of time to get familiar with all the ins and outs of college life and settle into a pretty comfortable routine. But it certainly wasn’t always that way. Now that I’m approaching the end of college, I find myself reflecting on my experience, and particularly my first year, which  feels like it was both yesterday and a million years ago. Since I’m the first person in my family to attend a traditional four-year university straight out of high school, most of what I thought I knew about college came from TV and movies, which, I would learn very quickly, were much further from reality than I thought—in a good way, though! So for those of you who are anything like I was, allow me to impart some of my spiciest surprises and subverted expectations.

Syllabus day/the first day:

You know how in movies, the protagonist walks into their first day of class and the professor tells everyone, “We’re going to discuss the first three chapters of the textbook, which I expect you to have read already because we’re having a quiz the very next class”? Not the case at all. You will spend the first day of every single class going over course expectations and structure, materials requirements, and grading and attendance policies, and you’re probably going to finish the day wondering if you should just start carrying around a recording of you declaring your year and major because that’s always the icebreaker Every. Single. Time.

Wait, what’s a syllabus?

If you’re surprised by the idea of syllabus day, you may also be like I was and not have a clue what a syllabus is. Basically, it’s a hefty document you’ll receive on the very first day of class that lists every single assignment, project, and exam that you will have during the semester. Syllabus day is pretty boring and procedural but extremely important.

I can really say that?!

If you can back up a statement, you can get away with saying it. This may pertain to mostly high-school English versus college English, but in high school, my English teachers would usually be fishing for an answer or a really canonical interpretation. In college, you’re encouraged to think outside the box and venture out into uncharted intellectual waters, so long as you can explain your thinking. Also, you can swear in class. Sometimes the professors might swear. It’s always fun going from scandalized fresh-out-of-high-school shock to watching other first-years have that same reaction. But hey, we’re all kind of adults now!

You can sit with us. Or them. Or whoever you want.

People tend to be more social chameleons in college. Media gives the impression that early 2000s high-school social groups translate into college, but (shockingly) that’s not the case. Because there’s a lot more variety and choice when it comes to classes, you might have a group of friends you’ve bonded with in your theater classes for your minor, another group you’re friends with because you worked with them on a physics project, and another you met through your roommate.

Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?

This was probably to be expected given that SU is so small, but I’ve had the same people in multiple different classes. This was something I was really used to in high school (heck, I even went to kindergarten with some people I walked across the stage with!) but not something I was necessarily expecting to happen in college. So it was actually a pleasantly surprising, familiar experience, just with a new group of people. You inevitably end up bonding with at least some of the people you see over and over again, and you get to see their education, careers, and lives change and take off over the course of college. It’s kind of cool how you can have a class with someone, then see them again two semesters later, and they’ll tell you about how they got their first apartment or landed a fun internship over the summer.

Wherefore art thou?

There are a lot more biology, kinesiology, and premed students at SU than I was expecting! Since Southwestern is a liberal-arts school, I was expecting there to be mostly humanities majors, but there’s a really diverse range of students across all the majors and even more with interesting double major or major–minor combos. For example, I know a guy who’s a physics and theater double major. However, as an English major myself, I can say that male English majors are kind of the unicorns of SU.

No one knows what they’re doing.

Flashback again to early 2000s movies in which the protagonist is this woefully naive summer child and all their peers are these incredibly mature, street-savvy adults in comparison. In reality, everyone in college is a baby adult. So if you feel clueless, just know you’re not alone. You’re surrounded by more than one person who can legally vote but doesn’t know that you need to put pasta in water in order to cook it.

I guess this is a thing I have to buy.

This may be more along the lines of living semi-independently in general, but there are so many hidden costs that come with it because you find out that you need to buy all these things you don’t normally think about. Stuff like bread and eggs and gasoline are obvious, but I’ve kicked myself more than once when I realized I needed items like a toilet brush or batteries.

You need to seek out opportunities!

Very rarely will things like internships, club membership, etc. just fall into your lap unless a professor who knows you pretty well sends something your way—and establishing that relationship still requires some legwork in and of itself.

I can just have conversations with my professors??

Following up on the above, I bet you’re wondering whether it’s easy to establish a good relationship with your professors. Yes and no. Yes, because (1) the professors at SU are some of the best teachers I’ve ever had in my entire life, (2) not just doing the bare minimum but going above and beyond when participating in class or completing assignments will get you noticed, and (3) the faculty are always available to talk to. So why the “no”? Speaking from personal experience, I wasn’t expecting my professors to be so approachable. The lovely dumpster fire that is mainstream cinema’s take on college life had it ingrained in me that professors were a bunch of burned-out academics who just wanted to flex their big brain muscles on a bunch of twenty-somethings. Even some of my high-school teachers gave me that impression (e.g., “Your college professors won’t go so easy on you!”). Because of this, I and a lot of my peers came into college feeling really intimidated by our professors. However, it didn’t take long for us to realize that our professors were nowhere near uptight and that they genuinely care about the subjects they teach and want to impart that knowledge to us. Match their energy, and you’ll make a lot of new friends and mentors in no time.

I hope that any prospective or first-year students who’ve come across this have been able to gain a little valuable insight into the college experience or have any lingering anxieties assuaged. And for any of my fellow upperclassmen out there, I hope this was a fun little trip down memory lane. I guess that’s one more thing that’s surprised me about college: just how much my peers and I have all grown from our first year going into our last.