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College: The First Steps To Adulthood

Many of us view colleges or universities as a means of finding one’s individualism – a rebirth, if you will. When I asked a fellow student, William, about his childhood, he recalled it as a time where there was a limitation on everything he did. Everything from his bedtime to the people he was able to associate with, to where he could go and how much television he was allowed to watch, was controlled. There was no time for him to do what he wanted or to think for himself because everything was already pre-planned for him. “Besides the times that I went to school, I was never able to associate with other kids; there were no sleepovers or play dates and the only actual friends I had were my younger cousins who I saw every weekend. But it wasn’t until I was a young teen that I realized that there was more to life than what my parents had envisioned for me. It wasn’t until I was 14 (the first year of high school) that I knew what it meant to live life but there was still the constant “checking up” from my parents.” Looking back to my own childhood, I could not wait to grow up and stop hearing, "you're not old enough," or "you'll understand when you get older.” Now, here I am, standing at the doorway marked “Adulthood,” and I am not sure if I should walk through it or if I am even qualified to do so.

Adult. We’ve heard this word so many times throughout the course of our lives but what is it? Is it just a word? Is it a title, a category, or a definition? In my quest to find out what it means to be an adult, I have come across numerous answers. Some people said that it was their age, some believed it was their acquisition of materialistic items, and others pointed to their living arrangement. But the answer that made the most sense to me was the handling of responsibilities. As Gina Cavanaugh, writer of College Student Development and Emerging Adulthood states, “Colleges and universities no longer ascribe to the ideals of in loco parentis or in place of parents where they are responsible for the development of moral reasoning in their students.” This makes a lot of sense because, during our time in post-secondary education, it is crucial that we understand ourselves and reflect on our experiences. Unlike the schools we have attended previously, the professors in colleges or universities are not there to hold our hands, and we are left to fend for ourselves. It is the student’s responsibility to do what is necessary to excel, to put in the effort, and to manage their time wisely.

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, in Emerging Adulthood: The Theory of Development From the Late Teens Through the Twenties, defined “emerging adulthood as the period between 18-25 when individuals have moved out of adolescence, but have not entered adulthood.” This age group is why colleges or universities are considered to be the archway that leads us to be adults. As adolescents, we are taught the basics of living life and to think inside the box but it is only through the experiences and advice of fellow schoolmates that we can learn to identify ourselves and grow. As experiences differ from person to person, parents can only give limited advice. I remember when this whole journey started for me, my parents could not tell the difference between a CUNY, SUNY, or private college. It was not their fault because this was not something offered when living back home and their priorities were a little different than ours. Because of this, I had to turn to my friends and my schoolmates on where to choose; moving away, staying close, or paying tons of money for a probable better education. It was at this point that I knew my reliance on my parents had shifted. This increases our self-reliance as we must seek out solutions ourselves through our own creativity or searching for others who can guide us. The moment we find ourselves to be less dependent on others is when we can find ourselves entering adulthood.

We, as students and individuals, have a rather “rebellious” nature due to our natural curiosity and it is fueled by the constant restrictions we had while living with family. As expressed by Cavanaugh, “A common cause of conflict between parents and their emerging adult children is when parents attempt to maintain control as their children go off to college and strive for independence.” As a result of this curiosity and the struggles of staying with family, many students have sought housing in residence halls or rental apartments. This notion of independence is a dream come true but many students must now learn to fend for themselves. In one way or another, we had heard the phrase “at least I put food on the table” but we never knew what it meant until our support system was no longer available. While writing this article I got the opportunity to speak to an alumni of Hunter College. As Liz recalls, living in the dorms was an eye opener for her because she finally realized she took everything for granted. “At home, things were always done for me – the cooking, the laundry, the bills, and definitely the house cleaning. It wasn’t until I decided to live in the dorms so I could experience freedom that I realized how sheltered I was. The most difficult part of living by yourself was how to nourish yourself.” I asked what she meant by that and the response I got was, “when you live by yourself, you need a job because you need money. But when that paycheck comes, you have to know how to evenly divide that with what you need to pay for. At the end, you have to decide if you can trade that steak & lobster tail dinner for an instant noodle because now, as an individual, these responsibilities fall on your shoulders. It would be nice if I could order UberEats or Grubhub every night and not do dishes but, in reality, I don’t have that luxury. There is no bottomless pit of money in my possession to consider that notion. When you finally realize that and understand the struggles that your parents went through, that is the first step to becoming an adult.” Besides the independence that the student receives when moving away, Cavanaugh also believes that “this balance parents must achieve is determined based on the expectation, control, and responsiveness in the parent-child interaction.” Sometimes distance from family can strengthen bonds and create a deeper understanding of one another while retaining your sanity.

Although the concept of finding one’s independence, understanding your individuality, and freedom from your family stressors seem intriguing, it comes with downsides. As an incoming freshman, some might find it adventurous to be in a new place with new people, but to others, it may be scarier than riding the Kingda Ka roller coaster at Six Flags. Aside from the anxiety of a new social universe, many students tend to feel lost or misplaced because friends are no longer by their side while walking down the hallways or in the cafeterias. However, that is not the only thing that overwhelms students. According to Juliann Garey of the Child Mind Institute, “time management issues, increased academic pressure, and managing their lives independently” also plays a significant role. Losing the support network that you have been used to causes your autonomic system to kick in, triggering the fight or flight response. You must strive to make your mark or lie down and let life pass you.

In my personal experience, I have been undecided on whether I have reached that adulthood. As an incoming freshman, I found that the “new place, new people” concept concerned me for a while. I always understood that people would not be around forever, but facing that scenario head-on was quite nerve-wracking. I dealt with it and moved forward because I knew this was a stepping stone for my independence. Being at Hunter significantly changed my life because I realized that the enormous size of the campus and my new understanding of responsibilities taught me to be more self-sufficient. Although the living arrangement situation has crossed my mind, this new “mature” side of me thought more logically and decided not to rush into anything I wasn’t ready for as that would add stress to an already packed schedule. So would I consider college to be the first step into adulthood? It definitely opened up a new chapter in my life that I am willing to explore with anticipation.

Sources for the article:

  1. Cavanaugh, G. (2016, April 24). College student development and emerging adulthood. ScholarWorks at WMU. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from

  2. Garey, J. (2022, September 15). Preparing for college emotionally, not just academically. Child Mind Institute. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from

  3. William. (n.d.). Student Interview. personal.

  4. Liz. (n.d.). Student Interview. personal.

Arnett J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood. A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. The American psychologist, 55(5), 469–480.

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