Awkward introductions, sunshine, smiles, excitement, energy, move-in day.
Depression, anxiety, stress, confusion, final exams.
Dear Hannah, and other incoming freshmen,
Congratulations on getting into the University of Michigan! You’ll be entering a new chapter of your life and there’s much to be excited about. These next four years will hold a lot in store for you, and at a place like the University, there’s much to be experienced with so many opportunities and resources. Though I won’t be able to be there at every step of the way with you, I wanted to share my own journey navigating these past four years.
Lesson 1: Context
“Best four years of my life.” “Work hard, play hard.” “Freedom from parents.” “Now you can have a relationship.” Welcome to college.
Suppose an extraterrestrial being were to come to Earth. How would you explain college? From an outsider’s perspective, college could look weird: a microcosm where young adolescents with developing prefrontal cortexes are virtually locked together within a few square miles. Placed in a situation, being told important decisions that could alter the course of their life are to be made, all while dealing with the normal pressures of life and more. This is the Pollockian masterpiece society has created to lead the education of our future generations.
While college may have been pitched as the key stepping stone to a future, it is not without its problems. As a new student, you will be entering with a body of students from all over the country and world. Many of those students will come from wealthy families. The average family income of a University of Michigan student was $154,000 in 2017. A majority will be white. These are just a few of the identities your peers will be bringing with them. Chances are there will be moments where you feel out of place. Embrace your difference.
On a related note, diversity has become a buzzword for higher education institutions. Having a lack of it reflects poorly on the prestige of an institution. College pamphlets are filled with pictures of multicultural students sitting in a lawn on a sunny day laughing together. That is unfortunately mostly a marketing scheme. Though you may be in classes with students who look different from you, the true interactions are seldom and few.
Another issue I ran into was the lack of access to healthy food options. With a lack of easily accessible supermarkets, students have to put aside the time and effort to take the bus if they lack access to an automobile. Who knew that even being able to eat food would be a struggle? These are just a few of the many imperfections that exist. This is all for me to say chances are there will be times you encounter systemic barriers. Identify the issue. Fight to make it better for those you come after you. USE your VOICE.
Lesson 2: Culture
As a premed student who minored in a social science, I’d like to say I studied the human being, from the microscopic atoms that make up the biochemical pathways which fuels us to the way organisms think and interact with others on a macro level. One of the most important things I’ve learned about is culture — the amorphous, abstract force that shapes all of our human decisions and interactions. Culture is the ocean that surrounds all of us, carrying us to-and-fro with waves. To change it means fighting against the current.
The University itself has a culture. Leaders and the Best. That go-get-it, never settle mindset. That success-at-all-costs mindset. The University also has a binge drinking culture and politically progressive culture. Not all of these forces are bad, but be cognizant of them. Be motivated but don’t be consumed.
While it may appear as though everyone around you has their life together, look past it. Remember you are human, prone to mistakes and errors. Behind every résumé an equal amount of failure.
Lesson 3: Community
At a big school such as the University, it is easy to just feel like one in a million. Friends and communities can make it feel like a much smaller place; however, don’t settle for them.
Find the people at this school who will be there for you, because they are out there. Find the ones who will grow with you, who will keep late nights with you, who will be able to celebrate your achievements as much as their own. Find the people who will also be able to take it easy and laugh with you. The fondest memories I have are those when I was fully in the moment and lost track of the time.
This not only pertains to your peers. Find the professors, graduate student instructors and advisers who will also be your support system. Fully utilize all the resources this place has to offer for you to become successful in your endeavors. When you do find someone with which you really connect, hold on and don’t let go. Make an effort to develop that relationship and be mentored by them. Your professors are all human beings too. Above all else, know when to ask for help. Usually the earlier, the better.
Lesson 4: Compassion
Freshman year, I had a chance to work for the dining hall. You learn a lot about human behavior working in the service industry, perhaps more than any class could ever teach.
Some people are warm. Their faces light up no matter the time or day. Their smile makes you smile, and you know you have their full attention. Others leave their plates on the table for someone else to pick up and text while you try to serve them. Two rough categories of people: the dish-leavers and the smile-bringers.
Say thank you more and show compassion to others. The most rewarding experiences I’ve had in college were being in servitude to others. While culture may push you toward being self-centered, help out those in need. It would not be possible for you to get this education with the countless hours put in by your family and those around you. I’ve never regretted writing a thank-you note. Be kind and courteous to all those at the University who make your experience possible: bus drivers, police officers, resident advisers, etc.
Also, show compassion to yourself. Don’t take things too seriously. I promise your life will move on with the right amount of time. If you are skipping meals to study and losing sleep and weight, you are probably involved in too many things. Know your limits and be able to say no. Take care of your mental health as well as physical health. Part of being compassionate to yourself requires you being real to yourself. Confront the highs and lows and be vulnerable. I felt real change happen in the moments I let down my own pride and ego.
You won’t feel happy all the time. Feeling blue is completely normal and sometimes even beyond your control. Imposter syndrome, self-doubt and loneliness are a short list of things with which you could very likely deal.
Lesson 5: Consider
Finally, move beyond the binary. Be able to see the grays, blacks and whites of issues. Explore yourself. Challenge yourself and step outside your comfort zone. As an example, I had no idea how much my intergroup relations minor would mean to me before I started college. My eyes were opened to a hard truth but also invaluable skills and lessons. It became one of the transformative experiences of my college career. In addition, stick to who you are as a person. Where you find wholeness and completeness will most likely not be where others also reside.
I didn’t know what to expect when I started college, but one thing I knew for sure was I would explore everything socially and academically to grow myself. Now, four years older, beaten and joyful, I am leaving a place filled with years of memories for me. I wanted to pass my lessons onto you in some tangible form. Even now, I admit I don’t have everything figured out regardless of what society expects at my age.
I wish you the very best in your undergraduate years as you struggle and succeed. There may be moments when you are so riddled with anxiety and stress that you can’t see clearly. Moments so lonely that you want to cry. Times that you will feel like no one could be going through something worse than you are at the moment. It is all normal. If you were expecting a smooth ride, I’m here to burst your bubble. I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my role models.
“The ultimate measure of a (hu)man is not where (they) stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where (they) stand at times of challenge and controversy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
The rest is up to you to make on your own and figure out along the way.
With much love,
Your brother, Young