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5 Lessons I Learned in College: An Open Letter to Freshman Year Me

There’s so many things I wish I knew when I started college. This letter will be 5 lessons I learnt over my 4 years in college – 5 things I wish I knew as a Freshman in 2019.

And as I write to freshman me today, the overarching word in my mind is growth.

Context for the Letter

To make this exercise easier, I’m creating a fictional scenario in my mind. I’m imagining you in August 2019, just after you moved into Mary H. Donlon Hall on North Campus at Cornell University.

I’m imagining you opening and reading this letter moments after you say your final goodbyes to your parents and little brother to be away from home and family for 4 months for the first time ever.

I’m imagining you sitting at your desk in Donlon Room 305, suitcases not even fully unpacked yet, but for the first time in your life, living on your own and not knowing what to expect from the next 4 years.

You slip this letter out from the desk drawer, open it, and begin to unfold it – a metaphor for the 4 years that are about to unfold and no way for you to know what lies ahead.

An Open Letter to Myself in Freshman Year (2019)

Dear Justin,

What lies ahead is hard to believe. I’ll try my best to guide you through it, but there’s so many things that will happen that you could never expect. A pandemic, for starters, but how about studying abroad in Spain? How about interning at JPMorgan Chase & Co. or spending a summer at Berklee College of Music? Right now I remember how you’re feeling – “I wish Cornell had warm weather!” Well, be careful what you wish for – you’re gonna spend almost a whole year doing Cornell on Zoom at home in Jamaica.

Today, though, I’m not writing to tell you about the milestone achievements that you can track on LinkedIn or on your resume (I know right now, you don’t even know what LinkedIn or a resume are hahaha). I’m writing to tell you about the little things that you won’t expect, and to give you some advice from someone who’s (quite literally) been in your shoes.

Celebrating the Small Victories

The first thing I wanna say is this – we made it! Here we are, on the other side of the late night studying, the 12am coffees, the stress over deadlines, the 12 page essays, the brutal intermediate microeconomics problem sets (you’ll get there in sophomore year) and everything that went on outside of academics too.

We persevered, cried sometimes, failed sometimes, succeeded sometimes, but above all – we finished.

Everything that you’ll experience in the next 4 years will mean something as you look back on it, so even if things feel rough or uncomfortable in the moment, know that those things make the end so much sweeter.

And in one week, I’ll be celebrating the end with family and friends and remembering both the good times and the bad times that will make your 4 years at Cornell so memorable.

Advice for Starting College

1. Not Everyone is Going to Like You – and that’s OKAY!

As you start out this college journey, remember the simple fact that not everyone is going to like you, and that’s 100% okay.

Coming from high school, I know that you can be a people pleaser sometimes, but you’re gonna come to learn that prioritizing yourself and your needs is important, and a lesson that I’ve learnt in the past 4 years is that there’s always gonna be somebody who won’t like you – and not necessarily because you did something wrong, or because you disrespected them or did anything negative to them, but just for the very mere fact that you are unapologetically you.

For the mere fact that you’re successful, or because you dress a certain way, or talk a certain way, or just because of how you look: things that you can’t change that define you.

Keeping this in mind as you navigate the world is so important, because it will help you not to feel deterred by other people’s opinions of you. As you make friends and build lifelong relationships, never falter in being yourself. Those who will love you will love you for who you are, and those who come and go are not those who you want in your life. Make peace with that, and don’t change who you are to please anyone else.

2. Your grades don’t define you (and they never have)

Secondly, as I sit here writing this blog post, I’m somehow bothered by the fact that I didn’t get an A in a class that I wanted to. But as I reflect now writing this letter, looking back at the growth that I’ve experienced since being in high school, something I need you to remember from the start of your college career is that your grades don’t define you.

This has been something that was easy to say in high school, when your grades were always good anyways, so who cares whether they define you or not – either way you’d be fine.

The people you meet and relationships you build matter most

However, the most liberating thing that I’ve experienced in college has been de-prioritizing academics at times, and prioritizing investing in relationships and people.

Take that 12am walk with a friend. Grab lunch with someone instead of eating a quick lunch to get back to studying. Sit on the slope and just be in the company of other people. At the end of it all, you won’t remember the extra 30 minutes that you spent “doing work”, but you’ll remember the 30 minutes you spent with that friend watching the sunset.

People matter, relationships matter, quality time matters and as much as academics matter too, you won’t remember the grades you got on your exams as much as you’ll remember the people you’ll spend time with.

Don’t fail, but don’t forget that people matter in college too.

3. Learn how to become comfortable with being uncomfortable

Thirdly, as you meet new people and navigate new spaces, learn how to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. 

Put yourself in situations that are outside of your comfort zone, and show up to things and places where you might not feel like you fit in. If you stay in situations where you’re always comfortable, you’ll never experience growth. And the truth is, Cornell is usually a safe space.

If you’re new somewhere, people will be welcoming. Go to that club meeting with people you don’t know, but share an interest. Take a class without any friends in it and say hey to the first person you sit beside. Hang out with friends of your friends and meet new people.

In the next few months, as you begin to navigate Cornell and this campus on your own, the best thing you can do is to put yourself in uncomfortable scenarios, and learn how to navigate that feeling. Learning how to be uncomfortable and meeting new people is scary, awkward at times, but in the end, always rewarding.

4. Learn how to be comfortable being alone

In that same vein, the fourth thing I want you to learn is how to be comfortable being alone.

Throughout college and life in general, you’re gonna meet a lot of amazing people who you’ll want to spend time with and want to hang out with. Every meal you have you’ll want to share with a friend, and every event you go to you’ll want to go with a group.

Something that living in Boston and then New York City on my own taught me is that you have to become comfortable with being alone. You’re gonna find wanting to get lunch at a dining hall but all your friends have class. You’re gonna find yourself wanting to go to an event that none of your friends are interested in or available for. And you’re gonna find yourself many times, in situations where you won’t have people to share experiences with, and not necessarily because you don’t have friends or people who would be willing to go, but because of timing, scheduling or something out of your/their control.

When you find yourself in those situations, go with yourself!

Learn how to be comfortable sitting alone in a dining hall, and enjoy your own company. Nobody’s watching, nobody’s thinking “what a loser” and you being alone in any given situation is not a representation of you being alone in life in any way. It’s something that you’ll have to keep learning even after college, but if you keep that in mind from the very start, you’ll be sure to feel much more secure in yourself.

5. Make mistakes and be okay being a beginner

The last thing I want you to keep in mind as you go through the next four years is to make mistakes and be okay being a beginner.

You know I don’t mean to mess up all the time, but as a perfectionist, you’ll sometimes not take risks that might not be completely calculated, and you might shy away from trying things that you feel like you won’t be good at.

As you grow up, even as you pick and choose the things you participate in and think you’re good at, you’ll make mistakes and sometimes just suck at it too. So why shy away from the things that you’re not sure of?

If doing a Spartan race taught me anything (yes, can you believe we did a Spartan race last month???), it’s that it’s okay to not be good at everything, and it’s really okay to be a beginner. It’s okay to be on the learning curve, and it’s okay to ask questions and ask for help. 

Ask for help – we’re all beginners at something!

One of the most important lessons throughout college for me has been to learn how to ask for help, and to remember that we’re all beginners at something.

But the beauty of it is that you shouldn’t be afraid to try new things because you might suck, and you shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes in the process. College will be a time for you to learn so many new things inside and outside of the classroom, so go out there and suck at something. Try something new, and get better at it over time.

Learning curves can be awful to be on, but the uphill battle makes it so rewarding.

Conclusion

Jus, as I think about the things that have defined the best moments of college, I think about the times in which I’ve been intentional in facilitating my own growth. And while growth will happen on its own as you experience things throughout life, if you have the mindset to facilitate that growth, you’ll grow so much more exponentially.

Nothing in life is perfect. Your four years at Cornell will surely be far from that. Yet, many things in life are perfectly imperfect, and college will be just that.

Everything you experience will be a lesson, and once you learn how to see the lessons and teachable moments throughout life, you’ll again learn the lesson that you took away from high school – everything happens for a reason, and it’s just for you to find the reason that everything happens.

Congratulations on getting into Cornell.

We did it.

Love, Justin

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