Sometimes I reflect on the past three or so years of my college experience, and it all seems like one giant blur. Looking back at my freshman year, I don’t even recognize myself. I wish I could have told her that it would be okay; that just because one subject doesn’t come easily to you doesn’t mean that you’re stupid. My capabilities extend so much further than I gave myself credit for. I remember my first day moving into the dorm, my first tailgate (RIP), and my first exam season. Now, as I get ready for my last couple of semesters at San Diego State and gather the resolve to attack this semester, I find myself wondering where the time went. Within just three years, you can come to learn so much about yourself and the people around you. Although I have so much more to learn, these are some things that I wish I could have told myself my freshman year:
Go out of your way to know your professors
I know they can seem scary, but I promise most of them are normal human beings just like you. Although things have changed a bit due to most classes being online recently, there are still ways that you can develop connections with your professors and TAs. In the first week or so of the semester send them an email introducing yourself or visit their office hours prepared with a few questions. This is a great way to develop rapport with them right off the bat, especially if you find yourself asking for an extension or a grade boost near the end of the semester. They are much more likely to grant you one if you are a familiar face that has showed them that you have been putting effort into the class. Likewise, getting to know your professors can lead to research opportunities and letters of recommendation for grad school. If you feel like you need a bit more individualized attention, they can also recommend students they’ve had that offer tutoring services or tell you more about Supplemental Instruction review sessions that are being held virtually.
2. If it’s not working, change it.
This piece of advice sounds so simple, but it took me quite a while to actually implement in my life. It has been said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting a different result. In my freshman year, chemistry was the bane of my existence. I barely passed CHEM200 and 201, which is impressive considering that I was so lost that I didn’t even bother studying for either. I had convinced myself that I wasn’t smart enough to be in my major, and that everyone seemed to ~get it~ except for me. When I took physics a semester later I failed my first two exams, and I was convinced that it was another subject I would just inevitably never understand so I should just give up now and wallow in my tear-induced self pity pool. It is easy to complain about a situation, but do nothing to actively change it. What I would learn is that the only real failure is complacency. If you learn something from your experience and adapt, then it was not a failure at all. It was simply an opportunity for you to grow. I figured out that whatever study method I was using clearly wasn’t working, so I tried something else until it ended up sticking and I did so well on my following exams that I got an A in the class! You have to be willing to identify what can be changed so you can get a better grade next time. Do you think you would do better in group study sessions or individually? Do you like studying for multiple hours at a time or little chunks of time with breaks? Are you a visual, audible, or kinesthetic learner? The only way to know is to try, and see what sticks. Take advantage of your professor or TA’s office hours and get some of your homework or studying done while you’re there so that if you have any questions that pop up, they’ll be right there to answer them!
3. You don’t have to be everything for everyone
This was one of the hardest lessons for me to learn. I gave so much of my energy to make sure that everyone but myself was alright. One of the best quotes that I heard, applied to avoid burnout in the work environment, was that “you cannot pour from an empty cup.” To help others, you must first help yourself. Consciously taking time to invest in myself and implement self care into my daily routine has been invaluable. I used to think that self care was too indulgent or that it had to involve bath bombs and wine and crystals--and it can if that’s what you like!-- but self care can also vary based on what it is that you need at any particular time. Sometimes self care is forcing myself to go outside for a run because I know that it will make me feel better because I’ve been stuck inside a 1000 sq ft shoebox of an apartment all day. Other times, self care looks like me baking for my friends, meditating while I watch the sunset, or watching shows so I can decompress from doing schoolwork. Listen to what your mind is telling you that you need, and don’t feel guilty for giving it to yourself. Time spent investing in yourself is never time wasted.
4. Your progress probably won’t be linear. It might look more like a rollercoaster.
Maybe you failed an exam. Maybe you failed a class. But that doesn’t mean that you are a failure. You do not have to be Karen the Toxic Pre-Med with 40 different colored highlighters, 3 part time jobs, and a 4.0 GPA. I used to think that progress looked like doing and feeling better than I did the day before. But the reality is that that mindset can be paralyzing. That mindset subscribes to the idea that if you stray from any one of your goals, you are inevitably falling short. In actuality, progress is going to look a lot like 3 steps forward and 1 step back. Most people stumble in their 20s because they’ve spent their lives anticipating them. They’ve lived for this point--when happiness can ensue. But the most unhappy people are often the ones with the pretty nice apartments, a decent amount of friends, and a good enough job in fields they’re at least somewhat interested in, because they’ve spent their lives building ideas rather than learning how to feel and enjoy the journey along the way. Rather than work toward an end goal, work toward liking the process of getting there. "Failing" time and time again is valuable. It shows you what you don't like, and brings you closer to discovering what you do enjoy. Whether success is a product of fate or chance, all that you can control is how much work you put in, not exactly what comes of it. Recognizing and embracing this has brought me so much peace. It is often in our struggles that we stretch and come to better understand ourselves. They are a critical part of the growth process--not a deviation from it. We grow when we learn from and move beyond our challenges instead of fixating on them and feeling stuck. We are always in the process of becoming, and I think it is beautiful to see how much we can grow and learn with every new day that we are given. Be gentle with yourself and believe in your capabilities.
5. It's going to be okay
"So where do you see yourself after graduating?"
"What kind of grades do you need to get into that program?"
"Where are you looking for grad school?"
These are just some examples of the questions heard around the dinner table around the holidays that had my heart rate jumping into the 200's. When I start to feel this way, I try to slow myself down and think of the bigger picture. Life may not get easier, but you do get stronger. Instead of asking yourself, “What am I going to do with my life?”, start asking: “What am I going to do with today?”. Start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can. Take your discomfort with the unknown and settle into it firmly, because the fact that you will be uncertain is a certainty. Discomfort is the pressure usually required to enact a change we wouldn’t otherwise happen. The most difficult moments of your life will be the catalysts of your becoming. It is never about how certain you are. It is about how willing you are to try anyway. You are going to be okay. Not because I say so, but because ‘okay’ is where we all end up, even if we hit some speed bumps along the way.