The cover of Freshman Year by Sarah Mai

Freshman Year Review: A Funny, Hopeful, and Deeply Relatable Take on College

Freshman Year by Sarah Mai is a funny, relatable, heartfelt, and nostalgic graphic novel that will appeal to anyone who has been through college or is currently navigating higher education.

The semi-autobiographical story focuses on Sarah as she graduates high school and moves away from her small town in Wisconsin to attend college at the University of Minnesota. However, she starts to realize that college isn’t as easy as some might consider it.

Readers follow Sarah from her high school graduation through her freshman year at college until the summer before her sophomore year.

The cover of Freshman Year by Sarah Mai
The cover of Freshman Year by Sarah Mai (Photo credit: Christy Ottaviano Book)

In the beginning, Sarah faces some uncertainty and anxiety, feeling overwhelmed by how quickly she’s suddenly dropped off at college alone and feeling unprepared.

Things further deteriorate when she is hit with a breakup, starts to doubt her career choices, and struggles to balance her workload with friendships.

Freshman Year is quite a quick and enjoyable read. Part of what makes it so enjoyable is how incredibly relatable Sarah is.

The relatability isn’t surprising as Mai writes candidly about her own experiences as a freshman and isn’t afraid to admit that it wasn’t easy. It’s a side of college that is often hidden.

Often, the stories of college that get highlighted are the success stories of those who thrived in their newfound independence, boasted numerous achievements, and gained the most popularity.

The stories that don’t often get highlighted are Sarah’s. It’s the story of the average student with a small friend group who is uncertain of their career path and mainly focused on staying afloat.

Sarah isn’t afraid to voice the absurdity of the situation, either, questioning why it’s accepted that teens who are barely legal adults are dropped off on a campus far away from home and left to their own devices.

Freshman Year captures the bewilderment that some students feel, the inability to adjust to massive workloads, homesickness, and the loss of friendships and relationships that often occur during this transitional period in life.

Although it deals with some heavy topics, the tone always remains relatively light, thanks to Mai’s comedic illustrations.

Readers actually get to see the awkward facial expressions of a college student trying to pretend like everything’s fine or the hilarious and bizarre fantasies that float through a college girl’s mind.

The book’s central message, though, is that it’s okay to be and feel like Sarah in college. It’s normal not to move mountains during one’s first year of college, not to feel comfortable at college or at home, and to feel doubt, anxiety, and sadness during this period.

However, there is also hope in Mai’s story. There are hints that things will get better, especially as it normalizes having these feelings and seeking help.

It also captures many highs in Sarah’s freshman year. There are so many heartwarming and hilarious moments as she forms life-lasting bonds or enjoys the small things in college, like huddling under a blanket on the floor and watching The Lizzie McGuire Movie with her roommates.

Yes, Sarah has struggles, but she’s not alone. She realizes that many fellow students, family members, and professors see and hear her and are rooting for her success and willing to help her.

The somewhat ambiguous ending drives the point home that the first year of college, no matter how grand or dismal, is not the peak or end of one’s life. Readers leave the story knowing that Sarah will have many more new beginnings, fresh starts, friendships, and highs and lows.

Ultimately, it’s quite a cute, funny, and touching story about the trials of college. Those with similar experiences to Sarah will feel seen, and anyone who has been to college will feel nostalgic, flipping through the pages and remembering the fierceness of college friendships, awkward home visits, and the dark humor in identity crises.

Mai’s Freshman Year poignantly captures the average college experience, elevating the story with hilarious illustrations, dark humor, essential themes, and a unique blend of fact and fiction.

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