Hailing from The University of Pennsylvania.
As I packed pieces of “home” into large cardboard boxes and suitcases, I closed my eyes and tried to picture what college would be like. At that time, I didn’t know what to expect. Some images came to mind. College was a glossy image of kids lounging together in the grass, studying together out in the sun. College was diversity at its finest: people from all different walks of life converging in one place. College was a new start, a place to meet amazing, similar-minded people—a place to be inspired.
Soon, it was August 21, 2014: move-in day. I was excited, anxious, and eager.
After a 12-hour-drive, we arrived at my dorm, a brick building with a gate around the entrance. On the outside, it seemed impersonal and uninviting, even a bit intimidating. It took me a few minutes just to find the entrance, and after checking in, it didn’t quite feel like home.
A few long hugs and hard goodbyes later, I faced one of my first hardships of freshman year: unpacking everything in a room without A/C. The stark realization of my newfound independence hit me. I was on my own now, a feeling both thrilling and overwhelming at the same time. Then came New Student Orientation (NSO), a time of recurrent introductions and constant small talk, a flurry of late nights and struggling to remember people’s names. Thinking back, NSO almost felt like a dream: the toga parties, night at the Philadelphia museum, the glow-in-the-dark parties, exploring Philadelphia, and strolls down Locust Walk in sunny, 80-degree weather.
But after the weeklong vacation known as NSO, reality hit. Classes started all too soon, making me realize that in college, there is little to no transition or “buffer time” between work time and social time. The sheer number of organizations on campus overwhelmed me at the activities fair, as I was encouraged to join everything from consulting clubs to Wharton Latino, from volunteering groups to social impact boards, from rowing team to performing arts groups. I quickly learned that most clubs required an extensive application process: essays and short answer questions and two interviews. I felt as if I was applying for college all over again – I wasn’t sure if I would fit into any of the groups, but I knew I wanted a tight-knit community and that clubs could provide this. In contrast to the structured schedule I was used to in high school, college brought new surprises, challenges, and cherished moments daily. As someone who has the fear of missing out (aka FOMO), one of the biggest challenges for me this year was to prioritize amidst the crazy busyness known as college life. Gradually, I learned what was more important to me.
Overall, freshman year is difficult to encapsulate. It was the late night conversations and early morning hauls to 9 AM classes; the spontaneous nights out and the liberating transition from winter to spring; exploring the hidden gems of Philadelphia and running along the Schuylkill River trail with friends; the anxiety that came with final exams worth almost half your grade; missing my family lots; dance parties with my roommate (shoutout to Meghavi for being the best freshman roommate I could ask for!); meeting some of my best friends through my Wharton Cohort then winning the Cohort Cup at the end of the year (go Rupee!); the Insomnia cookie study breaks; the birthday celebrations and dinners; growing close to my church family and small group. Some weeks, when everything was going the way I wanted, it was easy to love Penn and walk down Locust Walk with a cheery smile and bright attitude. But other weeks, I felt worn out, feeling as if I was the only one who didn’t have it together when everyone else seemed to. My first year contained some of my happiest moments and greatest struggles, and amidst these experiences, I realized how much I needed God, my family, and my friends.
Throughout the craziness, the ups and the downs, the rollercoaster ride (that passes by slowly in the moment but whizzes by when you look back), I grew more than I imagined. People are always saying that your first year of college “changes” you. While I still feel like the same person in many ways, college has undoubtedly broadened my perspective, given me new understandings, and nuanced the lens in which I view the world.
Here are some of my takeaways:
- Open up to others and be vulnerable – it’s the joy of living together with people going through the same experiences. Everyone seems to have it together on the outside, but college is hard, and talking about things will make situations a lot better
- Keep everything in perspective – the little things may seem bigger than they really are in the moment. Whether it’s a success or a failure, it’s important to view it in light of the broader picture.
- How you spend your time shapes who you ultimately become. In high school, it’s easier to juggle a ton of activities and give everything 100%, but in college, it’s nearly impossible. When life gets busy, often, we have to pick 2 of the 3: academics, social life, or sleep. How we divide our time ultimately defines what we value most, so I learned to consciously think about how I was allocating my time.
- Pursue what you love and don’t be afraid to explore. In college, what you do is not as important as why you do it. College is the perfect time to discover our purpose through exploring what we like and dislike.
- Above anything else, the people truly make the college experience. College was one of the first opportunities for me to live with some of the most inspiring, talented, similar-minded, diverse, and eccentric group of people for 9 months. I often found that I related best to people who grew up in completely different backgrounds. Instead of uniting based on physical, surface-level characteristics, we clicked on a human element that transcended geographical or cultural differences. At the end of the day, people are greater than numbers. Grades are important, but it’s important not to value GPA over the people you love, especially during exam season.
- The most memorable moments were the spontaneous ones in which I was willing to take a chance. Last fall, I saw a Facebook post about a Tech trip to Silicon Valley. On a whim, I decided to apply. That last-minute decision made me fall in love with San Francisco and reaffirmed my love of entrepreneurship. Last winter, during finals season, I decided to venture out to downtown Philadelphia and see a Christmas light show with one of my best friends (you’re the best, Rach!) It was honestly one of the best decisions I made. I remember sitting there and watching in awe as the lights moved in coordinated syncopated rhythm to some of my favorite Christmas songs. When I came back to campus, I felt rejuvenated and reenergized.
- Staying true to your roots is important. At summer graduation parties last year, my friends and I promised to Skype / FaceTime each other often and call each other weekly. I pledged to call my parents at least once a week before they drove back home. But when college got busy and I grew closer to my new friends, I started calling home less often and kept up with fewer high school friends. It’s inevitable for people to move on, but it’s definitely important to stay grounded. Going home on breaks and visiting my high school reminds me how I’d be nowhere without my family, old teachers, and the friends who shaped who I am now.
- You do you. While our goals in high school were relatively uniform (to get into the college of our dreams), everyone has a different path in college. It’s so much easier to just follow what everyone else is doing and what seems most “prestigious” than to actually chart an individualized journey. Inevitably, I struggled with comparing myself to others and questioning my own actions. But through experience, I discovered that what works best for my friend doesn’t necessarily work the best for me.
- We can always keep that freshman spirit in us – that sense of novelty, newness, and opportunity – it’s always there, as long as we harness it. Yes, next year, I’ll be a sophomore, but that doesn’t mean I need to have everything together and figured out. College – and life in general – is all about embracing each experience with the attitude of experiencing it for the first time.
- This year was one of the greatest years for me in terms of spiritual growth – God challenged me to the point where I HAD to rely on Him and trust in Him.
And some less serious takeaways:
- Music is a cure-all for just about everything. Whether it was working out, doing homework, or jamming with friends, music made the great moments better and the tough times survivable.
- Explore the city / college town. As a freshman, it was so nice to venture out of the college “bubble” and take trips to explore Philadelphia.
- Don’t bring your whole closet or bedroom to college. Out of paranoia, I brought clothes that I never ended up wearing. It definitely made move-out harder and made my boxes a few pounds heavier.
- Food is an amazing way to get to know people. Who doesn’t love food?
- There’s so many little perks of being in college. Take advantage of the free giveaways, student discounts at shows, constant free food, and tons of awesome events and guest speakers / performers.
9 months later, I packed up my belongings once again. This time, I reflected on my thoughts on college at the beginning of the year. Is college the glossy image I saw on the front cover of every ad? Sometimes, but more often than not, it isn’t. Is college the epitome of diversity? Definitely. Coming in with an open mind and heart, I discovered that there is so much to gain from diversity on campus. Is college a new start, an inspirational spark plug? Absolutely. Everyone at Penn is there for a unique reason; each person had something unique to add. But we all come together as one student body composed of brilliant thinkers, talented performers, star athletes.
There’s something odd about walking into a barren room, making it your own and calling it home for 9 months, then packing up everything again and moving out. Leaving the room barren once again, for the next freshman.
Now I’m back “home,” but this time, I know I have a second home that awaits me in three more months.