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Does the Media Perpetuate Unrealistic Expectations about the “College Experience”?

Since moving back onto the Franklin Pierce campus this fall for my second time, this time into my Fitzwater Center office rather a Mt. Washington dorm room, I have been thinking a bit about the notion the “college experience” and what that really means. I have also overheard some of my freshman students remark that so far college isn’t exactly what they expected. “It’s more work than I thought it would be,” one student said, and another commented on the difficulties of sharing a bathroom with more than twenty other hall mates. So, after about a month on campus to date, if college isn’t what some students thought it was going to be, what doesn’t match up? What expectations did they have coming in, and where did these expectations come from?
As a faculty member in the Mass Communication Department who teaches in the concentration of Media Studies, I suppose it isn’t surprising that my thought process led me to consider the ways in which media representations shape the expectations of incoming freshman, many of whom had previously only spent a total of a few hours on any college or university campus before taking the plunge into dorm life, hours of required reading and studying, late night fire alarms, and caf food (which to be honest, I appreciate much more as an adult who now has to cook for myself than I did the first time around). Some classic examples and images of college life come from film, most notably Animal House, but also worth mentioning are Old School, Road Trip, and Van Wilder.  Many teen-oriented television shows also take place, at least in part, on college campuses. Just think about The Gilmore Girls, Beverly Hills 90210, or even Saved by the Bell- The College Years. Rarely in any of these portrayals will you see classroom lectures prepared by diligent professors or overachieving students at all-night study sessions or staff members bundled from head to toe in parkas, scarfs and gloves, trudging across campus in feet of snow (for those of you who haven’t experienced a NH winter, just wait). These more typical college activities don’t make for exciting storylines for movie or television producers. To attract and retain viewers, the media industry needs to depict these mediated versions of the college experience as much more exciting than tutoring sessions, work-study jobs, and all-you-can-eat french fries. So instead we see images of college life filled with raging fraternity parties (that sometimes end badly) or cozy dorm settings that look more like hotel rooms, each of which are filled with impossibly attractive and usually wealthy young adults engaging in the best times of their lives with their closest friends and few worries that do not include outfit choices or friendship dilemmas which are quickly resolved.
Just take a look at last week’s episode of Gossip Girl to see what I mean.  This particular episode featured a keg party for hundreds of students on the roof top of an NYU dorm which was organized and paid for by Georgina, an NYU freshman, and concluded with a drunken hook-up on a rooftop couch.  While the show is arguably entertaining (yes, I am a fan), this is not a particularly accurate nor a safe representation of the college experience especially for pre-college viewers who do not have any actual experiences of college life to compare/contrast with this portrayal. At no point during the hour-long episode did any of the main characters attend classes or deal with financial aid. Not once did they eat an NYU cafeteria or crack open a book.  So, the next it crosses your mind that college exactly isn’t how you thought it was going to be, take a minute to think about where your expectations may have come from.  My guess, at least in part, is the media. 
~ Andrea Bergstrom, Department of Mass Communication
Pierce Arrow Blogger


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