Advice from an (Almost) Former Freshman

Dear Incoming Freshman,

When I look back at my freshman year, I think of the moments of success, shining like bright stars along my memory.  After all, I did do rather well for myself as a freshman.  I joined the filmmaking club and a campus literary and arts publication.  I got to know lots of freshman, and some upperclassmen, and I even formed good relationships with a couple of my professors.  I found internships and learned from them what I did and didn’t like.  I directed a musical, written by my friend.  All these things and so many others stand out to me among the yawning timeline of this year.  It seemed to go so fast and yet it seems like last summer was an eternity away.  But among all these highlights, there’s a lot of… other memories.  The mundane things, the ones that don’t shine as brightly—the sky between the stars.  I had moments of pure joy and moments of crushing sadness and ones of absolute confusion.  And when I look back at all of it, I can’t help but think about how college has been exactly how I imagined it would be.  And nothing at all like it at the same time.

I don’t know about you, but I had a lot of thoughts or… ideas running through my mind as the numbers on my (literal) countdown continued to decrease and I realized that I was actually going to be living in New York in the fall.  Now maybe you’ve grown up in or near New York or visited a lot growing up, but for a small town girl from the farmland of Minnesota, New York City (and even a city in general) was a big change.  I spent a lot of time imagining what my new life would look like—the people I’d meet, the adventures I’d go on, the places I’d visit—but it all seemed so unreal to me, something that couldn’t possibly actually happen. 

I know I tried to seek out advice or knowledge about what college would be like from anywhere I could find it.  I watched those YouTube dorm tours and read blogs about what to pack and how not to mess up and what the most important things to think about were.  Now I’m not claiming to be giving any advice, but I can offer up my own experience, and I’ve learned that, oftentimes, experiences can be even more helpful than abstract advice.

I didn’t grow up in the kind of environment where people moved to the East Coast or went to private colleges.  In fact, I grew up in a place just the opposite: I was discouraged from even applying to Fordham or other similar schools.  In some twisted way, it was seen as a betrayal of the life I’d been given there.  But despite the lackluster response from the people in my hometown, I was excited to be heading to college in this new world.  I’d visited New York before to see a Broadway show and walked through Times Square.  I’d stayed in the dorms at Fordham over one of the admitted students’ weekends.  I knew that I actually knew nothing about what it would be like to live in New York, but I wanted to pretend that I did.  After all, compared to most people where I was from, I at least knew something

For me, college was the promise of something knew, a fresh start where I could rebuild myself as the perfect person I’d never had the chance to be.  I promised myself that I’d lock up the past and forget all the things that had happened in my childhood.  I’d fall in love with the people I was supposed to, act like I had the amount of money I was supposed to.  In short, I was convinced that the secret to college success was lying to myself as much as possible.  That didn’t go too well. 

The thing that I wasn’t recognizing about college is that just because I was in a new place didn’t make me a new person.  Maybe you haven’t thought these things, or maybe you’re convinced that you’re different and it’ll all work out for you to make up a new life.  Either way, in my case, my plans dissolved within the first week or two. 

When it comes to making friends, trying to craft a false persona of this ideal person isn’t exactly the way to go.  Thankfully, I realized this before actually trying it out too much.  As time went on, my plan of trying to outrun the past became to seem more and more ridiculous.  The closer I got to my friends, the more I began to open up to them, to do just the opposite of what I’d promised myself to do.  And at first I was scared.  I was scared of leaving behind this idealized version of what college would be, but as I did, I began to embrace the reality of it which is so much more complexly beautiful than any picture perfect fantasy. 

Mixed in with this fantasy idea was my understanding of what it meant to have a successful career.  You see, where I come from in Minnesota, everyone is either a teacher or a nurse or an insurance person (except the couple people who are doctors instead), so by majoring in English and not planning on being a teacher I had already completely left behind the world I had lived in.  I’d heard that working in publishing was a good thing to do with an English degree, and I didn’t exactly want to do that, but I figured it was better than trying to be a nurse, so I mapped out my life with that as the goal.  I also had this interest in film, but that seemed ridiculous to me.  No one like me could ever work in or study film.  So I pushed any thoughts of pursuing film on more than a recreational level aside as I pursued my “dream” of working in publishing.

Of course, this pursuit lasted about one semester as I quickly learned that signing your life away to a career you picked from an arbitrary list of ideas doesn’t work any better than simply doing what someone else wants from you.  I’ve never been one to sit still, and at my first internship, I had to do just that for hours.  As the weeks and months passed, I began to realize more and more that there was no reason to lock myself down to a single potential career path at eighteen years old.  I had years to figure that out (even though it felt like everyone was shouting at me to just “figure it out now”).

It’s extremely important for people to put emphasis on things like internships and networking and all the other things that go into getting a job, but I’ve also learned that sometimes we forgot to acknowledge the opposite.  If you’re anything like me, you’re already spending plenty of time thinking about how and when you’ll get internships and how you can best use your time to lead towards your career, so here’s what I’ll say: listen to everything they say, but take it with just one grain of salt (okay, maybe two).  You know yourself.  As important as it is to work hard, it’s also important to breathe.  Consciously.  Don’t burn yourself out; you’re worth more than that.  I promise that, if you work hard most of the time, taking some time to take care of yourself won’t hurt you. 

I definitely didn’t take enough time to breathe first semester (and I’m only starting to learn to now).  Maybe this is just me, but being at a good college and in such a good location, I felt this pressure to constantly be making the most of everything.  There was always something more I could be doing or someplace more I could be seeing, and the more I thought about it, the more I could barely wrap my head around any of it.  Now I’m not saying to just sit inside and ignore the opportunities you have.  On the contrary, anyone who knows me can vouch for the fact that I always encourage people to take advantage of everything they can, but wasting time thinking about how you’re not using the city or college or any opportunity to its full potential won’t help anything.  Go out there and chase every opportunity you can, but at the end of the day, take a moment to breathe and get some sleep.  It’s hard, but it really makes a difference.

I know I felt a lot of pressure to make the most of my opportunity to go to a well-ranked private college.  Unlike many people I encountered, I didn’t wish I’d gone someplace better.  In fact, I felt lucky to be able to go to a good college—and a private college at that—at all.  And that lead to a lot of guilt and fear of losing that.  I was (and still am) on a full tuition scholarship and the only other person from my town who I’d known to go to a good private college with that kind of scholarship had failed out after his first semester.  I wasn’t just scared, I was terrified.  Not that I had any particular reason to be, but I was.  I spent a lot of time thinking about how I couldn’t be sad, I couldn’t be stressed, I had to just be grateful.  Grateful for the opportunities life had afforded me, grateful for the chance to succeed, but only if I didn’t mess up.  Don’t get me wrong, I spent time being dumb with friends or procrastinating as much as the next person, but that didn’t mean I didn’t feel guilty and afraid each time I did.

Fear is natural in any new environment.  In fact, I’d even call it healthy.  Among many fears that ranged from completely understandable to ridiculous and outlandish, I was afraid of missing my family.  But more than that I was afraid of not missing my family.  I grew up in a rather tumultuous situation, so I was certainly ready to leave my hometown and venture out into the world, but I didn’t anticipate the shocking feeling of safety I would feel upon arriving at Fordham.  I remember feeling slightly guilty for not missing home more as fellow students told me about their homesickness.  I harbored a strange sort of resentment as I listened to people tell me over and over about how much they missed their moms.  In this time of complete chaos in so many ways, I felt a strange sense of calm.  My life was in my hands, within my control, in a way it had never been before.  I realized that missing family or not missing family was simply something that was.  There was no fault in me or my classmates for how we were feeling.  Family is complicated and individual, and that’s okay.  Missing or not missing, there are people you will meet who will listen to you. 

Even if the first weeks or months or semester may feel lonely, time (and a little bit of putting yourself more out there than you might normally do) will change that.  And it’s okay to be lonely sometimes, but it’s also okay to reach out to a friend.  I remember being nervous to ask friends to talk to me when I was sad, but getting to know people in my moments of weakness only made us closer.  I guarantee that so many people are just as lost or lonely or wishing for friends as you are.  And so many of them are waiting for someone to just reach out and acknowledge them.  Don’t be afraid to be the person who breaks the cycle of waiting.

You’ll hear lots of people telling you everything they love about Fordham and plenty of others telling you everything they hate.  After a while, I learned to stop being afraid of acknowledging the imperfections while also not getting too caught up in any of the hate.  Fordham is certainly not perfect, just as any place is not perfect, but it is someplace you can call home.  More than that, Fordham is what you make of it.  More so than many other colleges I think, Fordham allows you to take from it as much or as little as you like.  While it may seem intimidating to find your way through, there exists a strange form of freedom in this.  Freedom to craft a path uniquely your own, taking the pieces of things and building something more—or different—than anyone else has done (as cheesy as that may sound). 

I’m sure you’ll be meeting plenty of sophomores and juniors and seniors when you arrive on campus, and you’ll probably find it at least a little intimidating.  Just remember, we have all been freshman too, and before you know it, you’ll be finishing the year and adding your stories and experiences to those of past freshman.  Welcome to Fordham, and best of luck to you on this wild roller coaster through the galaxy that is college.

Best wishes,
Shannie Rao (FCLC ‘22)
Recently Declared English Major