My Freshman Year: Slap Me in My Face

It is the first week of summer. I am feeling like an overspeed express train stopping at a station: cooling down, blowing off the steam, and slowly loading up for another run. Now that I look back, I haven’t had such a peaceful and idle evening for a long time. It’s raining outside right now in Fort Lauderdale, and I am sitting in the swing chair in the living room, sipping on water.

I can’t believe my freshman year is already over: I still remember the day after my high school graduation. I was sitting in this same swing chair, thinking about how I had finally took a leap into a “semi-adulthood”: no parents supervision, no curfews and no separation with my friends, and of course, how I can finally partaayyyy.

I remember during my orientation program, I have asked for and received dozens of advice from upperclassmen, my counselors and advisors. One common topic is failure. Basically, they all told me that I would face some, if not a lot of, failures and difficulties, but that’s just what college is like. It is important for me to not give up. “Ok, I think I can handle it. I will be fine.”

So what I thought would be a little dab on the cheek turned out to be a crisp and deafening slap on face. The kind that leaves a beautiful and complete red hand print on your face.

“Why are the textbooks so expensive,” “why does this stir-fry looks like it came out of a washing machine,” “why are my RAs so useless,” “why is this professors even here,”  “why is she so rich,” “why am I failing this required course,” “why does this d*** never f**king text me back,” “why am I dying after only ten minutes on the treadmill…”

There are many many more questions that I have screamed either in my mind or at my friends while I was pulling out my hair. Fortunately, I still have plenty of hair left on my scalp, and that I have at least learned a thing or two after this year. Here are some:

  1. Pride and ego are toxic

Everyone wants to believe they are special, that they deserve flowers and praises. I did too. But after a while I realize that the pride I had coming from being a smart kid, and the ego I build to secure myself are slowly eating me alive.

I wanted to be liked by everyone, to seem to be able to handle everything better and to know everything just a bit more than everyone else. But the fact that I am not just keeps me running around chasing an image I cannot achieve and ended up being out of breath. I felt like that I achieved nothing, that I can’t ever reach my goals and that I am not nearly as good as others.

So I stopped running around five months into college and I learned to let my ego go. I had to accept that I am not as good I thought I am sometimes, that I am not as capable at some things (such as environmental biology!) as I would like to and that someone out there are handling these things much more easily than I am now.

Of course it was hard. Of course my insecurities came out at night and asked me if I deserve to be here. But what comes after those difficult nights are embracement and humility. Knowing that I am not perfect but I can be better makes me want to get up in the morning and go. Every week day morning I walked past the clock tower with a cup of latte in my hand, I was always so ready. No longer having to chase after an elusive and unrealistic version of myself makes me grateful for what I am now. Throwing away your ego is like wiping off the fog on your windshield: everything is as clear as it can ever be, either it’s from the inside out, or the outside in.

Of course if you sit me down in an interview and ask me what my weaknesses are, I would still stutter and never get into your frat. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know them in my heart. It’s just like an experienced driver can’t recite you all the traffic rules but he can navigate easily in a crazy traffic. So just take a deep breathe, put your hands on the wheel and go for a long ride.

  2. Identity crisis happens to everyone.

True be told that college is a time when people find themselves. At least starting to.

When you are set amid thousands of peers, most of whom could have very similar interests, talents and abilities as you do, you start wondering how you can differentiate yourself. In other words, you start wondering who you are. Even though it’s a scary part of life because you realize that you are not irreplaceable, identity crisis is great. You scrutinize yourself, your path and your choices.

What I did to get over, or attempt to get over, my identity crisis, for now, is to focus on doing what matters to me. Basically, I took a specialist approach. I stopped joggling numerous projects, clubs and activities that don’t really ring my passion even though they could be beneficial and interesting. For example, I signed up and showed up for a couple of Russian club meetings because I figured I could make more friends (my best friend is from Russia), but I never felt like part of the club and it really only consumed my precious free time. So as soon as I decided to trim off the unnecessary activities and really commit to the changes I wan to make, everything became so much easier, and I started to understand who I am by looking at what I am committing to and who I am surrounded with.

Certainly there is more than one way to combat identity crisis. I decided to narrow down my focus — to become a “specialist”; you can also choose to become a “generalist.” By diversifying your interests and expanding your abilities, soon enough you can find your own combination of self that does not overlap with others.

I am still not sure if I am over with my identity crisis. It can revisit me anytime, anywhere, triggered by anything. But at least I am comfortable with the idea that I am replaceable and yet unique, that I am great the way I am and yet could be better with a change.

  3. Seek to understand first, then to be understood.

In business school, we emphasize a thing called “perspective.” Claiming to be a diversified college, WashU should most certainly have a lot of “perspectives” running around on campus. I remember hearing one of my friends saying: “you know I am from xx (a foreign country), so I think my international perspective can really help the company and get me that internship.” Sure. Great. You’ve got an international perspective. But you know a lot of people who have travelled to your country might as easily claim that they have an “international perspective.”

A lot of things can give you a new perspective: your language, your height, your nationality, your race or your family income. But perspective is not just a thing that is fixated. It’s something that is developed, and should be developed constantly. But how?

I start by taking in the perspective of others. At the bottom of it, it’s simple: looking at things in others’ shoes and counting in others’ interests. It surely saved me a lot of heartburns being angry at others and provided me with a lot of opportunities to learn people’s stories. Now those are the perspectives others can’t take away. They are my friends’ stories forged with my own experience and understanding. They teach me new lessons without getting the scars and change the ways I do things.

Gaining perspectives does not serve to make you more well-rounded or popular, it makes you feel fuller and gets you further in life. You don’t just elevator pitch a billion-dollar idea to a CEO by telling him how one night you were struck by lighting and this idea came to you; you start by telling him you recognize his mission, identify his problems and here is how your idea comes into play. You start by understanding his perspective.

4. One step at a time.

Since we are on the topic of perspectives, the most profound perspective one can ever have, I think, is the perspective of time. There is no strict definition on what a perspective of time should look like, and yet it’s different from the perception of time.

My Russian best friend has said to me on multiple occasions that I have “no chill”; My parents told me I need to learn to be patient. Well patience itself is hard enough, which I am still working on. A perception of time, for me, is still different from just being patient.

In China there is an adage saying “Water breaks rocks, and wind moves mountains. ” Little by little, day by day, the dream that used to seem so insurmountable could be achieved one day. It takes consistency, tenancy and a self-deprecating sense of humor (oh  trust me).  A perspective of time also includes a recognition of fate. Some things are in your control and some things aren’t, and that’s ok. One step at a time. Do whatever that is in your control. Then give it time. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s ok too.


These are some of things I have learned during my freshman year. It was a long year but has gone by so fast. Of course here comes the cliche part where I say “I am grateful that I have met all these amazing friends and blah blah blah.” But my friends know how mushy I can get behind closed doors, so I am going to skip it here.

But if there is one thing I really want to say about my freshman year, it’s that I wouldn’t want to go back and change one single thing. I am happy with things the way they were and how they unfolded. Certainly there were some moments I wish I never had to deal with, but it’s just like hearing this nice line of lyrics from a Pitbull song: you learn to see the good in the worst things.


(from: Pitbull, Time of our lives)

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