Oh, 18-year-old Zoe, you sweet summer child.
My first day of college was exactly five years ago today — September 22, 2011.
Zoe at 23 would probably be so annoyed with Zoe at 18: I had absolutely no idea of what the hell I was supposed to be doing, and figured that once I got to school that I would figure it all out. I remember a lot about that first day — the weather, what I wore, the classes I took and where I hung out — but the main thing I remember is feeling excited about embarking on a new experience. There’s no way I would have been able to know or understand what four years of undergrad would give me: a degree program that taught me way more than how to read literature, a student assistant job that opened so many doors, campus involvement that I wouldn’t trade for the world and some of my favorite people in this little universe of ours.
Today, I’m lucky to be back at my alma mater as a staff member that interacts directly with students. All summer, I talked to incoming freshmen and transfer students and answered their questions about navigating the university labyrinth: how to sort out their financial aid package, register for classes and more. Today was their first day of class, and I saw so many social media posts from students thrilled about starting college. I walked around campus today asking returning students for their advice for new students, and the vibe on campus was electric with possibility. I hope that they are able to have a great college experience like I did. Throughout the day, I thought about the advice I’d give to them and what I wish I would have known on my first day of college. Here’s what I would tell them.
Know that you’re entitled to changing your mind.
When you’re young and still figuring out the world, it’s really easy to succumb to the pressure of what other people want for you, or what you think other people and society want from you. But at the end of the day, all that really matters is that you’re happy and healthy. If that means that you have to put yourself in a potentially uncomfortable position to get to happiness and healthiness, you gotta do it. Living with regret is not fun.
I have always found it pretty ridiculous that society at-large expects teenagers to pick a major and stick with it for four years and most likely the rest of their lives. It’s just not realistic, and you have to do what you love — I would probably make more money if I had picked something in the science or engineering fields, but I would have been really bad at it and miserable. Plus, my interests and tastes changed dramatically between 18 and 22. You have to allow yourself the room to grow and explore what you really want. If that ends up being far away from the original plan, that’s totally okay. Change is good.
That being said, you are the master of your fate and the captain of your soul. If you want to make the most of your college experience and position yourself for the best post-grad outcome, you have to put in the work. Take class seriously, get involved on campus and explore all of the options readily available to you. While you’re working towards building a solid college career, you’ll learn tons about yourself and what you want out of life. You may realize that your passion is helping people, or that you enjoy event planning. You may also realize that you’re not as good at math as you thought you were, or that you need to work on your interpersonal communication skills. Once you graduate, that proactivity you’ve been training for the the last few years will pay off in spades.
I knew both English majors and non-English majors who would say that they never read the assigned class readings, as if that was something to be admired. My advice to any student is to read everything that your professors assign. (For the most part, college professors assign much more interesting books than your high school teachers.) You’ll e much more prepared for lecture, and you’ll be able to ask better questions about the concepts you don’t understand. Broadening your literary horizon is so important to building perspective, and it has never hurt anyone to be well-read.
It’ll go faster than you think.
I was able to do a lot in college, but I still wish I was able to do even more — I wish I would have applied for more scholarships, been more proactive about getting my college writing published and worked harder on finding somewhere to intern. The undergrad years are an incubator for adulthood that you’ll never have again. One day you’ll wake up and wonder how all of a sudden you’re a third-year student when you feel like you just moved into your freshman dorm. But if you apply yourself and take full advantage of the time you have, you’ll go so far and have a blast. I’m rooting for you.
What advice would you give to someone starting their undergrad career? Tell me in the comments.