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.

 

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.

Lakes, Mountains, and More: Five Montana Adventures Worth Repeating

This past August, I visited Western Montana with my family. We stayed in Whitefish, Montana, driving into Glacier National Park and stopping at the National Bison Range, as well as playing in Whitefish Lake. From day tours to hikes and paddling, we had a blast in Montana! 

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Canoeing Whitefish Lake

Paddle a Mountain Lake

Our very first night in Whitefish, my sister and I grabbed a canoe to watch the sunset. Usually I prefer kayaks, but we had just as good a time exploring the lake in a canoe. It ended up being pretty windy, so we counted it as our workout for the day.

We paddled on Whitefish Lake, but the lakes in Glacier National Park are also great to paddle on, as well as Flathead Lake to the South.

Drive the Going-to-the-Sun-Road

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Lake MacDonald along the Going-To-The-Sun Road

We did Glacier’s Going-To-the-Sun Road twice—first through the Red Bus Tour, and then a portion of it on our own the following day. The Red Bus Tour was awesome—it took nine hours, but we saw a large portion of the park. While a part of the tour was spent sitting, we stopped regularly to explore scenic pullouts and hear about the park’s history and geology.

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Birdwoman Falls from the Going-To-The-Sun Road

The Going-To-the-Sun Road takes you from West Glacier’s Pacific-Northwest-like forest, up to the alpine region near Logan Pass, then back down through the St. Mary Region. We followed the road up to the Many Glacier Region as well, where we saw three bears (one black, two grizzly, in the span of a half hour).

Swim in a Lake

 

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Swimming in Whitefish Lake

It wouldn’t be summer in the mountains if you didn’t jump into a lake so cold that you couldn’t breathe! One of the best days of this trip was taking a moment to relax and swim in Whitefish Lake.

Go for a Hike

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Tree-hugging on the trail

Glacier National Park offers some of the best hiking in the world—in Many Glacier the trails to Iceberg Lake and Grinnell Glacier let you hike out to real glaciers, and the Hidden Lake and Highline Trail are almost always listed as some of the best hikes offered in the country.

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Avalanche Lake and the Three Sisters Falls

We opted for the Avalanche Lake Trail, which was about a 6-mile hike through the old growth forest, past Avalanche Gorge, out to Avalanche Lake. (We saw a grizzly here but it’s fine).

Visit the National Bison Range

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A Bison in the National Bison Range

Often passed over for Glacier, the National Bison Range was actually one of our favorite stops! As a wildlife refuge, it offers a 19 mile a scenic drive. We saw pronghorn antelope, coyote, mule deer, and bison!

 

A few more photos from the trip:

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Many Glacier; the bottom right of the photo before the tree line you can spot a grizzly 
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The family- minus mom, the photographer, jumping for joy in the National Bison Range
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A bison who did NOT want her photo taken
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A black bear in Many Glacier 
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St. Mary Lake, filled with smoke from recent wildfires
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Waterfall along the Going-To-The-Sun Road

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.