Graphic Novel Review: “Freshman Year” — Remembrance of Cafeteria Meals Past
By Sarah Osman
Freshman Year is marketed as YA, but those of us who recently went through our freshman year will appreciate this graphic novel the most.
For as much media as there is about high school, there’s only a fraction that addresses college. Why is that? Because not everyone goes to university? Because some of us wish to keep memories of our terrible collegiate fashion choices repressed? Whatever the reason, it is a shame that there are so few books, TV shows, and movies about the college experience. There is plenty of amusing or alarming material, everything from cringeworthy relationships and unhinged professors to weird obsessions with 17th-century French literature. Yes, some college-centric fare has come along, but most of it focuses on Ivy League schools. And, let’s face it, how many of us can really relate to that educational upper-crust experience?
To the rescue comes Freshman Year, written and illustrated by Sarah Mai, a delightful new graphic novel based on Mai’s journals and sketchbooks from college. Instead of presenting a conventional narrative arc, Freshman Year reads more like an arrangement of snapshots of memories. It’s akin to a book of poetry that’s centered around a central theme. But this structure works for Freshman Year because university — especially freshman year — is not wrapped up in a neat little bow. As Mai writes in her epilogue, “The same nebulous feeling of uncertainty lives in my memories of college. In some ways, creating a clear narrative of ‘what happened and why’ seems artificial.” And that affection for disorder is so refreshing! College doesn’t have a clear plotline; oftentimes, it’s a hot mess. But that’s what makes the experience so valuable and why we often grow so much during those years.
That’s not to say that Freshman Year is directionless. Mai’s novel begins at her high school graduation, and we see her do the typical things done in that awkward period between graduation and the start of a new challenge: summer job, spending every second with your boyfriend and friends, etc. The first part of the novel isn’t particularly exciting, partly because Mai’s friends are not sufficiently fleshed out. Or maybe it’s because her experience in this part is a little too predictable. But the story picks up once Mai arrives at the University of Minnesota.
Mai attends a large, sprawling university that’s well regarded but not Harvard, which makes her story far more relatable to most of us. I lost it at her depiction of orientation, where some theater majors put on tedious skit after tedious skit and Mai is subjected to “the name game.” My college orientation was a little weirder — we went to a ranch and did exercises in “tactile arts” — but it was equally overwhelming. Mai’s stress rises after she’s informed about campus jobs, advisors, classes, etc. It is an exasperating part of the experience we often forget about when we long for our college days, similar to how those who pine for high school forget classes and homework. Still, the section is also a helpful reminder to high school students reading the memoir that yes, academics do matter in college. You won’t just party all the time.
The sympathetic identification doesn’t end with orientation week. Mai faces pretentious classmates, one who prattles on about living in “Barthelona.” She has an edgy creative writing professor who has them analyze Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics and another who tells students to drop the class if they can’t handle doing hard work. I had professors exactly like this — this pompous behavior is spot-on. I’m currently in an MFA program, and the other day someone told me they considered genre literature to be the equivalent of macaroni art. What is that person going to do when they find out that genre lit makes money — and literary fiction doesn’t. But that’s on them. It’s these accurate details about college’s trials and tribulations that make Mai’s honest chronicle so darn funny.
In addition to the insightful humor, Mai incorporates plenty of tender moments. After her family leaves, she hides her tears from her roommates. When she goes through a breakup, she cuddles with her friends. These more gentle moments reminded me that so often your freshman year is an emotional roller coaster. That said, the book’s sentimentality never outweighs its humor; Mai carefully balances the two to create an entertainingly balanced narrative.
Freshman Year is marketed as YA, but those of us who recently went through our freshman year will appreciate this graphic novel the most. Nothing raises a smile faster than a remembrance of cafeteria meals past or suffering through hellacious experimental films.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, NC. In addition to writing for the Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first-year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman