Does freedom amount to just being chic and hanging out? Find out.

So you have the admit card to your favourite college and your dream course. Freedom, here I come! Bundle up the assembly-line uniforms, get a wardrobe of choice, buy funky accessories, and charge-up cell phones. Oh, for hanging around with friends, participating in culturals, letting down hair! “Break the rules, find your freedom, live your life!” Didn't Robert Frost say “Freedom lies in being bold?”

Is that what you're doing, I asked a group of college-goers. Hate to puncture that scenario, but the reality isn't so rosy, said Bharathi Ramesh. “College gave me a culture shock after having been raised in a broad-minded family and a liberal school culture. The level of strictness, the curfew and ill-treatment! If borrowing notes, sitting under the tree with guys is a crime, the moment we talk to them or exchange mobile numbers, our names go to the hit list! Asking a girl student out for coffee is unethical, roguish!”

The DISCO, (disciplinary committee/supervising body) kept them in check, she said, its reports directly affecting internal marks/grades. Freedom? “We had to compulsorily pin the dupatta to the shoulder. Wonder how this ‘culture of discipline’ will prepare us for the work atmosphere in MNCs.”

Private arts college student Srinithi describes a different nightmare. Try having an informal conversation with faculty or HoDs, you will likely be branded arrogant and a threat to general decorum, she fumed. “We stay suppressed and unrecognised, are not allowed to attend culturals/fests in colleges where boys could be present.” “I was shocked to hear what HoDs and teachers thought about our mingling with the guys,” said Shweta who attends an affiliated college after 14 years in a co-ed school. “In those three UG years I forgot how to have rapport with guys and feel comfortable in their presence.”

Come on, we guys get slammed more than the girls, said Rahul, a student in Pune. It is taken for granted that guys can bear insults and it is not wrong to embarrass them, he complained. “I am from a co-ed school too, and how is it uncultured behaviour to ask a girl out to the canteen or compliment her on her hair or shoes?” “For me it was, is and will be a cake-walk as long as I am in a government institution,” said Metha, a government arts college student in Jabalpur. The mindset here is liberal, she brags, adding government institutions don't have much of a necessity to moral-police students, since “it has nothing to do with admissions or rankings.” The restrictions are elsewhere, she said. They cannot organise fests, rallies, culturals with private co-ed colleges, and in auditoriums, barricades firmly separate them. “How come IIMs/IITs don't impose these restrictions?”

Intellectual freedom

The answer would be institutional ethos. Rules of freedom reflect managerial response to a dynamic society.

Sometimes they are slow to respond to expectations of the young. But ask yourself: Is freedom being chic and hanging out with the opposite gender? Is that what I want from my years in college?

Think. There's a lifetime ahead to indulge in them. But once out of college you cannot have close interaction with academicians, learn from experience, fine-tune thought processes.

Freedom is not just breaking the shackles of college rules. It is not being able to wear Tees without collar. It is using the space given to express your views — firmly, reasonably. It can be exercised in writing for the college newsletter, joining sports teams, participating in debates, doing week-end public service, organising tours.

It is a great chance to grow, expand horizons and explore new avenues of work. Attending courses of your choice, navigating a large — and often beautiful — campus, checking out the canteen, using library resources, starting a solid-waste-management system, building a robot, taking online courses, launching online businesses — are these not forms of freedom too? Facebook was started in a college dorm. You get used to varying teaching styles, take online courses, do research, organise collaborative study, and complete assignments.

Every one of these prepares you for a life of work. Can you find a mentor? Do you know how to e-mail, call a professor to sort out difficulties? Are you forming a club — for writing, first aid, astronomy, trekking, biking? More opportunities open up if you are living in a hostel. You learn to share a room with a stranger, ease into community life, and understand the dynamics of give-and-take. You could organise “hall” events, interact with students from different parts of the country/world. Students say they have learnt herbal medicines, guitar-playing, new languages from their room-mates.

You can choose to fight something superficial, party more, have more boyfriends/girlfriends. Or spend college years doing projects in advance, getting involved in groups with similar interests. “To me, the best thing was the intellectual freedom,” said an army veteran. “You can pursue what you want to learn with unfettered access. Take advantage while you have the chance. Once you hit the workforce, you know what happens!”

“Freedom is good for the students as they enter college as mature teenagers,” said Dr. Nirmala Prasad, Principal, M.O.P. Vaishnav College for women. “But, the freedom always comes with responsibility. Colleges should make them understand this and make them responsible and accountable women.”

“Be like a kite: be exhilarated with the freedom to soar into the heights of learning and feeling, only stay tethered by that string of values, which is self-worth. Remember, the firmer your tethering, the higher you may soar,” said theatre personality Yamuna Sona. Amen to that.