College was a big culture shock for me. I grew up in a working class family in a small Iowa factory town. My parents never went to college and few in my high school aspired to more than junior college. In addition, I went to Lake Forest College, which is located in one of the richest and most exclusive suburbs of Chicago. Many of my classmates came from wealthy East Coast families and attended exclusive prep schools. Kind of a preppier, wealthier version Hamilton, but with lower SAT scores. Arriving on campus felt like parachuting into a remote village in upper reaches of the Amazon. My classmates had strange and exotic names like Muffy and Buffy, Chip and Trip, Maisie and Mliz (yes, those were all real names). I wore jeans and t-shirts and they wore khakis and polos (collars popped, natch). They also spoke a different language, calling pop soda, and using summer as a verb ("We usually summer in the Hamptons, but this year we went to the Cape instead."). In class, everything they said seemed so smart and confident.
So how did I manage to keep my sanity? First, I joined the swim team. It gave me an instant niche and group of friends. Also, our shared interest in the sport helped us to look past our other differences and to get to know one another as individuals, not representatives of a particular group. This is why I always urge students to join extracurricular activities, athletic or otherwise. They let you meet people that you otherwise wouldn't and your shared interests will help you get past your differences in background.
The second thing I did was to get to know my professors. They helped me to understand that just because other students sounded smart, it didn't mean that they were. They also focused me on the real purpose of college, expanding your mind and improving your skills.
You should also remember that different isn't better or worse, it's just different. Don't try to be someone you're not, but also be willing to change when you think it's the right thing to do. Today, I call pop soda and wear khakis more than jeans, but I'd sooner cut off my head than pop my collar. On the other hand, you can just watch Bill Murray in this scene from Rushmore. Murray plays Herman Blume, a wealthy businessman who speaks to the students of the elite prep school, Rushmore.
"You guys had it real easy. I never had it like this where I grew up. But I send my kids here because the fact is you go to one of the best schools in the country: Rushmore. Now, for some of you it doesn't matter. You were born rich and you're going to stay rich. But here's my advice to the rest of you: take dead aim on the rich boys. Get them in the crosshairs and take them down. Just remember, they can buy anything, but they can't buy backbone. Don't let them forget it. Thank you."
Words to live by.