Notes from Stanford: Looking back on my freshman fall quarter

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Well, I did it. I managed to survive my very first quarter as a college student at Stanford—and I really do mean survive. I always knew freshman fall was going to be a struggle because I’d be trying to adjust to living on my own, meeting new people and making new friends, taking my first college-level classes, and generally trying to make the most of my Stanford experience. But I really didn’t expect the sheer amount of “struggles” I ended up facing over these ten weeks!

In a nutshell, the whole quarter can be summed up in one sentence: this quarter, I learned a lot about myself. Yes, I learned a lot in my classes, and I learned a lot from the many new people I met, but at the end of the day, the most valuable thing I took from this quarter was all that I learned about me.

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Outside the Caltrain station in San Francisco

Coming into my own skin

I walked into my first day at Stanford pretty sure of who I was, what my values are, and what I wanted from my college experience. But it was only a matter of days before all of that broke down, and I found myself spending much of the quarter just trying to pick up the pieces and rebuild.

It’s actually a little shocking to look back and see how much I’ve changed since high school, but at the end of the day the thing I wanted the most from my Stanford experience was personal growth, so in another sense it’s comforting to see how much I’ve grown in just the past quarter.

In high school, I considered myself a pretty strong introvert. I was definitely able to speak to people and to make friends, but I wasn’t particularly social—if anything, the thought of long periods of social interaction just sounded completely and utterly draining, which sometimes comes as a shock to people who know me (because I really do love to talk). But just this past summer while I was doing an internship at a Dallas children’s hospital, my boss (who’s known me for the past six years) said that I’d probably stop considering myself an introvert once I went to college. I didn’t believe her, but she ended up being completely right.

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Dorm trip to San Francisco

Now, at Stanford, I consider myself both an extrovert and a very social person. It’s even become a running joke that I know too many people and that I make everyone late to things because I always run into people and talk! At some points throughout the quarter, I got some flak for my gregariousness, but I’d argue that I’m ultimately in a much better position because of it—for being able to call in favors when I need them, for having a wide-ranging (and growing) network both during and after my time at Stanford, for never feeling alone since I recognize at least a quarter of the faces I pass by, and for getting to learn so much about everything in the world through people’s stories and experiences. And when all is said and done, I’m going to remember and value the stories told and the moments shared with others.

Funnily enough, becoming a friendly, social person who’s able to talk to people and make friends quickly is actually the thing that my high school experience prepared me for, even if I didn’t think so at the time—from the hours and hours I spent calling people and knocking on doors for the Wendy Davis campaign, to the three years I spent on the high school debate team, to my summer internship doing outreach for the hematology-oncology department.

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A picture of some of the people from my floor the night of Frosh Formal (I really thought we weren’t smiling for this pic!)

Feeling insecure

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In front of Auguste Rodin’s The Gates of Hell, which we took to “celebrate” the beginning of our pre-med journey—it’s still unclear whether I’m really all that willing to stick out the entirety of this pre-med journey

For better or for worse, feeling insecure about myself has been a major theme looming over these last ten weeks. In high school, I was a fairly large fish in a comparatively smaller pond; I was a well-known, although polarizing, figure who could check off nearly every “objective” measure of academic success. But within days of arriving at campus, I felt disoriented. I was a tiny fish in a gigantic ocean for the very first time in my life. And the real question is, how can you not feel that way when you walk down the hall of your dorm and you realize you’re surrounded by intelligent, attractive, athletic, accomplished people? (Important tip for future Stanford students: never Google your friends. Really. Just don’t do it.)

Throughout high school, I always staked my self-worth on my academic abilities and awards I had received. That seemed fine at the time, but looking back it really set me up for failure, especially once I saw my grade in chemistry slipping away, one midterm at a time. At least in high school, if there was a really hard test that I did poorly on, I would usually be able to commiserate with one or two other friends. But this past quarter, it seemed like there were so few people in my immediate circle I could do that with. And as final grades for the class came out, I watched as person after person got grades that I was mathematically locked out of getting even if I got a perfect score on the final. (No, I didn’t get a perfect score on the final. More on that later.) And it was really, really hard to watch other people succeed while I was in the bottom 25% of my chemistry class and officially had the worst GPA of most of my friends.

Expect the unexpected, nothing can be easy

Looking back, the biggest theme of my Stanford experience thus far has been to expect the unexpected, which is particularly difficult for people like me who want everything perfect—every I dotted, every T crossed. But really, there were so many unexpected moments that shaped my experience of this quarter as a whole.

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Key thing to notice here: the smiling face and “H” sticker on my shirt

The first unexpected moment was on November 8. The presidential election really was emotionally heartbreaking for me. I’ve always cared deeply about politics, so naturally I was ecstatic about voting. And not only was it going to be my first time voting, but I was getting to vote for a candidate who I’d been supporting since 2014, before many people even began thinking about the presidential election. By 2015, I was a part of the Ready for Hillary movement. And despite nearly everyone under the age of 30 supporting Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, I stood firm in my support for Hillary Clinton, even though it made me a statistical anomaly. In the weeks leading up to the election, I handed out Hillary stickers to everyone in my dorm and decked myself out in Clinton–Kaine buttons. And on the morning of the election, I assembled an Election Day music playlist and planned a small election watch party with friends in my room over a CNN livestream.

There was a lot of screaming at my computer that night as state after state began to slip away. I nervously watched as Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, and Iowa slipped into Trump’s column, but I tried to stay optimistic. But the map just seemed to keep getting redder and redder, and by the time Clinton’s lead in Pennsylvania eroded and the state flipped from blue to red, it was over. Donald Trump, someone who made my skin crawl at just the mention of his name, was the president-elect.

At that point, I was an emotional wreck. I cried for hours in some of my RAs’ rooms. I cried myself to sleep that night. And when I woke up the next day, I cried again. I was in so much emotional pain day after day that I cancelled on a week’s worth of club meetings. I requested (and received) extensions on schoolwork. I even skipped an event Wednesday morning called “Milk & Cookies” that I thought I wanted to go to when I woke up, but by the evening I was in so much pain that I couldn’t leave the dorm. Few people outside my closest friends and family will ever get to know—or even deserve to know—how personally painful the night of the election was for me, but I very genuinely watched my entire world collapse in one swoop. Yet as time went on, I forced myself to pick up the pieces of my life, wipe the dust and debris off, and go through the motions of my life from before November 8, 2016, even if I still felt hollow inside. And while there is so much more to say about how this election shaped my winter quarter and continues to shape me, that’s for a different time.

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One of the many chalk messages around campus the day after the election

Nearly exactly one month later, I faced another completely unexpected event: a pretty serious bike accident. I don’t know how or why it happened, but as I was trying to leave chemistry one Wednesday afternoon, I was thrown from my bike while making my way down my usual route from the chemistry building to my dorm. Because nothing can be easy for me, I fell on the side of my face, ripping part of my ear and the whole left side of my face, as well as tearing up both of my hands.

Because I’m apparently the worst kind of student, I told the people who stopped to help me to “just take me to my next class,” even though I was dripping blood down my chin. Luckily, the strangers who helped me were good people and decided to bring me to the student health center. There, I found out I had a minor concussion, which led to my poor roommate Daniel having to check on me every couple of hours that night to make sure I didn’t die in my sleep. Unsurprisingly, it was actually a pretty terrible bonding experience between us.

And before you ask, no, I wasn’t wearing a helmet. I’ve already heard a million times that I should’ve been wearing one, please don’t make it a million and one. Yes, I’ll start being part of the roughly 10% of Stanford undergraduates who wear helmets because apparently my bike hates me and chose to pick on me instead of any of the other 90% of students who don’t wear helmets.

Also, did I mention that this happened literally the week before finals? Like I said, it’s because literally nothing can be easy for me. In my three-week reflection, I mentioned how incredibly stressful it was for me just to not know what classes I was taking within the first few days of the quarter. As it turns out, I found something more stressful: not knowing whether or not I was going to take the finals in all of my classes! Luckily, I had turned in my essays for my writing & rhetoric class in the very early morning hours the day of my accident. That ended up leaving a really long essay in my race & politics class and a final in my chemistry class.

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Proof that literally nothing is ever allowed to be easy for me: my coffee even exploded on me

With the help of my academic advising director, I decided to take an incomplete in my race & politics class, because having a concussion isn’t exactly conducive to writing coherent arguments about whether the Democrats should continue pursuing “identity politics” and what the election of Donald Trump shows about how white people’s views of whiteness (so instead I’m writing those essays over winter break). But because literally nothing is ever allowed to be easy for me, I still had to take my chemistry final… unless I wanted to wait until it’s next offered in fall of 2017. At that point, it was a pretty easy choice—hell would have to freeze over before you could make me wait an entire year to take the final for this class that I just desperately wanted to be done with.

Pretty soon after, I marched my way into the Office of Accessible Education and was registered as having a “temporary dual disability” due to my concussion and my hand injuries. At least I can check “registering as temporarily disabled” off my bucket list! Really though, all this meant was that I had double time on my final, and no, I was not physically capable of staying in my chemistry final for six hours. All things aside, having a concussion while studying for my chemistry final was pretty awful, and taking it with a concussion was even worse; no matter how much I tried to concentrate, my brain really wasn’t making all the connections it should’ve been. So looking back, maybe I really shouldn’t be so harsh on myself for doing quite poorly on the final and not reaching my end goal in the class.

A learning experience

No, this quarter was definitely not perfect. But looking back, it really was a learning experience. And I really do mean that. This past quarter, I learned how to be a much more independent person. I learned how I study and learn best. I learned how to make and develop friendships with people who have different interests and personalities than me. I learned how to be friendly and upbeat without simultaneously trying to hide my feelings when I felt down. I learned to use my words and actually speak what’s on my mind. I learned to stop feeling awkward about taking pictures and videos because they’re great things to look back on for years to come. I learned how to be proud of myself even without extrinsic measures of success, and I learned how to be happy for others’ successes even while I’m struggling to achieve those same successes. I learned how to pick myself up when times are tough. And I learned how to persevere even when it feels like the Universe has had a secret vendetta against me for many years and has just now decided to move towards passive-aggressive ways of getting under my skin (was making my coffee explode really necessary?).

Really and truly, I am beyond excited for winter quarter. I’m incredibly optimistic that I’ll be able to take all that I’ve learned about myself and apply it over the next 10 weeks so that this next quarter will be great. I’m excited to be able to learn more about myself, others, and so many different subjects once the quarter begins. And of course, I’m ecstatic to keep filling up my photos with more and more memories.

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2 thoughts on “Notes from Stanford: Looking back on my freshman fall quarter

  1. I recently found your blog, and I love how you are able to find silver linings in all aspects of your life! I hope that you’re doing well now, and those you love. Keep writing blogs, I love your writing style and personal stories. It’s addictive!

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