Things I learned as a last-year

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Critical Thinking Banner, Pillsbury, Jewell Quad. Courtesy of Catherine Dema.

At the end of my first year at William Jewell College, I wrote an advice piece for The Hilltop Monitor titled “Things I learned as a first-year.”  Two short, strange years later and I’m finishing my last year at Jewell. Here are some things I’ve learned this year. 

Quit stressing about “the plan” 

Even plans that seem concrete can go awry. My plan was to study at The University of Oxford my junior year and then spend my senior year at Jewell. Then, a global pandemic happened. I, instead, have spent my junior year completing all of my senior coursework in preparation for spending my senior year of college abroad. 

My plan to go to Oxford as a junior felt concrete at the time. However, no plan is permanent. This fact can be stressful, but it can also be liberating. 

If all plans can change, there’s no reason to stress about creating the perfect post-graduation career plan. There’s no reason to feel locked into decisions you’ve made for your life. The majority of decisions are reversible. The next time someone makes you feel insecure for not having life figured out, remember that it is impossible for anyone to have life figured out. Adaptability is a crucial life skill. 

There is no perfect college experience 

Sometimes, I feel like I only got three semesters of a real college experience. This feeling rests on a false assumption that the ideal college experience exists. 

Pandemic or not, every person’s experience at college will be unique to them. It is impossible to replicate someone else’s college experience. Just because you did not have the perfect internship or all in-person classes does not mean you didn’t have a valuable college experience. I learned that my years at Jewell were never going to be exactly what I expected, regardless of the pandemic. The best experiences are unexpected. 

Missed opportunities lead to unexpected ones 

While I was disappointed to not go to Oxford my junior year, missing out on this opportunity allowed me to have so many other wonderful experiences. 

I got to spend another year at Jewell with older friends who would have graduated by the time I came back to the United States. I spent a year playing tennis for Jewell, a chance I never thought I would have. I lived close to home for the first year of my nephew’s life. I took fascinating classes I never would have taken otherwise. 

While it’s easy to focus on the experiences we missed out on, it’s important to remember the experiences we gained. Over quarantine, I took the time to write a poem everyday, one of which got included in a community poem created by NPR. Despite the horrors of the pandemic, looking back I know I’ll never regret the time I spent with my immediate family when I lived at home over quarantine. I may not have been traveling the world, but I still made amazing memories. 

Take the time to enjoy the people around you 

My first year of college, I often confined myself to the silent floor of the Pryor Learning Commons to do homework. I had an excellent work ethic and would say no to hanging out with friends to finish assignments. This year, I refocused my priorities. 

School is important to me, but I’ve learned that relationships are more important. I might work better on the quiet floor of the PLC, but the benefits are not worth missing out on studying with friends. The time we get with the people we care about is limited. Don’t feel guilty for putting off an assignment to have a good conversation with a friend. Life gets its meaning from relationships. 

The effects of affirmation are short-lived

I have always been a good student. I tend to get positive feedback from my teachers and peers. The downside to this is that my self-esteem is a little too reliant on this reinforcement. I know many Jewell students are also achievement-driven.

The problem with being reliant on positive affirmation is that it forces us to set  unachievable standards for ourselves. It is good to want to always better yourself but you can’t base your whole identity on markers of success. College taught me that even after you win an award or get a good grade, you don’t feel any different. The happiness from achieving something wears off quicker each time. 

Instead, it’s important to find confidence internally, rather than externally. Just because others are not validating the work you are doing does not mean it is bad work – and doing good work does not have to be your ultimate goal. Find confidence in your strength, your adaptability and your compassion. 

Intelligence is fake 

My first year of college, I did not believe I was smart enough for a lot of my classes. I felt like I had fooled my professors into giving me good grades – maybe out of pity, maybe just because I was good at faking intelligence. What I was actually experiencing was imposter syndrome, which disproportionately affects women and makes people falsely believe they are not qualified enough for an opportunity. 

In my last year of college, I became convinced that intelligence is not as important as I once thought. I no longer believe that people are significantly smarter or less smart than I am. We all have had different opportunities to learn about different research, ideas and skills. Our brains might process information in a variety of ways, but that does not mean one brain is superior to another. 

College has made me confident that I can learn anything. If you would have told my first-year self that I would be able to take an exam that required me to write ten pages over six texts in four hours without any notes, I would have been shocked. Now, I’ve completed seven of those exams. With the right instruction and enough motivation, you could too. 

If I can drive on I-35, you can do anything 

In my advice column I wrote as a first-year, I mentioned that I was still trying to learn how to drive in downtown Kansas City. I used to add an extra fifteen minutes to my drive home by avoiding I-35 because of one bad experience.  I am happy to say that I now feel confident driving downtown.

While driving downtown may feel insignificant to some people, it was scary for me. There may be things that scare you that other people conquer easily. Don’t let others’ ideas of what is hard and what is easy invalidate your fears – and don’t let your fears stop you from trying new experiences. Do a meditation, say a prayer if you’re the praying type and buckle your seatbelt. No matter what the future has in store, you can handle it. 

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