When I teetered into my dorm room on the first day, weighed down by three bags I had lugged across the country, I wasn’t inspired by any sense of new beginning despite all the people offering me their collegiate wisdom and telling me that my life had just begun. I missed home, I missed Mom, I felt like I was still just me, packed up and shipped 3000 miles away.
By that point, sitting in my dorm room, I believed, with one-hundred percent certainty, that I had taken all those pieces of advice I had received left and right to heart. I had been told I deserved this, and I believed I did. I had been told to wear sunscreen and to find a path and stick to it, but to keep looking for other ones, and be okay with switching destinations in the middle, so long as I had a goal in sight. I had been told to be grateful, to be confident, to not use other people’s apparent successes and achievements as metrics of my own relative worth. I had been told not to throw footballs in the dorms and I had been told that it was okay to ask for directions if I was lost.
But it turns out that taking words to heart and accepting the validity of pieces of advice are completely different from applying them to day to day life when unrestricted by anything but your own volition.
It was not long after my RA and interim guardian angel laid out ground rules for the dorm (no balls in the hallway for example), that I found myself and a few others in our dorm lounge casually tossing a Nerf football around. We were all respectable kids who had only weeks before joined an esteemed Ivy league institution. Sure, we had all probably had our dumb run-ins with authority, but the ball was foam and, besides, we implicitly agreed that we were all too smart to be one of those dumb kids who breaks a window or a lamp or something.
Enter boredom. Each pass was gaining speed. There were five us at one point, whipping this football around the room. The ball came back to me and we all paused for a second.
“Careful for the lamp,” one friend said.
“I’m not going to hit the lamp,” I responded.
So I whip it, the ball, with what I remember as a perfect Joe Montana spiral straight over the head of my friend, away from the lamp, and straight into the lounge TV for the entire dorm. I can tell you, nothing makes you feel like more of an idiot than taking movie night away from more than one hundred and fifty freshmen, except maybe becoming a textbook story about why we don’t play ‘hall sports’. I’m lucky that my RA first semester was probably the most on-it person I’ve ever met (learn to love your RA) because she covered for me and made up a story about how I, the awkward klutz that I am, fell into the TV and broke it. I think that I hardly got punished when I confessed.
But the “no playing in the halls” rule wasn’t the last piece of wisdom that I knew was true and still ignored.
It was not so long after those initial weeks that I realized I had been left alone. Surrounded by a myriad of the most amazing, interesting and thoughtful people, I began to become aware of my own inadequacies. I had been told by plenty of people that I had only gotten in because I was a legacy student. It was an unstated fact that I wasn’t there because I was smart, I was there because I fit the image of an Ivy Leaguer. I knew, and I know, on some level, that I deserve to be here as much as anyone else does or doesn’t, but at the time in that first confusing year, I felt miserably alone and unable to keep up with the people around me who were always doing something.
Then I lost track of why I was at school. I realized that I hated the engineering track. I wasn’t just no good at it–I hated it. The program, the expectations, the material itself—I hated all of it. Besides a few really interesting classes, there just wasn’t anything there for me. At this point, my identity as a smart kid had seemingly fallen to pieces and I became depressed and just wanted to go home and quit.
I made every single mistake I could. I didn’t follow any of the advice that anyone had given me. Because, ultimately, someone can show you fire and tell you it’s dangerous, but until you burn yourself, it doesn’t feel hot. I’m sure there are a lot of lessons that I’ve learned from doing my share of dumb shit like breaking the TV, but you’re going to get a lot of advice in the next few weeks. You’re going to think that you’re ready and you’re going to do it right. That’s a good thing. But buckle up kids, you’re going to crash a lot.