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:

IMG_4130
Because, honestly, college is overrated.

 

You Are Strong

Strength is not the absence of weakness.

It isn’t never being scared, or sad, or heartbroken.

 

Strength is not taking failure, or rejection, or grief gracefully—

And it isn’t even the ability to stand after you fall.

 

Sometimes strength is just getting through it.

And it’s not pretty, or romantic, but it’s real.

 

I wrote this quickly, a few times over.

First, I scrawled it in the bottom of my notebook, in more words, and less pointed. I wrote it as a reminder, and then I didn’t look back at it for a few months.

I wrote it again as I bounced back from a rough week. I wrote it as I mulled over what had happened, and why, and how I should handle it all. That time I wrote it as a mantra—it is okay to not be okay.

I’m writing it again now, more fluidly. I mulled it over this weekend, choosing the right words, cutting and snipping.

It is important to remember that the moment you are in does not define you. You are not your weakest moment, and you aren’t what others see you as. You get to choose who you are.

And imperviousness to weakness, that does not make you strong. It is okay to not be okay. That is normal, I promise.

So this is just a reminder that you are strong—

Even when you are tired, sad, or scared, when you feel like you’ve failed, when you feel rejected and alone, you are still strong, even if you don’t believe it.

There is strength in putting yourself back together, sure, and in turning the other cheek, and all of the things that we usually name strong. But even when you don’t weather it gracefully, even when you feel like you’ve failed, and don’t have a shred of dignity left at all, and you don’t feel strong, just remember that you are.

Because just getting through it makes you strong too—and I will believe that you are strong even if you don’t.

Hey, I hope you have a great day. You have got this.

What Makes You Happy

I am going to tell you a story. It’s probably a familiar story—you’ve heard it from your mother, or aunt, or your older friend. It’s probably a story you will live if you haven’t already.

This isn’t the story of how I figured out what I want in life, because I haven’t, and it isn’t the story of how I woke up one day and realized what my “calling” is. It isn’t even the story of how you need to find yourself and follow your heart, because I’m not sure I believe that story either.

This is the story of how I realized what I don’t want in life. It’s the story of how I realized that whatever you are doing, you have to do it for you.

“Do what makes you happy”

People tell you that your whole life, and a few years ago I thought what would make me happy was medical school. I volunteered in the emergency room two years ago to get clinical experience, and ended up changing my mind about what made me happy.

I thought I wanted to help people and make a difference. Don’t get me wrong, I still do, but I changed my mind about how I wanted to help people after actually working with the sick and injured.

My worst shift in the hospital was bad— I got cursed at by a patient, cried with another whose wife had just died, and heard that the little girl who came in the day before and I had played with had died. I cried the whole way home and wanted to quit that job more than I’ve ever wanted to quit anything before. I didn’t quit, because I said I would work through August, so I was going to work through August.

A few weeks after that day, I had a run in with a patient’s family member who was not pleased with my coffee making skills—in his defense, I was not pleased with my coffee making skills either. I tried to avoid him, but ended up spilling another coffee all over myself.

A woman laughed at me from her hospital bed.

“Seems like you’re having a rough day,” she smiled. She was alone and kind, and had heard me get yelled at earlier. I came back to her room between coffee rounds and cleaning, and she told me about her son, about her grandkids living in Africa, about the novel she had written. She told me not to worry about grouchy people in hospitals, and that I was doing a good job and shouldn’t let it get to me. Then she told me about what it was like to grow up in a segregated Alabama, and a story about her brother jumping a fence and ripping his pants when they were kids. This stranger told me stories, and we laughed, and smiled, and connected. After that I didn’t hate the emergency room so much, and whenever I could, I would ask people to tell me their stories, because I loved to hear, and a lot of people need someone to listen.

Stories and listening made me happy more than syringes and the Krebs cycle, so I tweaked my life agenda a bit. Ultimately, I think stories make a difference and help people too.

I still haven’t got what I want to “do” fine-tuned, but I like to think I’m heading in the right direction.

Make the Mistake

I don’t want to be the person to tell you that all mistakes are good, or that even the worst things you will grow from, because frankly that’s obnoxious. Maybe it is true that even the hard, sucky, parts of life make us stronger, but I don’t think telling anyone in the hard, sucky parts how they’re going to grow from it is necessarily helpful. They won’t hear you.

I don’t think that you can stop people from making mistakes either—you can’t look at someone you know, gauge exactly where they are going, and then tell them what they’re doing is a mistake. First off, you could be wrong. Second, even if you are right, there are a lot of mistakes people have to make for themselves.

I have stayed out later than I should have, and gone out with people I knew it wouldn’t work with, and forgiven people I shouldn’t have given a second chance. I have run farther than I should have, against advice, I have worked on projects I was told were hopeless. I have drunk near gallons of coffee past 7 pm. As a result, I have gotten overuse injuries, had whole projects scraped, and laid awake in bed wondering why the hell I needed a large black coffee at 7 pm anyhow. And honestly that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Here’s the thing—

Be it your 7 pm coffee or something much, much bigger, some mistakes are worth making.

Maybe it is a mistake to get up at 2 am and drive to try and catch the Northern Lights the night before you have to work. Maybe you’ll regret it in the morning. Maybe not though.

Maybe it is a mistake to pursue a relationship with someone you know is probably not the best choice. Maybe you’ll regret it in a year. Maybe you’ll regret it tomorrow.

Maybe you shouldn’t try climb that mountain, or hike that hike alone. Maybe you shouldn’t stay out late, and you should’ve gone to bed. Maybe you should’ve planned better or paid more attention, maybe you shouldn’t have invested so much in that particular person.

But maybe not—

If you didn’t make any mistakes, what kind of stories would you have to tell? And I know I’ve made mistakes, everyone has, but I don’t regret staying out too late, or drinking too much coffee, or blowing off sleep to look at the stars. I don’t regret some of the bigger mistakes too.

So you know what? Make your mistakes, because they are yours. You get to make mistakes, and you get to show up to class hungover, and you get to date boys your friends don’t like, and eat too much pizza, and blow off studying sometimes. You get to get lost in the woods and pull yourself out, and you get to have hard moments completely of your own creation.

Make the mistake. Some mistakes are worth making. And maybe some mistakes are not even really mistakes at all.

 

The Moments That Make Us

I like to think I have a handle on things—we all do. We all think we know exactly what we’re going to do tomorrow, and we have this rough idea of what next the year, or the next five look like.

We think we know what we’re eating for dinner tonight, we think we will have a boring day tomorrow, we think that we have control.

We don’t have control, and I think to some extent we know that too, but it’s a lot easier to hold on to the idea that we know what is coming tomorrow than to embrace the idea that we actually have no idea.

20170622-IMG_1777
A moment I was sitting in a storm, and suddenly it stopped raining and the sky lit up

And then it hits us—you are doing so well, everything is so normal and then one day something happens. Maybe it’s small. Maybe someone says something that alters your perspective a little and it snowballs. Maybe it’s not small—maybe it’s big and it clearly changes everything. But either way, the earth shifts beneath your feet, and suddenly you are looking at things from a different place than you were yesterday.

The moments that change us—they are big and small, they are significant in their own way, and they make you who they are. Sometimes they hurt—a lot. Sometimes you feel it like a physical pain.

We don’t get to choose when everything changes and we don’t pick how. You don’t get to choose the moments you remember, the ones you think of, the moments that follow you.

It’ll knock you down, leave you bruised, and it will change you. It is scary to have something happen and all the sudden things are different.

20170618-IMG_7620
A moment I realized that I could choose to enjoy even a crappy day, or week, or month

But guess what.

The moments that knock us down, that make us feel confused and scared and weak, the moments that hurt viscerally—they are the moments that make the rest of life so much more vibrant. They stick, they make us uncomfortable, and ultimately yes, they change us. But that’s part of living—growing, changing.

So yeah, it’s hard, and you will change, and it will be uncomfortable and you won’t always like it. But it’s going to be okay, and you are going to be stronger tomorrow.

IMG_5530-1
A shot of my sister, who has been there for so many moments and would stick it out through so many more

No matter where you are right now, one day you are going to be happy with yourself. And without the moments that changed you,  the moments that made you, you wouldn’t be the person you are going to be. So hang in there—one day you’re going to look back and tell someone about the moment that changed you, and how it made you who you are.