Graduating from an institute of higher learning has become something of a rite of passage. Your name on a diploma states in a few words that you've conquered a mountain of knowledge and remembered at least half of it. It says you've learned how to make friends, and when to lose them. You might even have been to a party or two, had your heart broken and done a little soul searching. Maybe you finally learned how to tie a tie — but if not, that's okay. That's what your Master's degree is for. When you walk across the stage and accept that little piece of paper, it signifies to the world that you've arrived.


Given the impact of the choice to go to college, it's astonishing how little most high school graduates actually know about the realities of higher education. College can look a lot different from the less-wrinkled side of 18 than it does to a wizened 20-something graduate.

If "American Pie" was your favorite movie in high school, you probably should've gone to Syracuse instead of RIT. In academia, RIT has a reputation as a rigorous technical school, but the image of over-caffeinated engineering students cramming in the library doesn't get as much screen time in the media that reaches high schoolers.

“I don't know that I would say that I had any more expectations than an average person who consumes media in this century. I carried with me all the stereotypes assuming what a college experience would be like, and then I got here and I'm like, 'Oh wait this place is full of nerds, this is great!” said Evan Zachary, a fifth year Environmental Sustainability, Health and Safety major.

RIT has a reputation as a tough school, but it isn't necessarily all work.

A determined socialite can usually sniff out a party, especially during the first year college honeymoon period. But many students' experience looks quite different from the popular media portrayal.

“I definitely don't have one of those cliche stories about how fabulous college is and how I drank every night with my buddies, and how we'd go out and have all these wild nights and do all this crazy shit, and had the time of my life ... there's bad times then good times but it all stays within this limit,” said Alexis Apollonio, a second year Graphic Design major who is in her fourth year at RIT after changing her major twice. 

“All the movies and everything, they focus on the social aspect so you think you're gonna be partying all the time ... and then you get there and ... it's hard,” said Claire Finnerty, a fourth year Biomedical Science and Public Policy double major.

Making the transition

One of the first and toughest challenges students face is trying to discover where they belong in their new world. Freshman year is often a time of drastic change as students adjust to a hugely increased level of independence in a new place that's far from their familiar support systems. Making friends is almost an act of survival, but it's also an adventure in itself.

“The first year is the most sociable year, I noticed. You expand so much in that respect, but less educationally,” Apollonio reflected.

“I also think it's strange how much everyone tells you before you enter college, or your first or second year, that your friends will change completely later on. And they're so right. I never would have agreed with that. I would've begged to differ,” Apollonio continued.

Moving from the communal experience of the dorms to an apartment and an increased workload can play a role in the classic turnover of friends between the first and second year. However, it may also be due to the rapid changes students experience within themselves as a result of exposure to so many new experiences and perspectives.

Bursting the bubble

College is a melting pot. Exposure to ideas, identities and perspectives different from our own is a critical part of the experience.

“As a 17 [or] 18 year old, so much of who you are is defined as how you grew up, who you grew up with, where you grew up. Then you start learning there's a lot more out there than just your bubble,” said James Macchiano. Macchiano is a 2006 Film and Animation alumnus who has watched many students grow during his career at RIT, where he now serves as the director for the Multicultural Center for Academic Success.

Zachary would agree. “You at least have the option to be exposed to cultures and situations that are different from yours ... I think that choice is more available on a college campus. You're not guaranteed to broaden your perspective ... but I think that almost requires a concerted effort to not leave your room,” he said. “You almost have to try to have college not change you, you really do.”

Levi Davis III is a fourth year Film and Animation major. “I think more than anything, college just forces you to analyze your own perspective against others because up until this point you've sort of been sheltered at home,” he said. “People here come from all different kinds of communities. A lot of people come from suburbs, a lot of people come from cities. That's a bubble — you have a world and you have a bubble and I think college is a lot about breaking that bubble.”

Breaking the proverbial bubble can be a long and uncomfortable but rewarding process. Immersion in the campus culture created by the mix of a multitude of human experiences is a starting point, but getting the most out of the learning opportunities available requires active participation.

“You need to have open discussion, to see and experience more and just figure out who you are,” Macchiano said.

Who am I?

The search for our own identity is as just as critically a part of college as classwork — arguably more so. After all, if you don't know who you are and what you want out of life, how can you expect to make a decision as important as choosing a major? The catch is that it's difficult to know what you want to do until you've tried something. Or sometimes, a few things. A number of studies have found that more than half of college students switch their major at least once. Apollonio tried Advertising and Actuarial Sciences before she found Graphic Design. The road wasn't easy.

“There were a lot of times when I had thought about dropping out. When you can't decide what you want to do with your life, why the hell would you want to keep going with something?” Appolonio said.

Unfortunately, that's exactly what many students feel they have to do. Especially for those paying their own way, the pressure to finish as soon as possible mounts as quickly as the debt. But rushing to the finish line may mean sacrificing priceless opportunities along the way.

“I think many students will come in and think often times that they have to get their degree as fast as they can, work a job or two to make sure they can cover books — and then you miss out on so many developmental opportunities, and I think that's what's really unique about the college experience and the freedom that it provides you,” Macchiano said. “Students almost never recognize the amount of freedom that they have and how unique the student lifestyle is.”

The student lifestyle is about more than just waking up at 11 o'clock and going to class in fuzzy slippers and sweatpants. Especially at a relatively large school like RIT, there is a nearly inexhaustible array of clubs, activities and electives available for students to explore.

“Everything is right here when you're in college. I don't take it for granted, but when I leave it'll kind of feel like wow, I was involved in all of these clubs and that was an asset to my life that I have to pay for now in the real world,” said Finnerty.

Often it's not their major, but their experiences outside of class that will most deeply impact students and determine where they wind up after graduation.

Getting involved

Zachary discovered this early, citing his extracurriculars as some of the most impactful experiences he's had at RIT.

“I started getting involved with the Student Environmental Action League, which at the time was four people, my second semester or late first semester. That was really rewarding for me,” Zachary said. He later became active in Student Government's sustainability efforts and helped launch RIT's Goodbye, Goodbuy! program.

Charlotte Deering is a first year graduate student in the Communications and Media Technologies program. She graduated from RIT in 2017 with a dual degree in Advertising and Public Relations and Political Science. A pivotal point in Deering's student career was when she was able to take her coursework beyond theory and into the RIT community through a class which helped develop an innovative program that is now a campus staple.

“I was in the founding class of RIT Foodshare — I was a sophomore at that time ... And I think that was when I actually saw that stuff that I do in class can have an impact on people not just for one semester, like my professor reading my work, but I could have an impact on the community of RIT,” Deering recalled.

Involvement on campus is a must, but taking advantage of RIT's co-op or study abroad programs will open the door to an even broader range of experiences.

“The best thing that ever happened to me in college was studying abroad,” said Finnerty. “Hands down best semester, best experience for personal and professional growth. You have to be independent. I went on my own to Botswana and was able to travel and have an internship while I was there, major-related. It was hands-on experience.”

Davis also recalled his internship as one of the defining experiences of his college career.

“I actually got an internship at 'The Simpsons.' I got to learn a lot about my industry, and also what was great is I learned not just what I want to do, but what I don't want to do ... It was the greatest month of my life,” Davis said.

A personal journey

College means something different to everyone, but change at a personal level is the common thread.

“It is not an overstatement to say that my experience here was pretty transformative,” Zachary said, a sentiment shared by many.

The experiences we have, the people we meet and the challenges we overcome during our college careers teach us invaluable lessons that can't be found in books. The graduates who cross the commencement stage often barely resemble their wide-eyed selves when they had first set foot in the Brick City as freshmen. But the journey doesn't end there.

“Don't stop learning, don't stop growing. College is just the beginning, not the end,” Davis urged.

“Who you are as a graduate — it shouldn't be who you are in the next 50 years,” Macchiano said. “You will change ... but at the core of it you need to know who you are.”

Advice sidebar: Graduating students share their wisdom. 

Levi Davis: Don't be afraid to put yourself out there. Don't be scared to make mistakes. Keep in mind that college, ultimately, is about learning and growing.

Claire Finnerty: Be open to friendship with everyone you meet, and don't pass up any opportunity because everything is right here when you're in college.

Evan Zachary: That weird thing you think you might wanna try? Just go try it ... even if it doesn't exist yet. Especially if it doesn't exist yet.