To freshmen, from a former freshman

Sept. 27, 2018, 2:00 a.m.

I’ve been meaning to document what I’ve learned and reflected on in the past year as a follow-up to my first article, It’s okay to be not okay in paradise: Freshman year failures. I was recently invited to speak to incoming freshmen in New York City, and I thought to myself, “What better catalyst for me to actually start piecing together my thoughts to share with the new incoming class than this?” So I put myself back in my freshman self’s shoes.

Ah, to be a wide-eyed freshman again. I miss that untainted excitement and anticipation a feeling so tangible that I remember exactly what it felt like to be enveloped in it. At that time, I was on top of the world. I had gotten into my dream university, I was done with the college admissions sprint and I was about to meet thousands of the ~coolest~ people in the world. I turned down an offer for a very impressive internship and dropped everything to attend music festivals, hang out with my friends and travel across the Pacific. I was truly worry-free.

What would I want to tell my past self then and there, if I had the chance? Perhaps to practice more self-control at brunch, or to go in with fewer, less grandiose expectations. Or maybe to commit to clubs more seriously and stock up on vitamin C gummies during freshman plague season.

But as I read through my first article again, I can see just how much I’ve changed in the mere months since it was published. If you haven’t read my first article yet, in summary, I highlighted the shortcomings of my freshman year. I entered a period of time where I thought that my luck was bad, and I justified that with the idea that I had some sort of heavenly “hardship quota” to fill. I settled for that, and I accepted it. The thoughts I had about my life literally altered how I perceived myself and my circumstances.

Instead of seeing the events I described in my article as “failures,” I see them as what they really are: normal events that could’ve happened to anyone. I just wasn’t in the right place to handle and overcome them with grace at the time.

There’s a quote I like by a Stoic philosopher named Epictetus that reads, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” I think this serves as a great reminder to be a good sport when faced with hardship, especially when we’re dealing with something out of our control and not play victim to our not-so-good decisions, but instead view them as valuable learning experiences.

In my freshman self, I now recognize this unsureness and desperation for everything to be perfect again. And it is that exact mindset of seeing things as less than perfect that put me in a state where I focused only on what was going wrong.

As I let the sentiment of “freshman year sucks; college is overrated” wash over me, that’s what my freshman year became. All of the many wonderful and exciting times I had were eclipsed by this idea that I kept repeating to myself. And as a result of this repetition, I found myself conveying those exact sentiments to anyone who asked me how my freshman year of college was going. By focusing on that, I wasn’t allowing myself to take my life in a new direction or embrace positive change.

It’s true that what you think you attract into your life. You may have heard that the environment you live in or the people you surround yourself with influence who you become. While this is true, your thoughts also play a big role in shaping your reality. That would be my first big piece of advice: maintain a positive mindset no matter what. It sounds corny, but in order to improve anything at all, you have to first be in the right headspace, especially when things get hard.

Second, goals were simpler in high school. The ultimate, concrete goal of high school for a lot of students was to get into college, and that’s quite easily defined. A large portion of my identity was based off of where and when I was: my roles at my high school, the extracurriculars I did and who I hung out with. There wasn’t much that challenged me to solidify my identity in the wake of change. After moving away to college, everything around me changed and I couldn’t stay the same. This left me with a lot of questions about myself that I didn’t even know I had.

We tend to focus our guidance on helping students get into college, but after that goal is achieved, they’re essentially on their own. We treat them like they’ve crossed the metaphorical finish line, yet it really is just the beginning. It takes a lot of deliberate action to figure the rest out.

In college, your goals may not be as concrete as they were in high school. Probably for the first time in your life, your future is undefined, you’re not sure who your friends are going to be, you have a chance to totally reinvent yourself if you so choose and you have the power to make big decisions, the outcomes of which are unknown and open-ended. Daunting, yes, but I’d argue that this creative agency is crucial to self-development.

When you displace yourself from where you grew up and drop yourself into a completely new environment, it’s a test of identity. I think it helps significantly to have a somewhat specific idea of who you want to become and the goals you wish to achieve. Ask yourself constantly: “Who do I want to be at the end of this year, and what are the steps I can take to get me there?”

This leads me to conclude that one of the most important things to do in your first year(s) of college is to really, really get to know yourself. To do this, you must first acknowledge that you still have more to learn. Inevitably, you’re going to grow, so embrace change and absorb new ideas like a sponge. Get to know yourself first, and the rest will follow.

This process will probably happen regardless of whether you take conscious action to do so or not, but I’d say do whatever it takes to best accomplish it. (The quarter system is super fast-paced, so don’t get caught up in striving for perfection in everything. Prioritize what is most important to you!) Spend lots of time with new people and lots of time with your thoughts. Put yourself in situations that expand your horizons and attract good things into your life by maintaining a positive mindset and being open to new opportunities and ideas.  

It’s an ongoing process, but I’m learning more about myself than I ever have, and in turn I’m learning more about the world and the people around me. I’ve grown a lot from realizing how imperative it is to challenge the boundaries of what I know every day. It is a dangerous thing to stay fixed, because you can’t grow and change if you believe that you don’t have to.

If you think you may be interested in something, get started! There’s no better time to try than now. You’re at a time in your life where you’re living in a community of talented peers, all from whom you can learn something from and whose perspectives may complement or challenge your own. You spend your days taking classes from some of the best faculty in the world. When else in your life can you take sailing or French cooking or Greek mythology for credit and go back home to your dorm of 100+ same-aged friends? Get to know as many people as you can, and try to gravitate toward communities that foster your interests and your personal development.

Through doing all of this, you might just learn a little more about what makes you tick. Don’t discount something right off the bat because you think it’s not for you. What inspires you to action? What doesn’t? What do you value in yourself? In others? What makes you you, and how do you wish to present yourself to the world? Revel in this uncertainty and take the time to build yourself (from scratch if you need to).

Freshman year of college is such an exciting time, and there’s truly no other time like it. I honestly wish I could go back and do it all again. I hope your freshman year is an adventure, because that’s what it is meant to be. And, if you see me on the Quad, please stop and say hi! I’d love to hear about your time at Stanford so far.  

Also — parting thought — don’t carb-load in the dining hall at brunch. Bad idea, self-explanatory.


Contact Madison Hurr at mnhurr ‘at’

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