First Semester of College Reflections

My first semester has already gone by! College has been intense, stressful, stimulating, and incredibly fun—and for the most part, I love it.

Over the past few month, I’ve been constantly thinking about what I want out of my life and the kind of person I want to become. Here are some questions I’m asking:

  • Why am I at school? What is unique about a university setting? Why did I choose a liberal arts education over a technical institute?
  • What is the benefit of taking one more engineering class vs one class on anthropology, education, or religion, that will expand or even change the way I see the world? Should I go for depth or breadth as an undergraduate student?
  • Why must I study one subject in depth? What is the purpose of having a major?
  • What is the purpose of college? Is it to get a job, to meet people, or for the pursuit of knowledge?
  • What have I done with my life, and what am I doing? What do I want out of my life?
  • Why am I studying computer science when I can learn about humanity through other classes?
  • How do I develop deep knowledge? How can I apply what I learn in school to my everyday life?

Through mulling over these questions, here are some lessons I’ve learned and some conclusions I’ve drawn:

1. The purpose of college
To me, college is not just a preprofessional activity. I didn’t go to college to get a job, or even to become prepared for one. I went to college to see what was possible, and to learn about myself and the world around me.

I remember thinking that I could be anything if I went to college—I could go into law, or become a politician, or a writer. I remember thinking this would be the place where I could pick up a random hobby and keep it with me for the rest of my life—like glassblowing or pottery or something cool like that.

A semester later, although my starry-eyed optimism has faded and I am largely pursuing my original interests, I want to remember my purpose as I continue college. I don’t want to surround myself with only a homogeneous group of people, and I don’t want to do only a select number of activities. Instead, I want to grow and explore, to seek to understand and to be understood. I want to challenge and change my worldview.

There is a gate at Harvard with an inscription that reads, “Enter to grow in wisdom.” As you leave, it says, “Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.” I want college to be a place where I grow not only intellectually, but as a person. I suppose that growth could happen anywhere, but I thought this was the best place for me to stretch myself and expose myself to such diverse people and ways of thinking.

I think at many points in the semester, I lost sight of my initial purpose—rather than exposing myself to the unknown, I stayed with what was comfortable because I was stressed and wanted to do well in my classes. I’m still trying to figure out the best tradeoff between pursuing what I’m already good at and taking the time to explore what I’ve never been exposed to.

2. Learning to let go of prejudices
One of the earliest things I learned—even before entering college—was how incredibly interesting people are and that I should never assume anything about anyone. For my preorientation program, I attended the Freshman Outdoors Program (FOP) in which I embarked on a week-long backpacking and canoeing trip in Maine with 12 other incoming freshman and two upperclassmen. I realized that the best way to truly know someone is to live with them in the wilderness for a few days.

During the next-to-last night during the trip, we all sat around a campfire and shared stories. We talked about things that we never talked about with most of our friends, sharing stories filled with our deepest secrets. I learned new things about the people I spent every hour with for the last five days.

One of my favorite things about college is the sheer diversity of people I have met. It’s amazing how many people I’ve encountered from all over the world—Syria, New Zealand, Kenya, Singapore, the Himalayas, and more. It’s sometimes easy to forget that we come from such different backgrounds and that my view of people sometimes reflects not only the people themselves but also of my preconceived ideas of where they come from and the type of people they are.

3. Evolving my mindset around technology
Coming from Silicon Valley, it was definitely different to see so many people opposing technology (or at least not being staunch supporters). I’ve had a few great conversations about the role of technology in our lives that have expanded my view of what high-tech has done and will continue to do.

Especially after leading tech and robotics clubs, I have always been a solid promotor of girls in technology. I guess I rarely thought about the implications of technology.

Being in a liberal arts environment forced me to see technology not as a bubble or in a vacuum, but with real-world implications. I now hope to use technology as a way to increase equality rather than decrease it.

4. Computer science (and how I love it)
CS was hard for me. I took a class called Machine Programming and Systems Organization. I guess it wasn’t too hard of a class on its own, but combined with three other heavy classes, I definitely felt stretched.

My first midterm was rough. I studied so much, but I walked out of the test thinking that I failed. Though I did better than I thought (because, as my grader wrote, “Partial credit is magic!”), I realized that even if I failed the class, even if I sucked at CS, I would still study it. Not because I had nothing else to study or no fall-back plan, but because I truly love it. I love the problem-solving, the dedication, the grind. I love that I can make things that didn’t exist before.

More than ever, I still believe in the power of technology to change the world, and I’m happy that even though I struggled, I’m still as committed as ever to studying computer science.

I’m also pretty sure I want to study Electrical Engineering along with computer science, and I think it’s a cool combination because of my interests in robotics and building things in the real world.

5. Change
So, have I changed? How am I a different person from who I was a few months ago, back when Harvard was just a distant place?

Well, for one, my knowledge of C has increased a lot, along with mathematical proofs and electrical engineering. I read many science fiction stories as well—but have they changed me fundamentally as a person? Have my values changed?

I would say no, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. If anything, my values have been reinforced.

And I think that’s okay, too. I don’t have to be transformed, but I do have to take in other opinions and values and think about how they relate to me.

My goals for next semester are:

  • Spend more time with friends and foster closer relationships
    • Even though I got to know a lot of people and am good friends with many, I don’t feel particularly close to anyone. (To be fair, I define “close” as knowing my soul, and I theirs.) I’m confident that these friendships will form; I believe close friendships only come with time and many shared experiences.
  • Get to know my professors better and speak up in class
    • I didn’t really make an effort to get to know my professors well, which is kind of a shame. I frequented office hours run by TFs, but was too shy to go to professor’s office hours. My CS professor seems super chill, but I definitely felt intimidated (especially in such a large classroom setting).
  • Do research!
    • Back when I was choosing which college I would attend, I stumbled upon a Youtube video with a professor that seemed super cool. I looked her up and thought she would be an amazing mentor. I met with her recently and I will be doing research with her next semester!
  • Join the running club
    • Before coming to college, I ran with the Gunn cross country team a bit over the summer. I was one of the slowest, but I didn’t care—I just wanted to run. For some reason, I didn’t do the same at Harvard—I think it was mostly self-consciousness, but also a bit of laziness. They are fast by my standards (around 7:30 min/mile for 5+ miles), but I hope to run with them sometime when I can reach their level.
  • Do a photography seminar or class. Fulfill my artistic side and channel my stress in a creative way
    • There were many points in the semester when I felt so much but didn’t have a way to express myself. In high school, I started writing poetry and doing photography. I had less time in college than I expected to unwind, but I hope to prioritize my mental well-being next semester.
  • Blog and journal more
    • Even though I did a lot of self-reflection, I didn’t record a lot of my thoughts.

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