College Ten Years Later: Losing My Nostalgia

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Growing Older

I hadn’t been back to visit my alma mater in nearly ten years. This fall, I finally returned. I stayed on campus for little over an hour, and I saw everything I needed to.

on the Georgetown University campus in Washington, D.C., October 2022

In nine and a half years since I graduated, I’ve spent plenty of time looking back fondly on the time I spent in college. For the most part, what I remembered most fondly was the community of learning: I didn’t party, I didn’t play sports, but I did (and still do) love to learn. I will continue to treasure memories of unique and interesting classes like “History of Ireland,” “Tradition and Modernity in Francophone Africa,” “Native Americans Making North America,” and many more. And, I’ll always remember the people who were there with me for that learning—friends, classmates, TAs, professors, and others.

However, when I returned to campus a few weeks ago, I realized there’s a lot of college nostalgia I just can’t maintain anymore. When I saw the young students walking around campus and studying in the library, I did feel a little bit of envy for their lifestyle—but not as much as I might have expected. When I looked at the undergraduates on campus and thought about when I was in their place, I realized that I just don’t have any desire to trade places with them now.

For many students—though certainly not all of them—college is a time of limited adult responsibilities. Those limited responsibilities then mean there's more freedom to focus on other things. Many students can afford to spend huge amounts of their time on socializing and partying, working out and playing sports, or learning and studying. Depending on what they prioritize and how they try to balance everything, they can spend amounts of time on these activities that they might never be able to spend again, perhaps not for the rest of their lives. Work, financial responsibilities, family obligations, and more will all take over, and it's tough to return to a time when those things didn't have to take priority. That's essentially what drove most of my nostalgia: I wished I could spend more years learning, studying, reading, and writing whatever I wanted, without having to worry about any big responsibilities.

When I looked around the campus, though, the students I saw didn’t seem very free. Or, rather, the freedom they may experience didn’t look as enticing as the freedoms I am able to enjoy as a 31-year-old now. Of course, COVID has had a major impact on college experiences the last few years, and continues to influence how current students interact with university staff and with each other. That’s not what changed my perspective, though.

Instead, what changed my perspective the most wasn’t seeing the college again or thinking about student life, but me. Nearly ten years after my graduation, I feel substantially more free, secure, and fulfilled in my life than I did in college. Yes, I have had to take on far more adult responsibilities since I left college, and no, I have not generally had the same amount of free time for reading, writing, hanging out, messing around, or whatever else I did as a student. Nevertheless, I have found immense satisfaction in finding my own path, advancing my career, and building lasting relationships in my community.

I used to love collecting library books in my dorm room. These days, with my own house and a classroom to store books in, my personal library is quite a bit larger and a little bit out of control.

Again, I should emphasize that not everyone has the experience of feeling like they have fewer obligations and more freedom while in college: That’s generally the privilege of young adults who don’t have to work while going to school, who can live on or near campus, and whose costs of living and studying are paid for by family, scholarships, or loans they won’t have to worry about until later. But that’s the catch: Even for students who do enjoy that relatively carefree college experience, it’s being subsidized—either by someone else’s money, or by your future loan-repaying adult self.

At age 31, I get to live my life on my own terms, without having to take out loans or pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition. Although I might usually have less free time than I did in college, the things I spend time on as an adult are things that I’ve consciously made time for.

Now that I think about it, it seems clear that there are middle-aged adults who can read, write, study, and follow self-directed learning routines better than college students, middle-aged adults who can work out more effectively and maintain better health regimens than college students, and even middle-aged adults who can party better than college students! (I doubt many people fit all those categories at once, though.)

The learning, exercising, and partying may look very different for middle-aged, out-of-college people, but experienced adults are likely to have a deeper understanding of what they do best and what they truly enjoy, not to mention more money to spend on those things. As a result, they can use their time much more effectively and focus on what really matters to them. Age, experience, and independence bring plenty of advantages and rewards.

For my case in particular, I think the key in being able to banish my feelings of nostalgia for dedicated learning time is that, this year, I actually have a lot of it! I took advantage of my professional experience and financial stability to go on sabbatical. Of course, not every 31-year-old is as fortunate as I am to be financially secure, well-established in a fulfilling career, and happily building deeper connections to a community that they love. I understand how incredibly precious it is to have those things, and I don’t ever take them for granted.

A college senior in 2013 vs. a 31-year-old dude in 2022: I may have gained some weight and lost some of my hairline, but far more important than that, I’ve gained an immense amount of confidence, independence, fulfillment, and—I would hope—wisdom. I don’t have much reason to want to go back to my college days.

With all that said, I certainly don’t blame anyone for having some nostalgia for their college days. A little nostalgia never hurt anybody (probably). And who knows—in a few years, if my life gets busier or more stressful, my college nostalgia might gradually return.

Regardless, here’s my wish for anyone who’s out of college, especially people my age or older: I hope you can build a life in which you can keep following the passions you had when you were younger. I hope you won’t have to feel nostalgic because you’ll still be finding and creating great opportunities for yourself, however old you are or however busy your life might be. I sincerely hope you can make time for yourself, and spend your time on whatever matters to you most.

Please leave a comment below with your thoughts!

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Peter Stanton

I’m a history teacher writing a book on the Tlingit 19th century. Waashdan Ḵwáan. Kichxháanx’ yéi xhat yatee. (American settler in Ketchikan) Tw: @peterstanton