Open letter to prospective freshmen

Dear freshman,

Congratulations on completing high school. You came, you saw, you conquered. You don’t need another elegy about how these (wait for it) uncertain times halted a normal high school career as you knew it.

But you better believe that I’m proud of you. And I feel confident in speaking on behalf of the rest of the Carnegie Mellon community when I say we are all glad you’re joining us. Wherever you are — studying online from home or coming to campus — you are just as welcome as a Tartan.

I’m just as clueless as most of you are in terms of how a blended model of learning will exactly pan out. If anyone had the answers, the nationwide debate on reopening schools wouldn’t exist. Some of the advice I would give upcoming freshmen probably won’t apply here, but some might.

Flexibility can be a larger strength than brute force.

Stick with me through this story: Once when I was a kid, my dad told me to stand with my feet shoulder-width apart. He had my palms facing towards him but still close to my chest. The “game” was to push each other, palm to palm, while maintaining our balance. My strategy was to try to push as hard as I could. I could count my age with just my fingers, and I wasn’t exactly the biggest for my age. I’m not sure what exactly made me believe that I could knock a grown man off his feet, but I was ready to push full force. My tactic tragically backfired when my dad gave a slight push, which was enough to push me backwards and thus knock me off my feet. Had I kept my arms relaxed, I might not have been pushed back and I might have kept my balance.

Now that my TED talk is out of the way, the reason I bring this up: I think a similar thing can be said about college and beyond.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s admirable to be driven and dedicated. But sometimes that same tunnel vision can become a vice. That same strength that pushes you forward can be the same exact strength that can knock you over.

If there’s anything outside of the classroom that I have learned that has been further reinforced by the current pandemic, this is it. We can all try our best to secure our futures and work towards our goals, but we can’t prepare ourselves for every possible outcome. Breathe in, breathe out. Plant your feet firmly where you can. Get ready and position yourself, but be ready to adjust your stance when different pressures try to push you down.

Internet friends are just as valid as “real-life” friends.

This isn’t exclusive to college students. However, I feel that it’s even more topical, as you’re probably going to be meeting other Tartans online more than you will face-to-face. I can’t tell you with complete certainty how much truth there is to the cliché “the friends you meet in college are your friends for life.” But what I can tell you is that for many, including myself, friends you make in this part of your life can radically change your life and viewpoint.

Take advantage of virtual ways of meeting people: social media, group chats, virtual networking, to list a few. Try to find activities to bond over, such as multiplayer games or virtually watching a movie together. Of course, it will feel different than meeting someone in a traditional physical gathering. But what matters more are the actual connections and conversations that you form, not which party you met someone.

Impostor syndrome is real. Try to be able to at least recognize it.

Funny story (again): freshman year, I had a theory that another person with my first and last name was supposed to be accepted and I was supposed to be rejected. Impostor syndrome hit me so hard that that felt more plausible than me actually getting accepted to my dream school. I’m no longer donning that tinfoil hat, but I would be lying if I said that I felt inadequate to be where I am.

A while back, I encountered a quote that helped shift my viewpoint: “If you’re the smartest person in the room you’re in the wrong room.” I remembered how it felt to be at the top of my high school class and be told that I could succeed in anything I wanted to. That confidence in my academic abilities shattered the second I was surrounded by many of the most brilliant people that I have ever met. Maybe I could have chosen a “safer” route or decided to go somewhere where I felt like I could be the star student. But would that have done me any good? I don’t think so. Similarly, you chose CMU not because it’s an “easy” option but because you wanted to be challenged. Know that actually experiencing it may hit harder than you anticipated. Acknowledge how you feel, what is true, and learn to reconcile those truths accordingly.

This leads to the next point…

Chances are, the answer to any question beginning with “am I the only one…?” is “no.”

Maybe the comparison game won’t happen through seeing Snapchat stories of Greek rush or fun concerts. Social life in college is going to be drastically different, but it can still exist.

Of course, every individual will experience life differently. That isn’t to say, though, that you’re the only one who will face different adversities or have certain thoughts. It can be easy to feel like you’re the only one who feels alone or far behind. But chances are, even the student who seems to know the answer to every question the professor asks may have some of the same thoughts that you do, at least from time to time.

Self-care isn’t indulging; it’s responsibility.

When many of us think of the term “self-care,” we think of Epsom salt bubble baths and chocolate cake. I’m not here to say that you shouldn’t let yourself enjoy these luxuries, but I am here to emphasize the importance of taking care of yourself physically and mentally.

One of the biggest mistakes that I made starting my freshman year was using diet energy drinks as meal replacements. I saw food and sleep as a “waste of time” that I could dedicate to doing work. My relationship with food before college was not the best, and this mentality that self-care was a “waste of time” further exacerbated it. I thought that dedicating more time to “productivity” meant reaping more results later on. More hard work equals more rewards, right?

Not necessarily. Funnily enough, the semesters that I performed the worst in were the months in which I took the worst care of myself and put in the most time in trying to be productive. Conversely, the semester that I got on the Dean’s List was the semester where I prioritized my physical and mental health.

It’s unrealistic for anyone to tell you not to ever touch caffeine in your college years or that you will get a full eight hours of sleep every night. But recognize that taking care of yourself is a responsibility, not something that you can brush off on the wayside. Maybe you can’t do a Chloe Ting workout or make Instagram-worthy lunches regularly. But please know that investing in your wellbeing and recognizing your needs is an investment in yourself and your future.

It might get harder before it gets easier.

We like to think of progress as some linear upward slope where the line only goes up as time goes on. But even in conventional “success stories,” that hardly is the case. Behind most (if not all) “overnight successes” are countless nights where the future superstar ponders whether that night is the night to call it quits on their dreams.

I know we want instant gratification, or at least some form of positive reinforcement. I’m just as guilty of this as anybody else, and this is a muscle that needs to be exercised after college. Life has its ups and downs; it ebbs and flows. College is no different.

Good luck and stay safe,

Madeline

Madeline Kim | Professional Writing and Undergraduate Business 2021
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