Notes on freshman year
What I asked for and expected, not what I wanted, maybe what I need
edited from August 2018
The last time it was late summer, I held a precarious hope that my sense of my misfit at the Social Ivy was merely a misgiving, until it gave way to the sense that nowhere was my place. When I tried to tell my few remaining high school friends about how things were going, they reminded me that many people would gladly trade with me a place at an Ivy League school. When I told my new college friends, they would tell me that I could always transfer and that it wouldn’t necessarily be better at other schools.
Going to college for the first time is a big life change for many, which is difficult at any school. However, there are unique experiences that come with different types of schools, including those that come with going to a highly competitive and prestigious school.
For one, the students in general are hypercompetitive in every area (arena?) of life. Too many make unhealthy decisions to cope or keep up. I absorb stressful energy from my environment.
Some people who don’t go to top-ranked schools think they wish they were here and use that as a reason to minimize my struggles. In some ways, going to an elite university makes the struggles I do have harder to deal with, because I feel pressure to feel constantly grateful for all the opportunities I am surrounded with, so when I’m struggling I feel bad for not appreciating more all that I have.
This school may offer great opportunities, but it’s only great if you take advantage of them, so it feels like I’m wasting money and time whenever I’m not taking advantage of opportunities. This pressure to maximize to avoid wasting our money and time makes it harder to not become overly busy and stressed out.
Especially when surrounded by so many high-achieving students who have already done more than I might ever do, it’s easy to wonder if I should transfer to a less competitive school, because maybe admissions made a mistake in thinking I would be a good fit for a smart person school like Penn.
As they say, every challenge is an opportunity, which means that at Penn I can learn things that I might not be able to learn at a less competitive school with the same thoroughness. Assuming that I can learn them while I’m here. Because many of the people around me are status and image conscious, hypercompetitive, and stressed out, I am forced to confront my own relationship with success and reputation and image and achievement. As much as I want to claim that I’m okay with failure and not having things go my way, when I’m actually stressing out about how I might be ruining my life, when I’m actually feeling bad about my failures, when I’m doing busy work just for the grade, then there you go. I do care about things that shouldn’t matter that much, and this environment where this caring is common makes my that caring come out.
For the sake of my health and maybe for the sake of the rest of my life, I need to learn how to not be negatively affected by people stressing out and competing around me. It’s not just school that’s full of unhealthy competition and comparison. It’s also social media and a capitalistic society. Hopefully I’ll figure enough out in college so that I can go on to live the life I’m meant to live rather than one that’s restricted by the notions of myself or of those around me.
It seemed like everyone I met at Penn loved Penn and were sure they were at the right school. I was often too exhausted to appreciate or participate in the opportunities that Penn offered. In the first few months of freshman year, and once in a while now, I wondered if I should have chosen a less expensive school – where I wouldn’t have to feel as bad about potentially wasting my parents’ money – or a small liberal arts college – where I assumed I would receive better classroom instruction. But I realized that my problems wouldn’t be solved at another school. However, I didn’t want to accept that my – human – weaknesses meant I wasn’t good enough for a college education.
I wasn’t sure that I was strong enough for Penn, and the imposter syndrome that is heightened by going to a school of overachievers didn’t help. I didn’t learn to sleep soundly under stress and in a noisy dorm environment, but I didn’t learn to function on limited sleep either. That I felt like a miracle for going through the motions, however poorly, on fragmented and meager sleep was nothing to the people around me who said they lived on less for longer. While seemingly everyone else was finding friends and activities, I struggled to study and sleep without doing much else. It was the first semester of freshman year, and college was already impossible. I hadn’t even made friends or found something fun to do. I knew I couldn’t be superhuman in my abilities, but after coming to Penn, I felt like I had to be.
Penn amplified the problems of some parts of my high school that I wanted to leave behind: the panicking over grades, the emphasis of grades over learning, the BS-ing of essays, the disappointing discussions with sleep deprived classmates who didn’t do the reading. I didn’t want to fit into Penn in these ways – most probably don’t – but I didn’t find a way to be unaffected by it either.
As I heard more people repeat generalizations about the Penn experience, I wondered if the hope of not doing too much was impossible, and that by trying to live well I was trying to do too much. I kept hearing that as a student at Penn, I would never get enough sleep and that I would always be busy. Perhaps there is something about Penn that makes it difficult not to rush through life – that it is what so many of us do, and we are affected by our peers. When I heard my classmates talk about cramming for exams or skipping meals to study, I doubted my weak prioritization of personal wellness. It’s hard to make choices that don’t seem to lead us toward measurable results when it seems like that’s the normal thing to do.
I didn’t choose Penn because I thought it was the perfect fit for me – I knew there was no such thing – but out of all the imperfect options I had, it had seemed like the best place to grow into the person I needed to become. Most of the time this past year, I failed at growing.
I certainly didn’t help with my own complaining. I struggled to find reasons to be happy and felt overwhelmed with examples that college was misery. I had trouble finding student groups that I wanted to and could join. I didn’t learn to like Penn. I didn’t find a way to improve it either. I complained, I sulked, I dragged my feet and stumbled wherever I went. I alienated my old friends, bothered my parents, and annoyed my new friends. After having failed my freshman year, I failed in my reaction to it too.
Along the way, I found things I could live inside: a math problem, a philosophy article, an essay I was writing, a dance I was choreographing, a book I was reading, a bouldering problem, or even just clinging to a rock wall with the fear of falling. I had a few good fits laughing at the absurdity of my life. I may go to a school where sometimes it feels like nobody cares or understands, but at least I don’t have people always looking over my shoulder and I have freedom in how I spend my time.
I found that if I can’t get the readings done, I can at least go to the gym and climb. I can take time to breathe and cry if necessary. I don’t have to always run to keep up just to prove to myself that I am a responsible student. I can give up control over what I supposedly can control.
I don’t know if the money spent on this college education will be worth what I gain and lose in the process. It worries me that I am possibly wasting away my life and my parents’ money. Finding internal peace means being okay with that, I think. Being okay with failing to myself, failing to my parents’ bank account. Being willing to try things even if I’m not sure I’ll have a good outcome, or an outcome. It means doing things that maybe wouldn’t make sense to some maximalists.
We don’t need to be more than human, but maybe we do need to be tough to thrive at Penn, or at least we need to become tough if we didn’t arrive that way. For better or worse, this school changes us. All our experiences do. Maybe we need to be tough to thrive in the world.
I haven’t figured out how to make Penn and the world a better place. But maybe making the world a better place doesn’t look like how I thought it would look. Maybe I am on the right path, if I first need to change the way I think and approach life.