Academic Excellence at Elite Institutions for Everyone
This is an engaging, interactive, user-friendly and practical book on how to get the most out of your college experience. Moving away from the juvenile, silly advice about personal, nitty-gritty lifestyle topics that require common-sense like, how to do laundry, manage finances, get a credit card, sex/dating, we will empower the serious, well-intentioned, smart student and guide him/her to academic excellence. Topics we will cover include interacting with professors, dealing with success/failure, developing confidence/courage while tempering it with humility/lack of arrogance, etc. By adopting a more sympathetic, down-to-earth tone as a peer, rather than from a more authoritative, demanding voice, we will avoid repetitive and banal directives that do not work for everyone. Instead of “Do this,” we advocate, “Consider this”. We initiate dialogues that help people become more self-critical and skeptical and to motivate them to have a more active engagement with learning, and with the wider learning community. On a general level, we strongly advise independent thinking, to seek out resources, people, and information that works for you, while also showcasing specific anecdotal examples at Williams (quotes from Williams students) to illustrate how it can work in practice. Another benefit of hearing other voices is to make apparent the multiple struggles that college students have to deal with, which will create links of commonalities. The reader can situate his/her own problems within a wider context, supplying him/her with a larger perspective, empowering him/her to articulate his/her own sense of self.
Table of Contents:
Section 3: The Basic Words: Study Tips
#1: Getting the most out of class time and office hours
#2: Getting help/collaborating with others
#3: Getting to a dining hall or a kitchen is satisfying
#4: Getting one opportunity leads to another one
#5: Getting into good conversations is what college is all about
#6: Going to the primary source is your sure-bet
Section 4: Conclusion / Wrap-UP
Section 1: Introduction
Chapter 1: The Beginning
The location, the names, even the buildings, some dating from hundreds of years ago, remain resolutely the same, but as the sun-soaked leisure of summer days fade into the sober calm of autumn ones, brand-new clusters of faces crowd and bustle their way into the landscape of American college campuses. The environments are lush, manicured lawns spanning long stretches of space, surrounded by buildings that house the pinnacles of human achievement, and with names that loom large and significant in the imagination. These seemingly silent buildings absorb the anonymous faces in the crowd of lucky individuals, who are now inducted as college students, embarking on paths that quickly become entangled and, eventually, invisible. The way is now left to the hands of the students, whose imagination and collaboration with others, guides them out of anonymity and into selfhood.
The beginning of college, like any beginning, can be easily idealized, substituted with any flight of imagination, since the rest of the story is a complete blank. Maybe you will try to avoid this by taking up a stance of complete nonchalance and indifference, a stance that you cannot hold for long, once you are confronted with your first choice, which can come in an infinite number of varieties, many of them completely unconscious to you. Who will be my friends? How do I get to know my professors? What will I do with my time? How do I feel about people who are different from me? The beginning is a vantage point in which a myriad of possibilities unfolds in front of you, an entrance into a new world, and a first step into the adventure whose title, purpose and events are not yet within sight. Cherish the beginning but prepare yourself for the free-fall ahead of you.
The beginning of college has different significance depending on where you left off in your previous story. Everyone comes to college with similar qualifications, the admissions office ensured this, but with different life stories, the admissions office ensured that, as well. An important part of your college experience will be learning to deal with, and perhaps appreciate, these twin pillars of the higher education system. How do you merge these two facts – that others will be just as talented and smart as well as uniquely different from you? More importantly, how do you find and assert your value, on your own terms, in that culture?
The central premise of this book is that you will learn your own way along with the guidance of the institution around you, and seek your own terms of understanding. This is not a traditional advice book that will lay out everything that you need do to help you succeed, so it is not a checklist. It is not a manual so that you can become a fantastic success at the end of your college career, although we hope that you will, because success is defined individually, in so many ways and cannot be distilled. The book is, instead, a beginning of a dialogue and possible ways into thinking about your college experience. We want to prepare you for the conversations that lay ahead of you. In that way, we hope that it can be useful for everyone.
A Student Perspective
As I entered Williams, I would have said that I was excited about college. My vocabulary or self-concept/awareness probably didn’t allow me to say anything else, even though I took the SAT Verbal and was told by teachers and peers throughout high school that I was smart and I did the smart people things like Science Club, Knowledge Bowl, and was involved in the community. I was also, somehow aware that it was a different environment, and that I could be a different person. None of this was really apparent and most of the days went by with mini-worries and mini-moments like the moment I moved into my dorm with my single luggage and single duffle sometime at night after sitting with a bunch of other first-years in a coach without talking to a single one of them. I had already made some friends from the month-long, boot-camp/summer-camp (neither of which I’ve ever experienced but from what I’ve seen on TV) that was Summer Humanities – there was also an equivalent camp for Science people, who were supposed to be our archrivals, even though most of them seemed nice. The days that went by were much more mundane than any description could begin to capture, filled with worries I’ve already lost track of. I was, naturally, nervous, shy, friendly, unable to really fit in, but also both comfortable/resigned and disappointed with that role. On the surface, I was probably just another student wandering through the sidewalks from one obligation to another, skipping the ones that didn’t seem to relate to me, like anything involving athletics. But inside my head, the mundane was gnawing away at me – the little accumulations of stereotypes about what the school represented – a bunch of smart people, some of whom I’ve told are really rich and even though, I didn’t want to think of stuff like that, I started developing an awareness of class and difference – I noticed how much I stood out and how I tended to group with people who looked like they had similar backgrounds and who I thought might get along with me or they wanted to get along with me.
I can’t remember my preoccupations, but I’m sure one of them was how to be involved, but also to look cool and nonchalant, as I saw other people acting. None of the college experience seemed to faze them as much, though. But for me, I had never really left home and this was a whole new world. The view-book pictures were attractive, and everything sounded nice, on the surface, like close interaction with professors, snack bar food, and taking interesting classes taught by smart people who wrote books and were published in national media. These idealizations were both more exaggerated and weaker than the reality – I essentially, had no clear perspective, as no one coming to college can be reasonably expected to have, and I’m only allowed to be hard on myself after having gone through the learning experience, after having gone through all the problems that I can now see as problems. At the time, I dealt with everything as it came, going along with, and trusting that my abilities, fate, that something, would show me the right way through and, having never worried about my abilities to handle any situation, not because I was hyper-confident, as I might have acted but wasn’t truly secure enough to be, but because I had no sense of what handling a situation entailed beyond just doing it. I gradually refined my sense of crisis management and of personal management over my time at Williams and that has been a most valuable education. So, the lessons imparted in this book is not a prescription or description of what I did right and a cautionary tale of what to avoid doing, to prevent the mistakes I made from happening again. They are simply lessons learned, compiled, packaged, and an attempt at exposing the underbelly of a quite, unwieldy beast of a college experience.
A college does not have a physical entrance, like the door to a typical public high school. They tend to sprawl, sometimes to the size of cities, like at college towns. They are gated though, both literally and figuratively. The gates of higher institution were patrolled heavily, admitting only certain types of students, namely American, white, and male. And as the average person knows, now, the cost of a college education has skyrocketed, barring admittance to low income and middle class students. The college admissions process has been marred by crude indicators of demographics. What are some of the ways in which scholars and education experts have conceptualized the issue?
Lani Guinier has pioneered the notion that “race is the canary in the coal mine,” drawing attention to race as a key harbinger of student academic achievement. The theory advocates an empowering view of students from underrepresented backgrounds, oftentimes meaning first-generation racial minorities from low income households. Rather than stereotyping them as deficient, they are instead a valuable resource, serving the traditional role of the canaries in coal mines, who were more susceptible to air pollution and would consequently die off before the air got bad enough to kill off the coal miners. In other words, the at-risk population, the underrepresented canaries serve as early warning signs of larger systematic problems existing inside the entire institution. colleges are in fact failing these students contributing, in turn to the disproportionate failure and drop out rates of those students. Instead of devaluing the self-worth of minority students, centers of higher education have a responsibility to give them resources and information. One of the goals for this book will be to fill in this need.
Donna Lisker, director of the Duke Women’s Center uses the term “effortless perfection” to describe the pressure at college campuses, where everyone has to look like everything is ok.
A liberal arts education is broad and widely relatable experience that cuts across all student goals and especially resonant for minorities and women who are seeking “spiritual meaning” in their educational experiences.
Graduates starting in the mid/late 2000s are part of the “civic generation” – expanded opportunities for community service after graduation (Teach for America, PeaceCorps)
No one wants to be pigeon-holed in a box and to have the extra burden of being a “minority” or “a special status”. However, learning to embrace and come to terms with these labels is often a big part of the honesty that many students repeatedly say is the most important feature of doing well in college – honesty about who you are, how you are succeeding and failing, what your underlying values are, and conveying that honesty to others. Colleges that attempt to be inclusive, and to help everyone, often stress the under-preparedness of certain groups, without also acknowledging their worth. As a result, many student feel disenchanted from the college, feel undervalued, and start questioning their own worth if the only reason that they are on campus is to “bring diversity”, by virtue of something as supposedly indeterminate and meaningless as color of your skin or background history.
Crucially, there are as many different stories as there are different students, and lumping all students under a category can be counterproductive – that for the sake of helping a seemingly-similar, casually conveniently named minority group, you end up helping very few by turning them off from the message. Many students cite that the biggest benefit of using certain categories based on race or socioeconomic status is to bring them together to provide a chance for them to meet others that may have similar concerns or who they may get along with better. Many students find their closest friends with others that share a common interest and/or background. This is not to bar them from making friends with others outside their circle. In fact, many students express a desire to make a broader range of friends.
Section 2: Stories
Chapter 2: The Biggest Words
Many invisible footsteps criss-cross the pathways on college campuses, and any given student makes a distinct mark on his/her college. In the following section, many students and former students attempt to make visible the invisible footsteps they left. Hearing the stories of other students, temporarily putting yourself in their shoes, does not deprive you of reaching insights for yourself. These students have shaped stories out of their own experience, laying bare insecurities and fears they protected. Intimidated by the masks that others were wearing, students sensed that everything around them was all right, while they were acutely aware of their own sense of disorientation or confusion – more than one student commented on how alone they felt in an environment with such high expectations.
Read these stories, not as directions for getting through the maze from those already in or who are already out. If college were a maze, it morphs for each individual, setting in place walls that will define your own custom-made limits and possibilities, and placing unique pitfalls ahead of you. You emerge with a story that may look similar to others, but will be wholly yours. Here are brave voices stripped away from the jargon, and bursting with emotional honesty.
Chapter 4: Interacting between Professors and Students
Often times, it is hard to know the right questions to ask a professor, which makes it frustrating when you don’t get the answers you need. Sometimes, it just boils down to your professor’s lack of creativity in understanding your question, or in his/her inability to reframe the answer in a way that a student can understand.
A big part of the learning process is learning what your own learning style is and how to work with it. In my Political Science class, I was writing papers that the professor really disliked. His comments always included something about how my writing was “too overwrought”. But I used the same writing style that had seemed “overwrought” in my other classes, and in my English classes, the style was much better-received. Little factors like figuring out your writing style and learning style will play a big part in positively adapting to a college environment. Work your way through until you can fall into a place that fits you.
An African-American recent graduate from Texas (X) spoke of her academic confusion during the first two years at Williams. After being known as “the polite, smart girl” in her hometown, she came to college expecting to be pre-med. Here is her voice:
After coasting through high school to the point of feeling like “it wasn’t challenging,” getting straight A’s in AP classes, she was feeling confused as to why she wasn’t excelling in college as she had been in high school – and also the pressure of seemingly being the only one failing. In reflecting back, she says with restored confidence, that the feeling that “everyone else is getting it is a myth. Everyone else is struggling but no one likes to confess here.” That realization was the breakthrough she needed to fight back those lonely days of wavering confidence.
In order to get out of her rut, she sought help, first by talking to professors. But even that was a problem because “she was sensitive to their disappointment” and thought that they “did not understand why she was feeling this way”. They told her to make a study group, but she didn’t know anyone else to do that with, and didn’t feel like confessing that to a professor, so she just kept going it alone. Professors also told her to find a tutor, and to use the Math Science Resource Center, where paid tutors sit at a specified location and time, while other students come with questions on problem sets (homework assignments from the textbook). She found the place “cliquish” and only felt comfortable when she went with friends. Most of the time, she went alone though. The Resource Center wasn’t helpful because the tutors often just gave her the answer, without helping her understand. Doubts plagued her – “why can’t I conquer this subject matter? What’s wrong with me? Did I come here with a big head?” If she had continued with the sciences, not learning, she would have dropped out. She even tried exploring other options but found out “it was not feasible to leave”.
A Chinese-American student also had difficulty with the academic advisor in his major who was randomly assigned to him. Having never taken a class with him, he had to sign up for a slot to meet with him. Although the professor was friendly, all he did was take out a list of the major requirements and ask, “Have you taken psyc 101, check, have you taken psyc 201, check.” The student says, “I could’ve done that on my own!” He wishes that the professor would have asked more probing questions. Many other students rarely interact with professors outside of class. (need statistic!)
An administrator for Special Academic Programs says that it is unrealistic to put excessive burden on professors, especially at liberal arts colleges, who in earlier days, were expected just to teach, rather than advise. Recently, there is the added pressure “to publish at the same rates as big research universities” and to be part of committees. In short, “we ask too much of professors”. The combination of these two demands makes advising feel like an additional, undue burden. This could explain why most professors take the quick-and-dirty approach of suggesting other resources, like tutors, rather than engage the students more fully. Some people justify this as a way to shift responsibility for learning to the student. But professors, based on outdated notions of the traditional background of a Williams-caliber student – middle/upper middle class white males from a “normal” upbringing – overestimate the preparedness of some students to navigate this new environment, even though those students are, equally intelligent and capable.
Both professors and administrators bring up the trickiness of balancing the roles and responsibilities between professors and students. One administrator says that this generation of students receives a lot more adult attention, starting at an earlier age compared to her generation – “instead of talking almost every day with my parents at college, I talked to them, maybe once a week.” There are new rules for the interactions between students and professors, which may have no models from the past, leading to difficult, “awkward” situations.
Despite the need for more attention, the African-American student admitted that she was “not used to calling professors by their first name” and couldn’t grasp that some professors invited students to their houses or for coffee because it didn’t seem like a “proper relationship”. The administrator adds she is oftentimes really busy too with her own life and raising kids so it’s unreasonable to expect that all professors will even have time to be that social and hospitable. The vexing question is how to address the apparent, oftentimes, unstated need for attention, which when met, can greatly benefit many students, while also respecting the boundaries that exist between professors and students?
Many people in colleges have noted, in some way or another, the problem of separating private and public space on a college campus, and being able to find a separation that worked for them, helped them feel comfortable on campus. One administrator who came from a medium-sized, urban city recounts this –
Before, when I left my house and ran into someone I knew on the street, I would stop and talk with them for a while because it was such a rare occurrence. But here, at Williams, you run into someone all the time, and the opposite effect happens. You need to put on blinders to avoid being bogged down. And while I’m driving, I may know who lives at that house, and then see a car in front belonging to someone else I know and then figure out that so-and-so is at so-and-so’s house. And that’s too much information.
When colleges want to bill themselves as tight-knit communities meets the reality that there is a natural human urge for privacy – things can quickly get too close for comfort. If anything can be a universal truth, college is a very weird, insulated place where human interaction takes on a seemingly, other-wordly level of complication.
Despite the challenges, a professor ends with a hopeful note of why she feels that the bonds formed with her students can be mutually beneficial – as a student, you’ll learn more because “you’ll enjoy getting to know a professional who knows a lot about something that interests you” and the professor can be a teacher, not operating under assumptions about how much you know.
Some students seek out and find adults who lead them to other adults with other expertise in a different niche, creating a network of support that helps them get by day-to-day but also helps them see the larger picture. By casting a broad net, these students tend to be able to find at least one professor that they click with the best – someone who they trust and can count on for good advice. One student kept mentioning one professor, and when I commented on how often his name came up, she laughed and gratefully conceded, “He’s my life coach”.
Other students find this process of networking to sound too much like using other people. One African international student has a cultural aversion to this type of networking because he thinks “it is a bad thing to use people” even if it is just to get help. Students like him also express qualms about mixing academic/semi-professional role as a student with all their different social roles, whether at school or back home. To the same student, it was important to establish trust with someone before he felt comfortable opening up, and he didn’t feel like he could do that with many professors. The primary reason was that he didn’t want his evaluation to be affected by personal factors – “for the positive or negative”. However, he did find an anthropology professor, who he was willing to open up to about failing his English class during the first semester which was news that he feared sharing with his own parents. Another student said, “I did not want to approach professors at all, they probably think I’m socially awkward.” But also added that, “I liked when they were encouraging, and left me comments on papers, which I kept.” All students share this need to receive feedback from the people that they clearly admire, such as professors, and to hear positive confirmation. All Williams-caliber students have received some form of positive confirmation, including getting into Williams, which has habituated them to expect it. And it is nice to hear from other people that what you’re doing is good. But many, more well-adjusted students begin to have a healthier sense of self-worth, and to not depend on this type of confirmation.
Many stories mix the sense that professors or someone out there can be a fairy godmother/father-figure coming out of nowhere to restore someone from the depths of despair, (“a magic formula”) with the fear of not appearing like the emperor who wears no clothes, not asking for help at their own peril because of the fear that no one is willing to tell you the truth of what you need. (NEEDS WORK)
Chapter 5: Fitting in with other students and the community
“I was in a hallway of blonde girls,” says one student from Zimbabwe (Z). It’s only a slight exaggeration. For her, the biggest difficulty transitioning from high school to college was making new friends and even though the blond girls on her hall were friendly, she had trouble connecting with them. During her interview, her humor shone through and it confused me to think that she would have trouble finding friends. X had a similarly difficult time fitting in, she would try to take part in entry activities, but all they seemed to be interested in was “watching Flavr Flav and drinking to excess”. Y felt shut out from his entry unless he took part in the drinking life, as well. Eventually, all three students just gave up and the distance between themselves and others widened. Z also added that since she didn’t want to go to parties by herself, she was shut out of the social scene until she was able to find her own niche, which ended up being other international students and minority students. Those terms didn’t mean anything to her until she came to Williams and she suspects that they still don’t mean anything to the hallway of blonde girls, who had no trouble making friends, since they’ll be right at home at Williams, not having to worry about being different. At Williams, she never hung out with that crowd, who wore “popped collars and pearls” and “drove a five-minute walking distance”. Although she does not resent them because she understands that “they are not flaunting it but that’s just who they are” and because she was too busy to really give them that much thought. But “they’re there.”
While she wouldn’t explicitly lay blame on anyone, I challenged her to think about how the mere presence of others, “just being there” can have a significant impact on your identity and your comfort level, affecting all aspects of your college experience. She wasn’t quite ready to make that leap.
X had a story that showed just how aware she felt of her presence as a Black woman –
I would go to the campus grocery store which was very small, and noticed that the cashier seemed to always come up and put stuff near me. I started to think they were suspecting me of stealing and all I was doing was looking and comparing things because that’s how I shop. I guess, it’s because I don’t have light skin, I’m not Caucasian pretty. They don’t look threatening and the danger goes down for them. For me, I have to do things to make them feel safe, like making sure my hands are visible, like holding a cell phone or credit card.
X also explained how the local hair salon put up a sign a few years ago, coming right out and saying that they “don’t do ethnic hair”, and the closest WalMart doesn’t even sell black hair products so she has pack extra every time she comes to Williams. The first Black student enrolled at Williams in the 1800s. (ctitation) X laughs off saying, “Blacks are not a new phenomenon, why does it feel like we don’t belong?”
Z said that she came here “pretty enthusiastic – it’s a new place, I met new people. Something sour happened though. I became aware of differences in culture. Americans are not the friendliest. It’s fine, you get used to it, the fake smiles, individuals you take classes with but not greet you. Learning to see each other, but ignore them.”
According to one international student from Asia, “the standard of living is so much higher at American colleges. In Asia, I would be living with and the bathrooms would not have bathtubs.”
New England colleges, ivy-covered and all, looms in the mind’s eye of many parents and students as the pinnacle of academic achievement, the golden grail, the playgrounds of the rich and famous, of future presidents, CEOS, surgeons to the stars, and the professional/leisure class. Compared to state schools, which are more like factories that pack students into large lecture halls and churn out thousands of anonymous graduates every year, New England ivy-league type schools have a large appeal. While the Ivy League itself is well-renown, often, when researching those schools, students stumble upon a wider selection lurking beneath – including many small liberal arts colleges that pepper much of New England and also across the country. These schools used to be the feeder schools of many private boarding schools, thus maintaining a certain tradition and campus culture that can be very unfamiliar to the increasingly, diversified incoming students. While many of these schools have changed drastically, abolishing fraternities, becoming co-ed and expanding access across the socio-economic spectrum and around the world, pictures of white men that grace the walls in dorms, the disproportionate representation of white men in the ranks of the alumni and professors are reminders of the tradition and culture that had dominated the school for most of its history. The lack of historical ties to a place, the lack of roots, may not be immediately apparent or conscious, amidst the excitement of meeting new friends, learning new subjects, and moving away from home, the repeated theme is the sudden awareness of one’s own roots and of the cultural divide that can exist among equally qualified peers.
One student from Brooklyn, New York commented that while her presence as a queer Asian female can change the views of others, by putting a concrete face and identity to oftentimes overused labels, she also feels changed by living at a New England private school. By absorbing the privilege that surrounds her, she becomes separated from her own hometown. She goes home and finds it hard to hold a conversation with her friends and feels the pressure to succeed even stronger from her family who place a lot of hopes on her to be successful. Instead of being able to pursue her own passions, she feels pulled to help her family, which she is willing to do but makes her more money-conscious than she’d like to be. All of these preoccupations distract from her learning in the classroom, which tends to be overly theoretical and technical, far removed from many of her personal concerns. She repeatedly expressed frustration at the disconnection between her life experience and the material she was learning in class. Other students repeated this theme.
(Other students have so much trouble reconciling their hometown culture with their new environment that they end up leaving. Others withdraw and become shy. – How to address?)
Chapter 6: Using the resources available
Unlike X, Z found the Math Science Resource Center helpful because it was nice to be able to work with others right up to the deadline fueled on by candy. A resource that did not work for her was the Health Center. About sophomore year, she developed high blood pressure after feeling overwhelmed and anxious. She went to the health center, but they couldn’t do anything much for her besides telling her that she had it which she already knew. They also referred her to an on-site therapist but at the first session, the therapist took “the wrong approach. She asked me what my major was and I said psychology and then she asked me what I thought my problem was. I never went back, felt like it was a waste of time. I wanted some thing fast and didn’t want to talk.” She says that “in terms of mental health issues, sometimes, the college is wanting in ways to help.” However she thinks that “the only way to find out if there’s any use in the resources is to try them.”
Chapter 7: Managing Time / Procrastination / Sleep Deprivation
If money is the most free-flowing resource at top American colleges, where the cost to educate each student per year can reach near $100,000 and endowments reach well into billions of dollars, astronomically high sums of money, then time is probably the most constrained resource. From every corner, at all hours of the day, you can hear students complain that there isn’t enough time to finish the reading, to finish work, to go to work, to go to class, to go to practice, to party, and less frequently, to sleep. While the chorus of complaining has the effect of heightening the pressure and the frantic jostling to achieve, perhaps exaggerating the demands of college, even the most relaxed student will find the pace of college and the number of competing interests that vie for precious amounts of time to be as invisibly and subtly powerful as the effects of money.
The simple truth is that, just like money, you can never have enough time. Time is also easy to abuse, so learning how to spend time wisely is just as important as spending money wisely. While you may have heard simple, axiomatic wisdom about money and time, those lessons may not be as immediately conscious to you until you start living in college. Here is what some students have said about time management in college.
Procrastination is the biggest trap many students fall into and it usually means finishing assignments at the last minute without planning it. Some students work better under pressure, and because procrastination is inevitable, they plan around it. The downside of this plan is that it usually leads to shoddier, lower-quality work. And at college, where the stakes are higher, people around you are so much smarter, and professors are better at catching substandard work, it is much harder to turn in assignments that you did not give yourself time to think about. You will learn after a while if this shotgun working style works for you and you will need to start reevaluating and changing your methods.
Even thoughtful students, who want to plan ahead, and intend to do higher-quality work by giving themselves more time to think about the assignment, have trouble with time management. They have internalized the mantra that doing well requires preparation but they still comment on how hard it is to manage their time well. They realize that deadlines sneak up much faster on you in college, and the two weeks that they thought they had for a paper, ends up looking like two hours the night before. Their well-made calendars and plans do not lead to productive learning situations. So what went wrong for the well-intentioned student?
One major factor is that it is human nature to be bad at budgeting time, and to make accurate assessments of how much time an activity will take. An easy example would be someone trying to do a reading assignment over the weekend – simple enough goal. However, after a really busy week and a fun Friday night, he inevitably gets a really late-start on Saturday. He wakes up at 1, spends two hours walking around, trying to find something to eat and then eating. By the time, the student sits down to study at the student center, he gets out his laptop to look at Facebook pictures – this is the weekend after all, time to relax. He spots a friend and they talk about how they haven’t seen each other in a while and that they should get dinner sometime. By this time, he has totally lost his motivation to study, and decides to switch it up by starting on the economics problem set he has for another class. He’s having trouble and he goes to the TA session, which lasts until 10 PM. All of these distractions add up to a very unproductive Saturday. He hasn’t started his reading, and his only studying for the economics class was sitting through a TA session where the answers were fed to him. He had planned to do the reading, but it just never happened.
The cut-to-the-chase lesson for anyone reading this story is simple. The key is focus. That means, being aware at every moment in college – of what you want, what you need and what you are doing to achieve those goals, making sure that you are spending the time that you blocked out for yourself reaching the ends that you set out for yourself. A very cliché but apt metaphor is when you’re playing a game, your entire focus is on the game or when you’re in class, your entire focus is on the material. Hyper-efficiency is, of course, the ideal, and the upper limit of efficiency may simply be an illusion. And hyper-efficiency can be off-putting to other people, and over-concentration can easily lead to burn-out. The way to combat the negative effects of focus is with balance. Focus with balance seems to be the golden formula. One student contributed her thoughts of what balance meant to her:
Have breaks in your week from work is good. When I stopped going to gymnastics I was more stressed. Although dance dhamaka (an Indian dance group) was time consuming it helped me stay sane.
College is demanding, and while it may seem as though everyone is just coasting by nonchalantly, because that is the social norm, it’s possible that everyone is just too busy to realize just how busy everyone else can be.
Procrastination leads to the snowball effect, which becomes more of an avalanche effect in the warped time scale of college – this means that pushing a paper back one day can easily lead to a pile-up of work during a concentrated period of time that you did not anticipate. You have a bad weekend where you sacrifice sleep, which impairs your immune system, and you become sick, causing you to miss an entire week of class. However, missing a few weeks may not have the detrimental effects you imagined. One student had this story:
During Hurricane Katrina, she was stranded in Louisiana, and couldn’t get back to school on time. She had to miss a month of school, so by the time, she was on campus, she was really behind. She had to shut herself up in the library and work harder to catch up. Consequently, that was the most productive semester she had at Williams.
Again, the key to her success was focus, which was prompted by circumstances beyond her control.
Emergencies happen more often than you would like and at moments when you would least want them. Sometimes, those emergencies are internal, like realizing that the printer at the library isn’t working or the line at lunch was way too long and you don’t have time for food. However, oftentimes, emergencies happen to other people and you can control how much it affects you. Friendships, building relationships, and having an active social presence are important parts of college, and life – in fact a strong social network is the single most important and recurring feature of a positive undergraduate experience. Contrary to the myth of the hyper-academic student, it is possible to make room for other people, while maintaining excellent grades. One student from the Bronx said that to her,
friends are the most important part of her life, and she was willing to skip class, drop everything, and just be there for a friend in trouble.
Everyone will set their own priorities and much of it could be culturally based, and beyond your ability to control. Instead of twisting yourself into uncomfortable compromises, try instead to work with your existing priorities, so that you do not lose sight of who you are. Students that say things like “I’m so happy to get a B, in that class. After everything that happened, I am so proud of it,” ooze happiness in their beings.
Most top students have gotten focus down pat. That’s how they got to college. They don’t realize, though that college can be like a “24/7 sleepover party” where you are inundated with so many other fun and appealing alternatives that will give you choices. Some phrase it as between having happy memories that you can hold on to for awhile, versus having a stellar transcript. The tension between focusing on academics or on social life or any other value that is important to you is a strong one that persists across campus. Some students begin to think about this even before stepping foot on campus, when they decide what type of school they want to go to – an academically rigorous one in the middle of nowhere, or a lax school close to a big city. The choices that you make can determine a lot, even if most people make them unconsciously. But the pressure of deciding often leads to the time management problems on campus.
One of the strategies that some students use is to regularly use and stick to a planner or to simply make lists every once in a while of their goals and activities. Oddly, more women tend to use planners while men prefer the list system. Some people prefer setting down a routine that they can stick with through a semester, while others have such busy and diverse interests that it will impossible to stick to a routine. Different people have different organizational systems, but one common feature of an organizational system is that it gives you an opportunity to assess and compartmentalize your life. While this may sound clinical and cold, it can actually be a fun, liberating, stress-reducing activity. One student said that she realized that some of her friends were her “party friends” and some of her friends were her “study friends”. By separating these two groups, she could spend time with everyone she wanted to without letting one group interfere with the other. The reflective exercise of sitting down and setting your goals on paper, in whatever form that takes, is that it gets you to both see the small, discrete problems and hurdles you have along with the bigger picture of how you are spending your days. Some people neglect to or refuse to see the bigger picture, instead trying to focus on the day-to-day problems, as they come. By the end of the school year, they express regret that they hadn’t set clearer long-term goals for themselves.
(From Richard Light book: putting the big rocks first, and then the small rocks will follow)
“Time-Sinks” to Watch Out For
– Lab classes
– Talking to friends
– Hanging out with neighbors (entry)
– Surfing the internet
Warning Signs of Poor Time Management
– Forgetting hygiene
– Skipping meals
– Sacrificing sleep
– Submitting papers you have not read through at least once/i.e. not revising
– Avoiding/Neglecting friends/other people
Chapter 8: Failure
One student admits that she “didn’t want to be recommended to resources because other people will think I’m stupid. A workshop on learning to study and how to speed read was really boring for me. Everyone is afraid to be the stupid kid at Williams – it’s a big fear. The alternative is you hit the freshman/sophomore slump and laugh it off. It becomes a deep downward spiral and you just have to admit that I’m failing and get some help.” She hopes that people will start being more blunt and honest about failure, and not downplay or cover it up because everyone fails and it’s fine. She also stresses the fact that when you are discouraged and feel like something is inadequate for you, someone out there can listen to you. She is also adamant to stress that changing career paths from pre-med to English was not about her incapacity or inability. She was not stupid, just not interested. Just as some students who do not do well in English classes are not “stupid”, they just can’t translate their thoughts into English.
Chapter 8: Picking a Major – What is a major?
X wanted to rise to the expectations that she sensed from her professor and only felt that she started considering other majors. She started clicking better with her English professors and felt like she was engaging more in those classes. She was still “not getting perfect grades, but she felt much happier” and more satisfied with her educational experience because “I wasn’t forcing myself to work, and didn’t like feeling ‘ugh’ in lab and being the last to finish.”
Chapter 9: Exploring the wider world/ “keeping it real”/ “opening up”
I reached a point where I got tired of everything, didn’t take chemistry for a year, decided to study abroad, when you’re at Williams and your primary focus is academics and not personal growth. You don’t remember who you were. My interests defined my personality. In describing myself, I would have said I liked to collect things and liked to read. I hadn’t done any of that in a long time. I started to have an identity crisis because I’m not focused on the self. I really had to go away.
Section 3: Study Tips
Most students have pragmatic concerns about doing well in school and the study skills needed for college are completely different than what you needed to get by in high school. Most people will agree that their core business is school in college, without realizing what that means. Others will say that they want to make sure that they have memories outside of schoolwork. The following are tips to improve your effectiveness in the classroom, in order to make room for the memory-making times. (WORK ON INTRODUCTION!!!)
#1: Getting the most out of class (and be sure to go!)
In high school, attendance was standard procedure – you go to first period, then second period, and on and on, and all your movements were regulated by chiming bells. This is not the case in college – thankfully. You can and must follow your own individual schedule and become accountable for your own life. Some professors may take attendance but many, especially in large, 500 people classes at giant universities could care less if you only showed up for one or two lectures a week or only for exams, for classes that have them. And for the rare student, never attending a lecture and just taking the exams might suit your learning style. But it would be a very impoverished college experience if all you can look back on is just a series of tests. Pick classes that you would enjoy going to with teachers that engage you over a three-month span and then go every time because you want to and not because chiming bells tell you.
It is true that, unlike high school, two or three tests and one or two papers weigh a considerable amount on your overall evaluation in a class. This system puts a lot of pressure at two periods of time during any given semester – the midterm period and the finals period. In order to prepare for these periods, which can easily sneak up on you – three months is a very condensed space of time – there are some basic habits that can serve you well in preparation for the dreaded midterm and finals periods. They are all a version of going to class and making a strong effort to attend the lectures.
Here’s why going to class and attending lectures will benefit you – they force you to think about the material at every point of the semester, starting from day one. Engagement in all aspects of a class, including assigned readings, will help you, which is why it is easier to stay engaged if you chose classes that already interest you. Also, and this is especially true for science classes, material will build on top of one another and concepts introduced early in the semester tend to serve as foundations and starting off places for more concepts later in the semester – professors put a lot of thought into crafting the syllabus. The syllabus is your guide for the semester, it can be revised at the professor’s whim, but for the most part, it is the most important paper you will get in the class so keep it safe and place it prominently. As cheesy as it sounds, put it in the front of your binder, protect it with a plastic sheet, or tack it on your wall. Usually, the professor will spend the first class period going over the syllabus, and although this free pass day can appear deceptively low-key, here is where having good habits can pave the way for a positive learning experience for the rest of the semester
The syllabus contains important deadlines, too. Sometimes, professors will want to be flexible and leave out these important deadlines. Don’t let him or her get away with it so make sure that you clearly know when, where and in what format (e-mail or hard-copy) the professor would like the assignment turned in. Usually professors with flexible deadlines will be more lenient than average, but never bank on this. Follow deadlines or else get penalized.
When you attend class, you will get all the pertinent information about turning in assignments straight from the professor’s mouth and in real time. Again, this keeps you honest and in tune to the class dynamic.
Some classes, particularly English, language, history, and other small seminar classes will have class participation and attendance built straight into the evaluation. For these classes, just being present in the class will not be enough, as delightful as your presence may be. You need to be prepared to be active in class. That means, both doing the assigned reading, according to the syllabus, and having the attitude to want to speak. Professors, as oblivious as you wish they were, will know how prepared you are. Although it would be better to just be there than to spout nonsense that will annoy the professor and your fellow classmates, saying something is usually better than nothing. Don’t self censor out of fear of what your classmates and professor may judge you for saying, because as long as you made an effort to finish the reading, your words will make your preparation clear and evident.
Tips for speaking in class:
– It’s ok to prepare written comments before-hand.
– When in doubt, repeat something, in your own words, that the professor or a smart classmate has already said.
– Ask questions that build off of what others have said.
– Use text support smartly to enhance your point but don’t overdo it, especially if you don’t understand the context. That means, bring a physical or digital copy of the text to class every time!
– Think and stay engaged during discussion. Don’t over-think because the pace of class discussion will be much faster than what you expected, and there is not enough time. Someone else will most likely say what you were thinking.
Another aspect of class discussion that you will face, at times, will be quite harsh and immediate criticism. Due, in part, to the higher level of sophistication of thought that you will encounter, and the higher level of qualification of your peers and teachers, the expectations for you will be higher. Everyone develops their own individual style for coping with criticism, but the most positive, healthy, and productive coping styles involve open communication and maintaining composure. Rather than internalizing all of the criticism or taking it overly personally, communicating your thoughts out loud will help you defend and clarify your position. While, on the one hand, you are forced to be more independent by your situation, you can also benefit from people around you.
#2: Getting help
When I first came to college, one of the pictures I had of a smart student was someone who was a solitary genius who did not interact with anyone. And yes, these people are smart. Many of my friends also, I learned later, shared this image and tried to cultivate this, without success. They would complain of having slaved away for hours on this paper or that reading, while knowing how much more quantitatively it was compared her friends, and expecting to do better, but finding she actually got lower grades on papers and in the class. She didn’t know why. Qualitatively, the amount of work she put in was not equivalent to the type of work her friends were putting in – so how do you get more quality out of your studying time? It is certainly true that spending a lot of time working hard, oftentimes by yourself, rather than going out partying every night definitely benefits you in the long run, being able to seek help will inject different levels of insight and provide different angles on a problem that will only expand your learning process. Seeking help is not about appearing weak and abject or becoming dependent on others but rather a constructive means to maximizing your potential, in sync with someone else. And it can often be a two-way street – creating networking opportunities and compelling someone else to clarify their thoughts and positions. Think of seeking help as establishing mutually symbiotic relationships – like rhinos that get a free cleaning when insects eat off their backs.
One of the most common ways is to build a study group by connecting with the people who are most conveniently available to you – people in your class. By listening to your fellow student’s comments in class, and observing their classroom presence – whether they seem more laid-back and quiet or more energized and vocal – you can get a feel for what types of people you may want to study with together. If you are paying attention in class, this will come naturally to you and if you begin with baby steps, making small talk and making little comments here and there, you can easily make friends with classmates. Classes that happen before lunch time are golden opportunities to let class naturally transition over to another necessary activity – eating.
The best ingredients for an ideal study session is to have a small, motivated group – rather than dealing with multiple problems one-by-one which could be better handled by the peer-tutoring system – a study group is for people to bounce ideas off one another, to strengthen your own understanding and testing your own abilities as a result. If everyone is motivated to learn and prepared, then everyone will be willing and able to contribute to the discussion – have you ever been in a classroom discussion that because of the participation and preparation of everyone, which felt that intense and productive? Imagine that type of discussion but in as a smaller, more intimate, less pressure-filled (because there’s no evaluation anxiety) environment for you to express yourself. It will be easier to hear immediate challenges to your ideas, which will give you a chance to refine your thoughts, which you will not have the advantage of when studying on your own.
Another potential advantage to find people from your classes to form study groups with is that they may not be your friends (yet). However, it can appear like a disadvantage at first, when you walk into a class with none of your friends around to buffer your identity. You may feel completely unprotected without the encouragement and support that a friend’s mere presence naturally provides. For the protective benefits, it often seems easier to form study groups with friends and many people enjoy this option better, especially for classes that are more reading-based where evaluation is based on talking about readings and writing papers which can be inherently interesting among mutual friends. However, your friends may lead you to more distractions and digressions. Some people navigate this challenge by having a group of “study friends” and a group of “party friends”. It is important to constantly evaluate what is working for you, what your priorities are, how to compartmentalize your friends (it’s not as cold and scientific as it sounds!) and, in general organize your life.
Although your peers are the most natural source of human support for most people, others find that they connect better with adults or people older than them. If this is the case, then start taking advantage of office hours for your professors and other staff/social support, and find the mentors that you click with the best.
Since connections are two-way streets, their maintenance relies on both people’s commitment, so keep up your end of the work. Often times, you will need to take the initiative to approach the other person, even if it just to say “hi, how’re you?” or to invite them to a specific event – like a dance show or an ethnic dinner. And trust that the other person will do the same. Also, remember to respect boundaries and to remember to set some for yourself. Some students describe themselves as “time intensive students for professors” while others describe themselves as “awkward around professors”, so it is your own responsibility to figure out and reach a healthy equilibrium where the intersection of your comfort level and needs are maximized.
#3: “eating”/learning to cook for yourself
Another aspect of college life where you will need to gauge how to maximize the intersection of your comfort level and needs is eating for yourself. Again, back in high school, going to eat was a standard procedure – you were assigned a lunch period and you just followed your friends – whether it was at the school cafeteria or during your senior year, off campus. And then at home, you ate with your family. You didn’t have to put too much thought to it – you’ll notice you’ll have to exert a lot more thought on a wider variety of things in college, which can be both exhilarating and frustrating. But in college, which will still have certain restrictions, like dining hall hours, food options, you will have to make yourself fit into the restrictions and the events won’t seem to fit as naturally as it did in the strict scheduling of high school. In other words, you have options and that can frighten people. I was a very indecisive person and it frightened me to the point that I had trouble going to dining halls. I eventually talked to a nutritionist who gave me pointers on healthy food to stalk in my room. And then, I gradually eased my way into dining halls and found people to sit and eat with which helped a whole lot.
Other people find that the options in dining halls don’t fit their taste and they have to learn to cook for themselves. This is a particularly popular option among international Asian students whose taste buds are more accustomed to spicier foods and find dining hall fare to be too bland or too salty. If this option appeals to you, find other cookers, share utensils, plan cooking parties, and ease your culture shock. What’s better than good food? Good company.
#4: Talking to professors and staff
Students express different attitudes toward professors ranging from complete indifference to complete awe and dependency on their positive judgments, both extremes would be good to avoid. The healthy medium would be something like engaged skepticism. Just as it is important to engage with students from other backgrounds as people, it is important to engage your professors the same way – to recognize their humanity requires interaction, which initially may be fraught with all kinds of unspoken questions and for that reason and others, awkward. Don’t expect them to give you all the guidance you will ever need but also expect them to be able to respond to your concerns and needs in a respectful way, which means appreciating your strengths. While they will undoubtedly be critical, that is their job, it is also their job to teach you and to help you learn, so hold them to both standards. The same standards go for upperclassmen and tutors.
#5: Opportunity leads to other opportunities
Ideally, you will come to college with a mind buzzing with ideas about what you want to accomplish – while it may have set you off as the “overly ambitious” one in high school, the same type of passion, if not overdone and unselfish, can translate to all sorts of positive experiences and actual social good. However, you will be met with resistance and the key is to persevere, persevere, and persevere which requires confidence and courage in your convictions. College will require convictions many degrees higher than you needed to get into college.
The resistance comes in many forms including indifference, laziness, uncertainty, confusion, lack of time, lack of resources (which is rarely an actual lack of substance at elite institutions, but rather a lack of creative problem-solving), competing priorities, existing conditions, other people’s personalities and the list is long and keeps going. The resistance will test your commitment to your cause, whatever those personal ambitions or social goals may be.
This is where the importance of getting opportunities and following through with them fits in. Take stock of all the opportunities that are available to you, because though the resistance is high, the opportunities are out there. And by finding the cracks in the wall, you will see, other cracks, and pretty soon, you have a map behind you that you never expected. Opportunities consist of meeting one person who can lead you to someone else, or opportunities can be doing your work-study job well and taking on more responsibilities. Opportunities can come by taking part in extracurricular activities that lead to meeting friends and going to conferences at other colleges and meeting more friends. Opportunities are internships you find online that can lead to alumni who can open an entire field to you. You get the idea.
While you may run the risk of overextending yourself, and thus it is important to evaluate your own goals and have strong convictions – even if the particular details and vision are vague – so that you do not spend needless hours on events that make you unhappy or will lead to regrets. The difference between resistance and opportunity is a fine one, and what can masquerade as resistance can become opportunity and opportunities that you had your heart and sights on may not be attainable and become resistance. Focusing your attention on these distinctions can take time and be frustrating which is where the persistence and engagement make a big difference.
#5: Getting into good conversations is what college is all about
Find communities where you can have good conversations, conversations that force you to open up, to think about issues outside of your narrow interests, issues that will expand your vision in all sorts of unexplored directions, directions that can lead to opportunities and eventually, a calling, a career, a purpose.
These labels are empty words at the moment, since even the clearest ambitions – “I want to be a doctor” – will require fine-tuning. And you cannot do the fine-tuning completely on your own. The fine-tuning requires you to be in sync with other people, people with the same goals, or who have already reached those goals.
But people with the same goals, and thought processes, people whose wavelength you can immediately dial into, are not the only source of good conversations. When you begin to step outside of your comfort zone, you encounter a whole different set of paradigms and thought patterns that will make you see your own a little bit clearer, which may frustrate and confuse you, and that will in turn, lead to productive reevaluations of your own life. Confusion can be debilitating but it is only natural when you are learning and you may not see the light at the end, and you may need to wait for everything to realign, but patience and perseverance will take you through to the other side.
So take part in conversations about your career plans, your life plans, your past, about what racism/sexism/homophobia means to you, about the ideas that sparked you out of your mindless, navel-gazing in class, about the ideas that bored you to the point of exhaustion, but seemed to awaken in others in ways you wished you could be. Or first engage in a conversation with yourself, why am I not excited any more? Where is the excitement that led me to college in the first place – an admirable aspiration that very few are privileged to experience? How can feelings of mediocrity mean something beyond a narrow vision of what productivity means?
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anais Nin
#6: Going to the primary source is your sure-bet
Finally, but not least, do not just take my word for it. Go out and experience and test them for yourself – go the primary source, the raw stuff, of knowledge which is simply living itself. This macro-advice can be translated to micro, day-to-day problems, like, instead of depending on second-hand knowledge about where or what something is, go to the direct source of the information. If your friend tells you that the homework is not graded, instead of blindly following, which I did in my first winter study, and subsequently scraped by with a perfunctory pass in the class by not turning it in, I should have gone to the syllabus itself. Friends can be PDA-substitutes by giving personal reminders about class assignments – on the positive note, I boosted another friend’s grade by reminding her, an hour before class that there was a short response paper. Instead of relying on your professor’s second-hand knowledge, you may want to go check on the facts yourself and learn on your own, at the same time.
Section 4: College ends with “Commencement”: No Conclusion but Final Thoughts
College is a fast-paced whirlwind of an experience. And this is especially true during your first semester or year, when you are immediately thrown into all the different aspects of college life – heavy academic workload, new social and living environment, and being utterly on your own. While for the most part, the novel experience will be exciting and stimulating, you will encounter challenges that you will not realize you are ill-equipped to handle until you are directly facing it, which gives you very little time to prepare adequately for it. Even the most well-adjusted and resourceful individuals, and since you have gotten into college, you most certainly are to some degree or another, will have trouble.
But the playing field on the first day of college is not even, and factors like where you are from, where your family is from, and what type of high school you attended affect how prepared you will be for college. Some students were not college-bound from the moment they were born, and their outlook will be shaped by this type of environment just as some students who grew up with college-educated parents are shaped by their environments. While the contrast between students may not be this stark, after all, they all got into college, the differences are not insignificant. Many of the fissions that appear on college campuses stem from perceived class-ism – while all college students are privileged, there are those who some more privileged than others. I call them the “insiders”, students who grew up with a college-bound outlook groomed by parents with professional careers like doctors, lawyers, bankers, professors and private prep schools which are sometimes referred to as feeder schools to Ivy Leagues, meaning a large proportion of their graduates end up at Ivy League and other top-rated schools. In contrast are the “outsiders”, who come to college with a whole host of different life experiences, ranging from poorer households and school districts, whose parents may be working class and/or uneducated.
As these types, as well as the types in between, and beyond, all descend on to college campuses every fall, it is important that everyone can come in feeling like an insider. Insiders seem to thrive in college, by seemingly incomprehensible ways, as if they are naturally meant to be at college. I have run into lots of people who struggled in college, and many of them say things like, “I don’t get what the professor is looking for” and variations on the question – “Is there a secret formula for success?” There is not a single, neat formula which is part of the richness of the college experience. Many of the students who do have a positive college experience do share common thoughts and feelings, which are usually not articulated. This packet will hopefully serve as an articulated form of those insights. While this packet is not meant to give you “the secret formula”, it will hopefully be a helpful collection of positive ways of thinking about how to overcome the many challenges that you will face in college.
Subtitle: How I learned to balance exploring interests with accomplishing worthwhile goals
One of the problems I had in college was taking on projects that I had a strong initial interest in, but didn’t have the time or follow-through to complete. Before my senior year, I felt the pressure of getting involved even more acutely, so I tried to join the boards of three different organizations that I really supported – Queer Student Union, Active Minds and Minority Coalition. I had been pretty active in the Minority Coalition for a while, and briefly with Active Minds and never with the QSU. If I had been honest with myself, I would have been more realistic with the amount of time all of this would take, but writing it out on paper, as I had done, did not do justice to it. Writing things out usually helps me, but didn’t help when I didn’t have it clear in my own mind in the first place, or when I had a distorted view of it. It was easy to get caught up in my plans, before I had lived it out.
Another factor that I hadn’t considered was how small the groups were and how much more I would have to take on personally because of that. Also, I hadn’t considered the people I would be working with. Although, I feel like I’m a generally cooperative person, there are still certain personalities that I don’t feel as comfortable working with, which made communication difficult. Sometimes, having friends working alongside you can motivate you; sometimes, it can distract you or complicate your relationship. These factors and more added up to big time sinks that really hindered the enjoyment and successful fulfillment of my goals in these groups. Eventually, I had to drop out of most of them, which led to my own disappointing feelings. Oddly enough, once I officially withdrew – notifying people the moment you commit is a big time-saver, courteous, and will win you friends down the road – I was able to be more positively contributing to the groups. It took the pressure off from what my role had been before.
Academically, I was all over the place the first year, grabbing at everything, swapping career paths and classes in my mind, afraid to plant myself into a fixed route; every class I took seemed to be in a different department. My impressionable mind had gotten me into college, and the “liberal arts experience” mantra had gotten into my head, and it seemed to permeate the entire place. I felt I had too much freedom to take classes. The path widened and I was frightened. There was no formula to follow anymore; I had always liked and been good at algebra for the plug in and solve, unless I had come in completely confident of being a doctor, since those students had the pre-med path. But I didn’t know if I wanted to be a doctor – I had only seen them on ER, and even then, it didn’t feel like a tangible self for me. I couldn’t imagine myself being anything, so I spent a lot of time, moping in my room. I went to bed early, spent a lot of time sitting at my desk, pretending to do work, wandered around, and talked to the one friend that I had managed to make from a summer program, about ideas – American government and democracy, mostly. He was interested in law. And I thought I was, too, but was careful to hide my ambitions, afraid of what that entailed. In short, I was not doing any planning.
A fellow student I worked with over the summer said something about a fellow soccer player who had been recently profiled for his commendably high GPA, a grade I didn’t think was even possible, or a subject I didn’t realize was even allowed to be spoken aloud. She said something like, “he must have had his shit together from the beginning.” This stuck with me because it also had not occurred to me to think about preparation at the beginning. I heard a lot about getting the most out of college, of a liberal arts education. But I had never thought to question that such an empty statement required something to back it up. What these people were saying was simply another empty political statement – I was going to experience a liberal arts education, no matter what. But what I needed to do for myself, was figure out what my own experience would look like, what I wanted it to look like.
Subtitle: How I learned to see myself in the bigger picture
This insight came to me only in retrospect, frustratingly necessary to learning. High school did not prepare me for college, as much as it advertised and claimed to, socially of course, because I was torn away from my roots, but also academically. I had, out of some teenage whim, pursued a high school outside of my boundary in order to, as one of my high school teachers later recalled, “avail myself of the IB program”. It was not a decision I could’ve predicted nor made much sense at the time, but it just flowed right out of me. The first day of school, I didn’t even know how I was going to get to and from school; I was that unprepared. But the people I would meet, including the teacher who wrote that above statement about me, were exactly the right fit. I felt totally accepted. That would not be the case in college.
At Columbia River High School, I continued to be a serious student, one of a small fraction of insular and idiosyncratic oddballs. I couldn’t see them that way then, but we always ate outside or in one of our beloved teacher’s classrooms, instead of in the general cafeteria with other non-IB students. Most of us were on boundary exceptions, committed to after school activities because that was our social life, taking more classes than we really needed to which all added up to reasons to grumble and complain. I was one of the non-complainers; overachieving came so natural to me that it didn’t feel like much of stretch.
In college, though, that insular fraction became the norm, and burst into gradations of achievement. What I had traditionally pictured to be a good student became messily blurred. In high school, I always had a book in my face, which was certainly a conversation starter. Even in college, when a professor read out an obscure World War 1 poem, I could identify the poet, or when a professor mentioned a New Yorker article, I could raise my hand eagerly in response. But on the papers and tests, none of this would appear, and my grades seemed to be frustratingly misleading. Why don’t they reflect how much I care or how much I do know? And students who did sports, led community service groups, I would later discover have near-perfect grades to complement these other achievements. Wasn’t I that high-achieving at some point? And once I became brave enough to voice my question, it started to echo around me. Others were going through the same thing.
Unlike high school, it was no longer immediately obvious which group I belonged to – I was smart, but what kind of smart was I? There were people with such different personalities that I could get along with, and while I didn’t spend an inordinate about of time pondering this question or brainstorming solutions, it did nag at me. Since I wasn’t getting anywhere with this loneliness, I mostly withdrew into myself. But maybe by the sheer law of a finite group of people sharing a finite amount of space, I met people. Of course, it would take some more time before casually bumping into somebody became a matter of forming a genuine bond. One group that I frequently, by virtue of my wanderings, kept bumping into were other Chinese Americans and international students. This was definitely a new phenomenon, given that I never particularly felt attached to my Chinese culture. Who would have thought my race would have been my niche? And it seemed neither did many of them. There was a common bond, after all.
I had placed a stopper, by my refusal to accept that common bonds existed, which blocked me from releasing myself into the social life of the campus, to absorb and be absorbed by this new reality. I was physically present, but restrained in every other way, knotted inside. So busy following orders, just being physically present at meetings, classes, events, putting on a face, without realizing that that self was twisting around, hiding from me. I needed to grab hold of that self, to follow it, to be in sync with it. Once I did that, I felt comfortable with others, being comfortable with myself. And my place just clicked – and there wasn’t a single definable bubble that I could name, but I just felt safe with myself and secure with the people I was talking to and interacting with – fellow classmates, professors, people I met during freshman year I had lost touch with, new people who I laughed, worked, played and shared time with, gladly.
Title: Praise and Criticism
Subtitle: How I learned to give and receive feedback for self-improvement
I remember telling a professor about how I had taken classes in every department, meaning to say how misdirected I felt. Puzzlingly, she congratulated me for this fact, saying I was probably the only one for whom this was true. In retrospect, I could see she was trying to prop the fragile ego I was flashing in front of her. I shudder to imagine how much fishing for compliments I was unconsciously doing back then. The truth was other people’s comments about me affected me, and for the first time, it wasn’t simply “excellent”, “well done”, a number and grade on my papers anymore. These people were taking my ideas substantially, seriously – treated and viewed them in ways that I had never done. This floored me.
Williams was not a place where you could skate by unscathed. And even in large lecture classes, I could not feel minuscule, though sometimes I wanted to. This put a lot of pressure on my sense of self, and comments came from all angles – but the most recurring one seemed to be that I was trying to hard to be creative, overwrought in my writing. In high school, most assignments hadn’t required sustained treatment, and a flash of insight or any creative time spent on it was generally enough to satisfy the teacher. In science classes, I aced classes even when I failed tests since homework and extra credit heavily padded my grades. So I never felt the effects of failing, even when I wasn’t learning. And then in college, creative energies were a diversion, two or three papers and tests determined most of your grade and what little extra credit there was, you had to earn. Essentially, every little mistake had exponentially unfair consequences. One big thing that tore at me was when the trifecta of missing classes/being late, even a little, to appointments/ turning assignments in late shredded my grades. I couldn’t believe how heartless these professors were, only to later learn that strict meant good standards, discipline. Sometimes, I still see those mistakes reflected in my early grades and wonder how such minor carelessness lay behind them. Then I smile at how naïve I can still be. I can’t expect the world to make exceptions for me anymore.