(Not Five But) Six Things I Would Tell My Freshman Self

One of our seniors at the magazine reflects on her college experience and shares some words of wisdom.

I’m just a few weeks away from graduating and I’m not the same person that stepped foot onto the beautiful Santa Clara University campus four years ago. I came here unsure of what to expect, a little nervous, a lot excited, and overwhelmed by it all.

That’s why, as I’m about to graduate, I feel it’s my duty to pass on my hard-earned knowledge to all those who follow behind me. Textbooks and professors aside, your college experience outside of the classroom will shape who you come out to be in the end. So, here are six tips I’d give my bright-eyed and nervous freshman self:

1. Join more clubs. Call me a parrot because I know people told me this a million times before. And I did listen. Don’t make lame excuses like I don’t have hiking shoes for the outdoor trip, or I look awkward talking in front of a camera, or I only sing in the shower. Another thing people may not tell you is that there’s a negative correlation between meeting new people and school year: as you move on to sophomore, junior, and senior year, the amount of people you meet declines. Chalk it up to less time, more work, off-campus living, or just complacency. As a freshman, you’re less likely to go through the motions since you’re still learning them. Take all the opportunities that clubs offer to introduce you to new people, new interests, new perspectives, and new worlds.

2. Take interesting classes. You have much more freedom now that you’re out of high school. You can tailor your routine to follow your curiosities and interests. Get jealous of people who come in undeclared! Use this first year to explore different professors, departments, disciplines, and topics. Good for you for taking a class called the Joy of Garbage. But what about poetry? Chemistry? Marketing? If you feel intimidated by the course listings, talk to students to find out what interesting ones people are buzzing about. Befriend upper classmen! There really is no hierarchy in college like there was in high school, and they actually give good advice, especially when it comes to their opinions about classes.

3. Ask for help. Forget your unfortunate misconception that asking for help is a sign of weakness, failure, or inadequacy. There’s no way you should have a clear picture of everything, 24-7, during your first year. So attend office hours. Talk with your Community Facilitator. Have discussions with roommates, classmates, and peers. Check out the counseling services and the career center. These open lines of communication can be vital for building a good foundation of support. It’s not unusual to feel on top of the world and completely defeated—in the same day. Remember, you can’t navigate this unpredictable terrain on your own. Asking for help is the best introduction into arguably the most important life skill ever: networking.

4. Don’t take your food to-go. One of the easiest ways to meet people, it doesn’t matter what age, is over a shared meal. You may be shy, but I guarantee that there are people who would love to eat with you. Knock on your neighbors’ dorm room doors. Or ask a classmate to a meal before or after class. One meal does not have to mean instant friendship. Very rarely does that even happen. And if you don’t have a plan to eat with someone, head to the cafeteria anyway and see who you run into. The hidden secret we don’t like to admit: almost every freshman is equally itching to make new friends.

5. Journal! Write things down. I was never very good at this because I thought I would have to devote hours to recap everything that happened. Just let it flow, mind to pen to paper, unfiltered. No grammar/punctuation Nazi, spell checks, or handwriting critics allowed. Here’s a good strategy: pull out three things that happened to you each day and write down a sentence for each. Obviously some major moments may require pagination. This diary will be your best memory keeper ever—Instagram pictures come in a far second place. I can almost guarantee that re-reading your adventures, foibles, and relationships will come in handy months or years from now when you are asked, “What was your freshman year like?” Here’s your book of answers. To keep or to share.

6. Remember that you’ll grow from the experiences you create. You’ll do things in college that you never even imagined or dreamed were possible. By the time you walk across that stage, you’ll be carrying with you four years’ worth of memories. Some made in classrooms, others in dorm rooms, others in car rides going who knows where, even others halfway across the world. Your accomplishments will be impressive. But these aren’t just limited to the awards or the GPA or the jobs you’ll have. Some of your achievements won’t show up on your diploma or transcript or resume. Your self-confidence, your spunk (as one professor told me), your proven dedication, your work ethic, and your life-long friendships. So enjoy the journey, trust your gut, embrace change, and take it one day at a time.

This article first appeared as a shorter op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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