Getting Out of the College Comfort Zone

Transitioning to the real world will be a lot simpler if you keep in mind that you’re not in it yet.

By Gwynn Lyons, Stanford University


The way I tend to view college is as a stepping-stone to adulthood.

It’s a transition period in which the independence, curiosity and openness to the world that students have gained in their adolescence finally get to assert themselves in a parent-free environment. College is a playground where students try and fail at being real adults, so that they have some bearings when they are released into the real world.

I do think that college prepares students for the real world in certain valuable ways, but I don’t think many people, myself included, fully realize when they enter college, the ways in which it can act as a “bubble,” an enclave that gives its inhabitants a distorted sense of reality because it misrepresents the world. As a result, college students often must suffer uncomfortable growing pains when they confront the unexpected challenges of post-grad life.

Characteristics of the “Bubble”

Some of the ways that college insulates students are obvious. Stanford, my home institution, is the ultimate bubble: It is literally its own city, with its own police force, post office and small shops. World-class museums, gyms and libraries are within a ten-minute bike ride of my residence; I could easily go an entire four years without setting foot off campus.

The immediate area around Stanford is just as gentrified as the university itself. But, if I biked an extra twenty minutes into East Palo Alto, I’d see a much different scene: A city grappling with crime and poverty, the reverse image of its thriving neighbor. Because Stanford provides for all my basic needs and more, I have no reason to do this, and in this unintentional omission, I lose touch with reality.

How to Burst the College “Bubble” That You Are Almost Certainly Living In

Image via The Collection

By establishing expectations and standards of behavior that the real world will never meet, the college bubble can also affect students in more insidious ways. For example, though college students work hard, they also learn to luxuriate in laziness; in my experience, it’s acceptable to wear pajamas to class, or to spend a day watching Netflix after a hard midterm.

I don’t condemn these practices—in fact, I think they’re probably better for students’ mental health—but I think that the working world isn’t as accepting of these attitudes as students are. Wearing flip-flops to an investment bank isn’t going to cut it. If college students at least became aware of how unusual their attitudes were, the potentially difficult process of adjusting to the workplace would be made easier.

College students’ attitudes encompass more than just views on laziness. Students also learn to question authority in a way that, even within the country, is forbidden in some contexts, and is certainly maligned in other places in the world. The criticisms that one might make of one’s professor would take on a more dangerous, incendiary flavor when posed to a policeman. It takes time to learn the line between innocence and insolence, and this learning process can be disastrous if it takes place outside the protective space of college.

The most damaging part of the college bubble, though, is the expectations that it creates about social interactions in the real world. Once students have spent four years interacting with brilliant, interesting people, they expect those interactions to continue after they graduate. They expect to make friends as easily as they did in college, and they expect them to be as awesome as their college friends. From what I’ve heard from college grads, dealing with this loss of community is one of the biggest challenges. That’s not to say that it is impossible to find people who will engage you in the way your college friends did, but it certainly is more difficult.

The education that students get in college can also make interactions with acquaintances and strangers more difficult. The detached, intellectual approach that students learn to take to real-world issues may not jive with others’ approaches.

Paradoxically, education can cause college students to become more out of touch with the things they learn about.

Take this example: Suppose you encounter someone selling meth. You understand the economic and social forces that have pushed them to these activities, and you want to help them by showing them that there are other alternatives to make money. But, these explanations may not be valid for the dealer; they think in practical, concrete terms that your intellectual explanations just cannot touch. In this case, as in others, college students’ educations can create a barrier between themselves and other people.

Bursting the “Bubble”

The college bubble is a problem, and I don’t have a solid solution for it. An awareness of the privilege of their education, as well as the unrealistic expectations it upholds, is at least part of the solution for prepping for post-grad. Talking to college grads can also help, as well as trying to get off campus. Just the realization that there is a bubble makes a lot of progress toward bursting it.

And this isn’t to say that students should deny themselves the benefits of the bubble: Students pay for college for a reason, and they should make the most of their experience. Their peers have much to offer them, as do the resources of their institutions. This also isn’t to say that college doesn’t facilitate students’ transition into adulthood in some ways. From what I’ve observed, college contributes a lot to students’ personal development, giving them time to figure out what is important to them and chart a path to their goals.

The bubble exists, in part, to protect from the time-sucking responsibilities and burdens of the real adult world. But, until students realize that there is a real world beyond college—that the bubble exists—they will only make their transition to adulthood more difficult.