The college experience is probably the most clichéd time of life. Movies, expectations, and stereotypes have created a formula of what it is to be in college – those four romanticized years of marginally structured chaos between packing all your belongings up, that traditional spring break, and the stress of finals. According to the formula this should happen eight times in pairs of two.

those four romanticized years of marginally structured chaos

When I signed up for a Christian liberal arts college experience I cut out a big part of what “college experience” is traditionally presented as – the crazy drinking games, the parties, the sleeping around. But I still had the exam stress, all nighters, road trips, dorm life, and coffee to drink. I still had to fulfill the stereotype of being a millennial who avoids commitment and has more social media site passwords than phone numbers memorized. Yet looking back my “defining moments” of college have been very un-college-like: long conversations with adults during family style meals, the times when I blew off homework to … call my six-year-old brother, or the day I decided to delete my Facebook. To top it all off, I did not do the formula right: two of those semesters I was off-campus experiencing life.

Last month, though, I thought I was making up for my lack of conformity when I agreed to meet up with some friends for an ‘after party’ following the Office of Multicultural Development’s leadership banquet. I mean, how more “collegiate” can you get? I have leadership status in an office promoting college activity for diversity (the catchword of all catchwords for colleges today), I’m going to an after party to boot (even if there was no alcohol expected, still!), and I was hanging out with fellow college students (something I had not done that much of recently).

At least that is what I was thinking when I headed to our gathering spot, until I nearly biked over a man. His formable mass was laying passed out with his bald head on the grass and most of the rest of him was on the sidewalk. The woman next to him had tried to push him out of the sidewalk. She was clearly upset.

“Do you need help?!”

“We’re fine, he’s fine. We don’t need help!”

One by one, our ‘after party’ group all came by and asked the same question. By the time Wheaton student number four came by (our grand total thanks to Wheaton’s over serious students who ‘needed to get to sleep’), the woman was in tears, and agreed that she did need help. The four of us managed to get her inebriated husband into the car, and we drove them home, prayed for them, and continued on to our ‘after party’ discussing the folly of the world.

By the time we arrived at a park armed with blankets, a tarp, and candles, we were softly discussing this generation’s struggles as we headed down a trail through the brush. When we came out of the gray shadows to a moonlit lake, we laid out the tarp, lit the candles, and each grabbed a blanket, and moved on to sharing our personal struggles.

To a distant observer, we may have looked like four old men remembering the struggles and joys of life: we didn’t necessarily fit the profile of college students. My plan to fulfill at least some of the college clichés was abandoned for a conversation on the source of both my need to fulfill the title’s implications: what does ‘college student’ even mean, and where did it come from? The hushed conversation that night about expectations, disappointments, and hopes would have been more befitting of our grandparents. In fact a part of the conversation was how our understandings of our grandparents’ advice and parents’ instructions had become more complete, appreciated, and applied. Yet this ‘after party’ was the college experience that expressed more than any other that I experienced college: the evidence that I had gotten out of college what I needed, if not what I had expected.