Come Get Some Delicious Education, Kids!

I work as a student tour guide for Northeastern. My job is simple: show prospective students and parents Northeastern’s campus, field questions about the school, and talk about why I love going here. It’s an easy job and I like doing it. I’m giving excited high schoolers an insider’s look at the fantasyland that is college. Anything is possible here, kids. Take the classes you want. Eat pizza and burgers all day. Meet your best friends. Travel the world. Find your calling. Be fulfilled.

And sure, college is a great place. But when I give the Northeastern spiel, when I talk about “opportunity,” “experiential learning,” “living-learning communities,” and “Husky pride,” I’m reminded of my old U.S. history teacher, who would hold up a picture of an oily used car salesman every time he wanted his students to call out the bullshit spewed by historical figures. I feel like I ought to don that salesman’s crappy suit and sleazy smile and end my tour with, “And if you sign up today, we will guarantee only a 15% tuition hike over 5 years!” Because no matter how much I want to feel like I’m helping students make an important life decision, I’m really just a salesman for Northeastern. I never tell the people on my tour how miserable I was as a freshman, how long it took me to adjust, how I absolutely hate my co-op. I never tell them that Northeastern might be wrong for them. Because that’s not how you sell an old car.

But my job fits perfectly the mentality of large universities today. That is, the mentality of sales. Education and experience are sold like consumer products to donors and students alike. Northeastern’s fundraising campaign, Empower, feels less like a school asking for money than it does a commercialized kickstarter. “Through the Power of We, Northeastern will secure $1 billion by 2017,” it predicts boldly.[1] And then: “Experiential. Relevant. Entrepreneurial. Empowering. Some things about Northeastern will never change. But the Empower campaign will—with your help—transform higher education for today’s students and professionals. And it will fuel our efforts to solve the greatest global challenges of our time.”[2]

This rhetoric is Holden Caulfield-level phony, over the top even for Northeastern’s standards. But in subtler ways, students are inundated with a seemingly inescapable sales pitch. Northeastern runs various social media campaigns to market student life. #TrueNortheastern and #BeYOUAtNU allow students to talk about their experiences, but in a completely idealized way. One of my friends recently used the #BeYOUAtNU meme generator to voice his feelings of exclusion as a minority on campus. His fist is raised in a black power salute, captioned “Be Proud.” That meme cannot be found on the #BeYOUAtNU website. You can, however, find dozens of feel-good memes like “Be A Mentor,” “Be Entrepreneurial,” and “Be An Explorer,” with pictures of laughing students throwing up peace signs. It would appear that Northeastern doesn’t want you to #BeYOUAtNU unless your experience is positive. These campaigns call attention to Northeastern’s awesome students doing amazing co-ops in incredible places without acknowledging those who struggle. They are misrepresentative idealizations of student life. Advertisements.

The thing is, Northeastern needs to advertise, to sell itself. We need to raise money in order to provide more resources, and we need to attract the best students. But the way we, along with other large universities, go about doing this is disingenuous. We have made college seem like paradise with class on the side – a place where struggles melt away in a mix of student clubs, study abroad trips, and partying, where achievement is given and pain is null.

But the reality is quite different. In colleges throughout the country, depression and suicide rates are skyrocketing.[3] There is a real mental health crisis on university campuses. Much of the blame has been attributed to cutthroat academics and social media, but it’s bigger than that. We need to rethink how we portray college to high schoolers. If it’s supposed to be “the best 4 years of your life,” what does it mean when you come to college and struggle? What does it mean when you end up lost, shirking homework and class to sleep 14 hours a day? It means that you’re failing what should’ve been a walk in the park, that there’s something seriously wrong with you. But we all know that’s not true. We know how bitingly lonely and devastating college can be. We know that it’s not a paradise. So why do we tell kids otherwise?

College is a half-decade of experience in the formative years of our lives. It is not a product to be sold. I’ve seen too many of my peers come in with great expectations only to find themselves mired in apathy. We need to be honest about what college is and what it isn’t. I’m now in my third year, and I’ve had some great experiences. But I feel most defined by the not-so-great ones: the sub-zero February mornings, the unexpected homesickness, the slow realization that I have no idea what I want to do in life. And that, surprisingly, is why college is awesome. Because it peels back the force-fed romance and leaves you with something better: possibility.  

So I’m going to wipe off my grimy tour guide grin and be completely honest.

Prospective students: College will be hard. Your dorms will be tiny, your food will be nauseating, and you will at some point rethink all of your life choices. If you go to Northeastern, you will be cold. All of the time. And your social life will probably suck as a freshman. But that’s okay. In fact, it’s good. Because college is a place where you’re meant to grow. And that doesn’t happen if you’re comfortable.


[1] “The Power of We.” Empower. Accessed October 16, 2015.

[2] “About Empower.” About Empower. Accessed October 16, 2015.

[3] Schwarz, Alan. “More College Freshmen Report Having Felt Depressed.” The New York Times. February 4, 2015. Accessed October 16, 2015.

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