Reflecting on life as a college student.
I’m currently a rising-senior at Stanford University studying Iberian and Latin American Cultures, Italian Culture, and the History of Latin America. (Man that’s a mouthful, isn’t it?)
College. It’s right around the corner for some of you, and a few blocks away for others. As a full member of the “adult-in-training” club, I’m here today to give you Advice about this next step in your lives, about the ups and downs of being a College student, about how to not only survive the transition, but how to thrive. Well, as I sat in my favorite campus coffee shop trying to figure out what lessons or advice I could give you, I realized two things. First, you’re never too old to call your mom or dad for help. And, second, college is a different experience for ever single person, so I really can only speak to my personal experiences. Therefore, I decided to write a letter to myself, reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned over the last three years at Stanford. Hopefully, some parts of my journey will resonate with you.
Well, you’re officially over the hump and now an upperclassman. Congratulations!
You’ve come a long way since Arcadia, where you spent Freshman year getting used to high school through joining sports teams and heeding your sister Katie’s advice, as she was a senior at Arcadia. Sophomore year, you settled into high school, becoming part of the homecoming royal court and just living in the moment. Then, the end of junior year rolled around, and suddenly you were supposed to know where you wanted to go to college and what you wanted to do. As if that wasn’t enough pressure, the beginning of senior year meant filling out seemingly endless applications while trying to play sports, get good grades, and spend quality time with your friends before college began. You started with a list of 21 colleges you wanted to apply to, but quickly realized that meant over 60 essays, so, on a long flight to Idaho with your family for summer vacation, you and your mom changed the strategy. That list of 21 colleges became 6, as you defined the characteristics of a college that were important to you, and you alone. While it was difficult to hear your voice amidst the “shoulds” and “coulds” of others, it was an important lesson to learn that you need to, first and foremost, please yourself.
Flash forward past the acceptance to Stanford, to the night before move in day, when you got the worst nights sleep you’ve ever had. You were so unsure of how the day would go: what should you wear? Should your parents be allowed on the premises or is that social suicide? Who the heck is your roommate and why did you watch the horror film called “The Roommate” last week? Would you make any friends? You had already met Stanford students at the Arizona student send off weeks earlier, and they were all so accomplished. They were fluent in other languages. They had lived abroad. They had worked for NASA and the President of the United States. And it was intimidating. So intimidating, in fact, that when you woke up on the morning of move in day you were already convinced that you weren’t smart enough to go to Stanford, that you wouldn’t make any friends, that all you wanted to do was go home. But, your parents didn’t raise a quitter. So, instead of curling up on the hotel couch and pretending like it wasn’t move in day, you got up. You got dressed. You ate breakfast, and you got to your dorm right on time. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important”. Having courage that first day on campus was probably one of the best things you’ve ever done for yourself.
As I’m sure you realize now, Sarah, you may have overthought the major selection process just a bit. Even before you arrived on campus, people relentless asked “What are you going to study?” You felt pressured to have an answer, because not having one led to another set of well-intentioned but difficult questions like, your personal favorite, “Well, what are you passionate about?” You wondered, is it so wrong to not have a clue? So, giving into the pressure, you took your mild interest in psychology and started to tell others, and yourself, that that was the major for you. Then, you took your first psychology class and quickly realized you hated psychology. You were left feeling hopeless, directionless, and like there was something wrong with you because everyone else, including your roommate, seemed to have it all figured out. After many conversations with your parents, you decided to heed your dad’s advice and take as many intro classes in as many different areas as possible over the next few quarters to find something you enjoyed studying. Through that process, and many more phone calls, you realized you had a knack for learning languages, and enjoyed cultural and historical studies almost as much you enjoy writing research papers. Your friends are convinced you’re the only one on the planet who likes writing papers. The lesson for you is that, while your major is unconventional and not common, you should be and can be confident in your choice because it is you being yourself, and you love what you do. Remember the quote by Oscar Wilde you put on so many of your college essays? “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken”. Always remember that.
Here’s something else, Sarah: For a girl who likes to have a plan A, and usually always has a plan B-Z, too, you are going to have to take leaps of faith. That doesn’t mean they will always work out the way you want, but there is a lesson to be learned from all of them. When a cute boy asks you out on a date and you want to go, go. When a professor invites you over to dinner so you can talk with the leading expert on immigration in Spain, go. When you have the opportunity to study abroad for six months in Europe, go. As the wise Yoda once said, “Do or do not, there is no try”, so don’t let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.
There are a few other pieces of advice you should consider:
- Do your best, but don’t obsess. A’s are great, but sometimes the hard earned B, or even C, teaches you more.
- Next, there is literally nothing a good night’s sleep can’t fix — from a long day to a complex problem, sleep is the best way to gain some perspective. Especially after you spend an hour crying on the phone to your parents about how you’ll never find an internship.
- Treasure your parents, I cannot stress that enough. As much as you value your newfound independence, there have been many moments in the last three years where you would give anything to just sit on the couch watching Law and Order with them. They also usually know what they’re talking about, so listen.
- Keep reading. It will feel like an uphill battle to read for pleasure amidst all of the required readings, papers, problem sets, and social events, but it is vital that you keep reading and never stop learning. You will thank yourself later for your persistence.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You are probably one of the most stubborn people you know when it comes to not asking for help, but you need to learn that doing so is not a sign of weakness. It takes courage and strength to admit you need help, and even more to ask for it. Be courageous, and realize that, perhaps, you don’t know everything yet, and that college, and life, are not to be tackled alone.
With Love, Me.
So, where am I now? I still see my high school friends every break, and FaceTime once a week with some. The relationships are even deeper.
My freshmen roommate turned to be one of my best friends. She is coming for the fourth time to my house for Thanksgiving, as she is from Australia and can’t make the trip home. And, another of my best friends that I met Freshmen year is road tripping home with me for Christmas break.
I followed my own advice and took the leap to study overseas. I spent the last six months studying in Florence, Italy and Madrid, Spain. I probably learned more about myself than Spanish and Italian culture on this adventure.
I joined Pi Beta Phi, a sorority, three years ago and I don’t know what I would do without my sorority sisters and dorm friends. The biggest thing I learned at Pi Phi is not how to party, but how to lead. Pi Phi has also given me the opportunity to continue volunteering and giving back to the community, as well as a new appreciation for the power of an all women’s organization.
And, oh, the dates. Some good, some bad, some ugly, but all worth it. Thank you again for having me, and remember: Be yourself; everyone else is taken.
With love, Me. was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.