When I’ve told people over the past couple of weeks that I’m transferring from Tufts to a small university in Amsterdam, their words have been encouraging, but I see the skepticism reflected in their faces. I know people wonder how I can leave such a well-established university for a school of just over 900 people in Europe. I understand your concerns. You think I’m compromising my future for the thrill of three years in a foreign country. I had the same fears, and I debated whether I should stay or go for months. However, my reasonings run much deeper than three years of windmills and Heineken, and they are ultimately why I’ve decided to leave.
In high school, at least in the East Coast hypercompetitive bubble I lived in, I felt as though students lived to the extreme, expecting perfection in all that they did. At Tufts, as with many upper-tier American universities, I feel the same extreme fear of failure that I saw in high school. There’s a mentality that anything less than perfection is a reflection of a character defect. Nobody wants to take risks, because it translates to the potential for failure. And while I haven’t found Tufts to be academically cutthroat between students, we talk about depression and suicide as if they’re punch lines to a dark joke, casually joking about the toxic nature of the pressure we put on ourselves to succeed.
This level of academic intensity might have been bearable if I had a semblance of a social life to balance it out. But simply put: This has been the loneliest year of my life. I am not an extrovert, but I’ve also never struggled to make friends, especially in an environment where I’m surrounded by hundreds of similar people. I had ideas of what college life would be before I came to Tufts, both from the media and from my friends, and I feel that Tufts defied all of my expectations. On the weekends, campus feels like a ghost town. I don’t know the name of a single person living in my hall. And for the first time in my life, even after living abroad for a year, I find myself feeling deeply homesick.
This comes coupled with the incredibly polarizing campus debates this semester. In my experience, there is a complete lack of willingness to discuss or make compromises with on-campus issues, and it makes me worried for the future when students who aspire to be politicians, lawyers and other catalysts for change in society refuse to even consider the other side of a situation.
However, my concerns are not limited to Tufts as an individual institution; many of my problems relate to the system of American higher education as a whole. There’s been a lot of buzz on campus about the recent hike in tuition bringing Tufts’ estimated cost next year to over $68,000. This is not unique to Tufts. We’ve become so normalized to private college costs in the United States being over $60,000 that the absurdity of paying nearly a quarter of a million dollars for a bachelor’s degree is almost lost on us.
What’s worse is that there is a level of opacity that goes into college costs in the United States. Millions of dollars a year go to administrative positions that don’t need to exist as well as improvements and upgrades that only serve to feed into competition between private colleges. And, of course, the biggest thing we’re paying for at a university like Tufts is the name. Tufts, like any other prestigious private university, is a brand as much as it is an educational institution. So much of the focus on higher education in the United States has gone towards the empty notion of ‘prestige,’ and with this name comes the promise of a better educational experience. I have taken eight classes at Tufts, and most of them have been forgettable. Several have been terrible. I don’t expect every class I take in college to be perfect. But when a school charges nearly $70,000, I do have certain expectations.
Ultimately, I don’t regret my time at Tufts. I appreciate it for what it let me realize about what I value in my life and for helping me understand what I want out of my education. Most of all, I appreciate it for giving me a glimpse into the realities of a system that I spent years of my life yearning for. My path from here is certainly a lot less straightforward and secure. The name of my university won’t impress anyone anymore. I won’t have a sweatshirt or a sticker to put on my parents’ car. But I’ll be happy, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.