Ashley Zhang: End of the semester reflections

Sunday, December 11, 2016 - 6:55pm

Though the semblance may not be obvious at first glance, an academic semester can actually quite feasibly be compared to an orchestral piece — Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King to be exact. If you’re not familiar with the song, it starts slowly and quietly in the lower registers of the orchestra: the cellos, basses and bassoons calm and steady. As the music progresses, the tempo gradually builds as more instruments in different keys are added. Over the course of the next two and a half minutes or so, the "accelerando" and "crescendo" snowball until the "prestissimo" finale, at which point the music has reached new heights of frenzy and volume. To listen to it is to ride an uncontrollable train until, all of a sudden, it ends with a crash.

As the end of my first semester in college nears with unbelievable speed, I feel as though I’m in the midst of Greig’s masterpiece — the sheer volume of assignments, projects and tests thrown at me provokes whiplash and swallows me whole. In the middle of such a frenetic time, it can be difficult to find a moment to breathe and reflect on the past semester. It can be harder still to believe that a mere three months ago, college was all shiny and new, the semester was as lax as the beginning of In the Hall of the Mountain King and I was just another bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshman. I should note: I am still a freshman, but my eyes not as bright and my metaphorical tail not as bushy.

Although to upperclassmen I may still be green, in my mind, I — a soon-to-be second-semester freshman — am as wise and seasoned as they come. I no longer get lost on the way to the Undergraduate Science Building. I know the Bursley-Baits Route as well as I know all the football chants. I’ve learned that meeting someone in class or at a party does not change the chances that they’ll remember your name the next time you meet. I know that independence is dangerous in that you can, and will, spend all your Dining Dollars on overpriced chips, ramen and coffee. I’ve realized that, despite high school starting at 7:20 a.m., 8 a.m. classes (and even 9 a.m. classes) start too early.

And that’s just the surface-level stuff. As cheesy as it sounds, college has taught me so much about myself. For example, I’ve come to realize that my mind is much more suited to sciences than math, despite any contrasting notions I harbored in high school. I’ve learned that I don’t love parties as much as I thought I would. I’ve realized that I cannot function without sleep, not even with exorbitant amounts of coffee.

Even more than that, college has given me the ability to experience so many things for the first time and has, in turn, changed me. In September, I was terrified to move out and live without my family for the first time. Three months later, I love the freedom and independence I have in college. Back home, I’d be mortified of the thought of eating alone. Now, I cherish whatever alone time I have in the dining hall, free to check my emails and just rest while I eat. However, the largest change has been catalyzed by the opportunity of writing this very column.

I applied to be a columnist for the Daily on a whim with zero expectations given my limited experience with journalism. So when I was accepted, I received the news with a mix of surprise and trepidation. In fact, here’s an excerpt of my journal entry from Sept. 1, 2016, the day I was accepted:

“Holy crap. I was just accepted as a columnist for The Michigan Daily! While on one hand, I’m excited that I was accepted, on the other hand, I’m terrified … I just can’t believe that people will be actually reading what I write. I’m not qualified to have people listen to me!! My writing has always been something I’m proud of, but kept hidden, because I’m embarrassed for people I know to read my stuff … and judge it. My heart is already pounding with anxiety.”

It’s hard to believe that I wrote that only three months ago, but the seven columns I’ve written between then and now are evidence of how my confidence in my writing has grown. Over the course of seven columns, I’ve learned how to use this small voice I have to bring attention to issues that are important to me: Asian representation in media, oppressive period culture, the unpretty reality of being a girl, the ridiculousness that is sleep deprivation competition and so much more. The kind and thought-provoking emails and comments I’ve received because of them have mitigated any doubts I had about my credibility. I once thought no one cared about my opinion, but I’ve learned that if you have something worthwhile to say, people will listen.

This column has given me a platform to speak my voice. Yet, even without such a platform, college as a whole provides many opportunities to be yourself and follow your interests without fear of judgment. There are far too many people on campus to worry about all their opinions and judgments. Thus, to any miserable high schoolers who may be reading this, let me tell you one thing: It gets better.

Sure, the coursework in college may be more difficult. But it’s also more interesting, and the wide variety of classes in the course guide offers the freedom to study whatever you want. Festifall may be overwhelming, with the seemingly endless number of clubs and activities present on campus that cater to nearly every interest under the sun. Even more diverse, though, are the people. You will meet people from all over the country and world with stories much unlike your own, and you will learn from them, and through them you will learn about the world. I come from a rather cookie-cutter town where everyone was very much the same, and the diversity of this campus is a breath of fresh air.

Although college may not feel like the best time of my life right now, with finals quickly impending, in reflection, I’m so thankful to be here. I’ve learned so much in the single semester in which I’ve been here, and I can only hope that the next seven don’t fly by as quickly.

Ashley Zhang can be reached at