When I was getting ready to start my freshman year about five years ago, I was gearing up for an all-out sprint. I had loaded up on Advanced Placement credits and mapped out every class I was planning to take. My goal was to finish everything in three years — maybe four, if I tacked on a master’s degree. I sought the simplest and most straightforward path to the finish line, and perceived college primarily as a means to an end. Once I achieved it, I could slow down, but until then, I had a race to finish.
I leapt into my first semester at breakneck speed. My course load was maxed at a full 18 credits, each one selected to optimize my degree completion. The next semester would be 18 credits, too, and in the future I hoped to overload. My eyes remained on the prize, and my energy was devoted to getting there as quickly as possible. Was there a better way to fulfill this requirement? Which classes would help me complete two — or three, or four — objectives at once? Essentially: How could I get this done as quickly as possible?
However, by the end of my first year, I ran into the problem that any runner who starts out too fast in a long distance race will: I burnt out. Although my path to the finish remained clear, it was no longer a path I was excited about, nor that I had the energy to follow. Hitting this wall also forced me to remove my blinders and evaluate my experience so far, and I wasn’t happy with what I had found. Rushing through my first year caused me to overlook many of the things that are supposed to make college worthwhile — the “college experience,” as many people might refer to it.
I also came to the realization that the forces pushing me forward at a fast pace were not internal, but external. The social and financial pressure to achieve a college degree, combined with the rising prevalence of a ‘hustle culture’ among Gen Z, has created a perception that college needs to be an ‘all-out’ experience — do it big and get it done fast. But for many people, including myself, this approach to college only leaves us feeling burnt out and can cause us to miss out on what might be a more fulfilling four years.
Clearly, this fast pace certainly wasn’t something I could maintain for four years — I hadn’t even made it through one. So I had to re-evaluate. Given the aforementioned pressures to wrap up a college degree as efficiently as possible, it can be a nerve-wracking, and lonely, experience to pause and re-think your path entirely. Sometimes you might even worry that in re-navigating you’ll be undoing your progress or walking back steps you’ve already taken. But when you reach one of these points — as most of you inevitably will — know that you are not alone. Many other first year students will likely be alongside you in re-thinking their path, and there are a wealth of resources available to help you discover what’s best for you. Try to think of them as pit stops, rather than roadblocks — and with each one, you are moving yourself forward on your path, in one way or another.
When imparting wisdom onto a new freshman class, upperclassmen and recent graduates are often asked, “what advice would you give your freshman self?” But I think this is an unfair question. If I could go back in time, I certainly would love to give some advice — and maybe a few warnings —- to my 18-year-old self. But this advice would be tailored to what is best for me, and would have the impossible advantage of knowing the future. Your college experience will be uniquely your own, and it is still unwritten. Yours may contain lots of pit stops and side trails, or it might be relatively straightforward. You may benefit from a slower journey, or, if driven by your own wishes and not external pressures, a brisk pace might be better for you. You may come in with some idea of what your ideal experience would be, but the best way to navigate college is something you must discover by doing. I guess there is one thing I would tell my freshman year self that could benefit anyone: Don’t hesitate to re-think things, especially if they’re not working out the way you had hoped.
That said, there are a few things every first year student should consider. Take a class or join a club totally unrelated to your major or career goals. Explore new parts of campus and find hidden gems that you can return to throughout your years on campus. Cherish the seemingly mundane everyday moments that bring you joy — they might be some of the experiences you cherish the most when you reach the finish. Some of you might be coming to Michigan after taking a gap year; don’t be afraid to take another.
College is not a sprint, but it’s not really a marathon, either. I would say it’s most aptly comparable to a hike. There is no time limit and no one to beat. You will eventually want to get from the start to the finish, but the journey in between is equally, if not more, important than reaching the end. You won’t be behind if you choose a different route, re-navigate or even stop to rest. In fact, doing these things is essential to getting the most out of your experience. No matter when you reach the end of your four years, it almost certainly will feel like it has gone by too fast. Do whatever you can to get the most out of it. This is your path is yours and yours alone — take it at your own pace.