What I Learned in Four Years as an Undergraduate Student

So after four years of hard (eh) work on a Bachelor’s of Science in Neuroscience, additional major in Professional Writing, I am graduating! As I have been M.I.A. from this blog, and somehow actually have a few readers to explain myself to, here is a nice wrap up post summarizing the finer points of my undergraduate education and the parts of my life that usually don’t make an appearance on this primarily hiking/travel-oriented blog. Namely, what I “learned” as an undergraduate student.

My first instinct is to say that I’ve learned literally nothing in my four years at a university. I don’t know jack about chemical reactions, and I still can’t write, and I’ve spent four years here and completely achieved my goal of not learning a single thing. In fact, my knee jerk reaction is tongue-in-cheek to say that I am actually much less intelligent than I was four years ago.

But I realized that’s not at all true. I did learn a lot in the classroom. I know about brains, and I actually can write a little bit, and in four semesters of Latin, despite my best efforts to stay completely ignorant to the language, I did pick up a phrase or two.

Still, the most important lessons I learned in my four years working on my Bachelor’s Degree I did not learn in the classroom.

The best lessons I learned in the real life part of college, the part where you slowly start to become an adult. Or rather, you realize “adult” is just an arbitrary word.

The best lessons I learned over the last four years came hard and slow, in lows and highs. They did not involve scantrons, or textbooks, and they weren’t always crystal clear, and honestly still aren’t.

My freshman year I volunteered in a nursing home, writing the stories of people with alzheimer’s and dementia so that they could read their own memories even if they couldn’t remember. That taught me what loneliness looked like, and the importance of small gestures. Loneliness is not knowing your family, your friends, your own stories, and only really knowing you’re dying. That’s what loneliness looks like.

Shortly after, I went to work in the Emergency Room. I learned a lot of lessons in my three months there, but the most important thing I learned is death is indiscriminate. It applies to older people with heart conditions who have taken bad falls, yes, but also the six year old you made a rubber glove balloon for the hour before. Indiscriminate. Almost simultaneously to this lesson I realized that the medical field wasn’t one I wanted to work in.

Working several jobs while taking classes taught me about balance, and working as a writing tutor for freshman I learned that a lot of times writing isn’t really the thing first year students need the most help with.

I learned that sometimes you need to skip class to help people, and sometimes you lie without a second thought to protect them.

On a study abroad, I learned how to work the train system in the UK and that sometimes people just aren’t going to like you. I also learned that the same tense situations that lead to bad blood for some people can make best friends of others. We also learned unequivocally that in a heist of 11 girls, I am one of the two who breaks off to shit talk the others.

I learned that you can absolutely change who you are and that you aren’t the words anyone choses to describe you— you pick your own words.

I learned that you can do a bad thing but not be a bad person.

I got some of the best advice I’ve ever received—

“you deserve to be loved the way you want to be loved.”

I learned that not only is being kind more important than being pretty, but being kind is more important than being smart or right.

I learned to shake things off, and how to really, actually take criticism.

I learned how to take a fall, and failure, and how to turn the other cheek.

I learned that better or worse are usually an opinion; there is only different.

I learned that there are no good people or bad people, and that we are all only a sum of our actions. I learned how to apologize and be really wrong.

I learned that other people will surprise you, and never to underrate or underestimate the importance of good friends.

I learned the power of images, and words, and actions.

I learned how to write; I learned I am still learning.

I learned I know nothing at all.

And all of this is a lot more important than conjugating latin verbs and memorizing chemicals. 

I’ll leave you with this photo, and a promise to never take myself too seriously:

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Because, honestly, college is overrated.

 

Starting College: The Dos and Don’ts of Planning Your Future

There is a lot of pressure on high school graduates to choose their career path and set up their lives right away, and maybe you’re feeling that right now, and that’s why you’re here. I know I felt that pressure 4 years ago, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

It wasn’t a straight path for me—I thought I wanted to be a doctor, and after a few months volunteering in the ER and vomiting at the sight of blood, I realized that I didn’t. Then I thought I wanted to be a professor, but then I looked at the years and years more of school I would have to complete, and that didn’t seem right either.

I still don’t know “what I want to do”, and I will be graduating in less than a year—which believe me is scary to write.

While I don’t know what I want to do for the rest of my life, I do know what my immediate options are, which is a much easier and arguably better way to look at it. More importantly, I know how to cope with stress and actually plan these things better than I used to, which is why I am laying this out here.

DO: Explore Majors

People will inevitably tell you what major is the best, and what you should do to be successful. Keep in mind all people give advice based their own experience, and no one knows just how many majors and different paths might be available to you. Attend your college events, meet with different advisors, and talk to upper classmen—the more people you talk to, the better sense you’ll have of all the opportunities available.

Estee and I: Tahquamenon Falls
My roommate and best friend of 15 years  and I on our Spring Break mini- Road Trip

DON’T: Be Stubborn

It took me a long time to fully admit that I didn’t want to be a doctor, because I had already told people that I did. In the long run, this hurt me more than helped, and I spent a lot of time, money, and effort on classes I wasn’t interested in and I probably won’t need.

My advice? Don’t even declare a major until you’ve got a good sense of all of the majors available—and don’t hang onto a major just because your friends and family think that you should.

DO: Get Involved

Everyone will tell you this, but go to club meetings, join the IM soccer team, attend events. Not only is this a great way to meet people, but this also lets explore your campus.

Another perk of getting involved— you end up meeting a lot of upperclassmen who can give you advice specific to your school and maybe even your major.

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Claire, my sister, about to skip into her freshman year

DON’T: Assume There is Only One Right Way

One of the biggest issues, for both me and many of my friends was assuming that there is only one right way to do things— there’s not. Take a gap year, go to a community college for a few years, it’s not the end of the world. And if college isn’t right for you, that’s okay too.

Two of the most successful people I know either took a gap year or transferred from a community college. Just because people “usually” go straight to a four year university, doesn’t mean that it’s the best way or that it’s the right way for you.

DO: Get a Job

The cool thing about college campuses is that you can get a career-relevant paid position, but you have to put yourself out there.

My freshman year, I went out on a limb and emailed the campus Writing Center to see if they needed tutors. I’ve worked there for two years now, and it funneled into my second job, where I act as a peer mentor and teach writing to freshman science majors—to whom I impart all of my life advice that doesn’t make it on to this blog.

My sister’s freshman year, she emailed 6 professors to see if they needed an undergraduate researcher. Only 1 of the 6 even replied, but this professor gave her a paid position this summer in his lab working on solar panels—I’m pretty sure she just gets coffee and cleans beakers, but still. I have another friend whose freshman lab experience got her an internship at a National Park. In contrast, most of the people I know who have put off getting jobs and getting involved are having trouble finding jobs after graduation.

Your freshman or sophomore job, be it in a cafeteria or a research position, can lead to bigger opportunities down the road, but you have to be willing to put yourself out there.

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Hannah, one of the first friends I made at college, and I at Pyramid Point

DON’T: Try and Plan Your Life in One Day

You might feel like you need to figure it out today, or tomorrow, but I promise you don’t. I’m not necessarily saying put off everything forever, but you don’t need to choose a major, or a career path right away.

Instead, focus on trying out classes and going to club meetings. That way, when it comes time to make decisions, you have a good idea of what your options are.

DO: Make Your Own Path

Don’t choose a major or career just because your parents did it that way, or all your friends are doing it that way— you have to do it for you. At the end of the day, you’re going to be a lot happier and more successful if you do something you actually like than you will be if you live your life to make someone else happy.

DON’T: Stress

You’ve got time. Whether you’re going to be a senior in high school and don’t know what major in, or a senior in college and don’t know what to do with your whole life (me), or anywhere in-between, it’s going to work out.