Nearly two months have passed since my graduation from Macalester College. I believe self-reflection is important for personal growth, so I have spent the last month reflecting on my four-year experience as an undergraduate student. Besides receiving a quality education, a college student – especially one who lives away from home – learns a lot about herself. And in this post, I’m going to share the eight lessons that I have learned as a Mac student inside and outside the classroom.
1. Eight hours of sleep each night is possible but you need to prioritize and pick your battles. Six years ago, I averaged four hours of sleep each night as a high school junior. I did end up in the top 10% of the graduating class, but I can tell you now, in retrospect, that my mental and emotional health was at rock bottom that academic year. In a 180 degree turn, as a college first year, I slept 8.5 hours each night – from 11:30pm to 8am. I regained a healthy circadian rhythm and a solidified morning routine set a more productive and positive tone to each day. Now, I tell people that my mood worsens without more than 7.5 hours of sleep. If I need to lose 3 more hours of my sleep to get a small homework assignment from a hypothetical A- to an A, is it really worth it? I sometimes still fight with the mentality that sleeping less equals more productivity, but let’s be honest, I can probably accomplish the same number of tasks in less time if I have adequate sleep. It’s really all about what you prioritize.
2. You’ll learn about yourself and your living habits through various roommate relationships. Over the four years, I have had 5 roommates and many more housemates in various housing situations. Having roommates is a test of mutual understanding and effective communication, and I do believe that everyone should have the experience of having roommates at some point in their lives. I learned so much about being understanding of different sleep schedules and ways of communication. Some people fantasize about being besties with their roommates, and while that is possible, you don’t have to be best friends with your roommate to have a healthy roommate relationship. Mutual respect for different lifestyles and compromises are essential. Roommate agreements might seem like an overkill, but I’m a huge fan of writing down expectations on paper and adhering to them. Being able to live with others teaches communication skills that can transfer beyond the dorms or college apartments.
3. Students who talk a lot are not necessarily the smartest or know what they’re talking about. This truth took me two entire academic years to internalize. As an Asian, female, AND first generation college student, I am always in situations where I am talked over, interrupted, ignored, and discredited for my opinions. When I first encountered students who are confident in their opinions and constantly participate in class discussions, I jumped to the most logical conclusion: they read a lot and must be well versed in the topic to challenge the idea. As a result, I quickly became intimated by these louder voices in the classroom. It wasn’t until a one-on-one conversation with a professor during office hours that I realized that “the number of times you speak in class isn’t indicative of the quality of the information being conveyed” (his words paraphrased). Don’t hesitate to share your opinion in class; it’s more insightful that you probably give yourself credit.
4. Reach out to professors and staff. Have a trusted adult to turn to when things get difficult. I know that many students are unlike me; they don’t go to office hours often and/or find speaking with professors and staff very uncomfortable. At a small liberal arts college like Macalester, the “adults” there are often there to help and guide students. In quite a number of encounters with professors, they were genuinely concerned about my well being outside of their class, asking about my homework load and were curious about students’ lives besides academics. Some of them hosts students for end-of-the-semester dinners and others invite students for Thanksgiving dinner so that they’re not alone on the holiday. Even aside from benefitting of knowing professors/staff (homework help, future recommendations, etc), they become students’ support people on campus. Whenever I had breakdowns about my classes or complaints about my schedule, I had a staff member that was willing to listen to me without judgment and be a voice of reason. These people kept me grounded when my emotions got the best of me. I’m glad that I had a “adult” figure to turn to for support besides my friends.
5. Don’t just stay on campus. Learn about the community you’re a part of now. Perhaps it’s Macalester speaking through me, but civic engagement is so important. As someone new to the Twin Cities and the Midwest, I made a bucket list for each academic year, including foodie places, museums, and experiences that I wanted to have before graduating. I learned about the history of Minnesota’s immigrant population, witnessed the lively arts scene through a season pass to the Hennepin Theatre Trust, learned about the science behind Pixar films through an internship at the Science Museum of Minnesota, walked along the Mississippi River, and ate Minnesota’s infamous Juicy Lucy burger (the meat patty has melted cheese inside). If I stayed on campus at Macalester during all of my free time, I would not have felt that the Twin Cities was my second home. Having the opportunity to explore both the Twin Cities metro and areas outside (Duluth, Hinckley, Marine on Saint Croix) gave me a way to feel like I belonged at Macalester and in Minnesota. Without these experiences, I would not have known that the Twin Cities is the most environmentally-friendly and sustainable place that I have ever lived in (step it up, Atlanta!).
6. Money is there. You just need to find it. There are SO MANY options for students to explore new fields and careers. Part-time jobs. Internships. Networking events. Independent study. Study abroad programs. However, many students become disinterested from these opportunities when they realize that 1) they’re expensive or 2) they’re unpaid. Even just among my friend circle, many of us have taken advantage of scholarships and funds to attend conferences, get a paid internship, and go on different trips. Each school allocates money for students to participate in events, so don’t hesitate to send an email to your academic department or the dean of academic affairs to see if there are funds available. Besides the school, some nonprofit organizations or even the government also offer scholarships for specific programs or uses. As a sophomore, I participated in an all-expenses paid 3-day trip by the career center to network and tour Washington D.C. I have also completed an internship with a startup with funding from Macalester because the startup didn’t have money to pay its interns. During junior year, I received the Gilman Scholarship from the Department of State to fully fund my semester abroad in Seoul. I also attended a national Bonner Foundation conference in New York fully funded. Don’t overlook an opportunity just because it’s unpaid. Research ways to subsidize costs and find stipends that can offset living expenses.
7. You learn to become comfortable with yourself. Alone. In high school, people look at you if you eat lunch alone. At college, you probably WANT to eat lunch alone. When I was still on the meal plan, I would eat my lunches alone while reading the news or watching a video and eat my dinners with friends. It’s difficult to eat with friends for lunch since everyone has different class schedules. It’s also much more efficient eating alone when you need to finish a reading before a 3 pm class. For some, college is the first time students learn to run errands alone. Without a car, I learned to navigate the bus and light rail system to buy groceries and go to the dentist. By the end of junior year, I was comfortable enough to go the movies alone (go in the afternoon for cheaper tickets). Eating alone at restaurants is still a bit awkward for me, but being part of the lunchtime rush is more comfortable than couples/families eating out for dinner. I still occasionally get glances when I do things alone (maybe it’s because I look 15?), but it’s liberating knowing that I am capable of taking care of myself without depending on others.
8. Develop a love for lifelong learning. I entered college with the mindset like most people; I saw getting a bachelor’s degree as the key to socioeconomic mobility. After taking my First Year Course, Civic Ideals and Higher Education in America, however, I realized that my relationship with an undergraduate education is much more complex than that. Of course, there’s no denying that a bachelor’s degree will help secure financial stability for me in the future. At the same time, I also love the idea of learning for the sake of learning. I’m curious about what people’s professions are like, how technological innovations evolve over time, why certain economies are weaker than others, and an infinite amount of other topics. My thirst for knowledge is limitless, and it has opened my eyes to other perspectives on a variety of topics. Most of all, it has led to regular Wikipedia marathons where I go down a rabbit hole for more than 2 hours, reading about anything from the Apollo 11 mission to the origins of Hong Kong Cantonese to the production of maraschino cherries.
I would have never thought that a small, residential liberal arts college can bring so much perspective and growth into my life, but I am grateful for the lessons that these four years have taught me. Now, I can say without hesitation that Macalester has prepared me well to live a fulfilling and rewarding life, regardless of what I choose as my career path.