My first two weeks at Amherst College were uncomfortable, to say the least. Meeting new people really isn’t my thing, but that’s what freshman orientation is all about. Struggling to find something in common, fake-coughing during awkward pauses, cringing when I fumbled over my name — I felt like a fish flopping on land.
And saying good-bye to my family? That was the worst part. My mom, who traveled the 3,061.2 miles to help me move in, had to leave right at the beginning of orientation to catch her flight. So I met my orientation small group in a mess, tears streaming down my face and unable to croak out much more than “Hi."
That night, I was sure I’d chosen the wrong school. “I should’ve stayed closer to home,” I thought to myself as I miserably slipped under the covers. “I miss home. I miss my mom. Everything feels weird. This was a mistake.”
But within a couple of weeks, as classes started and I began to check out clubs on campus, those thoughts slowly disappeared, and to my utter disbelief, I settled in.
The excitement with which I approached my classes was surreal. In high school, with the end goal being a high GPA and college, I’d lost a lot of my passion for learning. School became a routine; classes became a means to an end. But in college, getting to choose the classes and professors I wanted — Amherst has an open curriculum — made a huge difference, and I found myself looking forward to class for the first time in a long time.
Granted, I wasn’t always excited — there were days when I didn’t even want to get out of bed. But the intellectual environment at Amherst really reignited my love for exploring and expanding my worldview. We weren’t taking classes to get into college anymore; we were taking classes because we wanted to learn.
And as I got to know my peers both in and out of the classroom, I began to feel more at home — like I belonged. I still remember feeling simultaneously weirded out and pleasantly surprised the first time I referred to Amherst as home. It just slipped right out of my mouth, and it took me a second to recover as I realized what I’d said. But I also knew that somewhere along the way, it became true, both in my mind and my heart.
Maybe your first few weeks in college will also be uncomfortable. Or maybe they won’t. Regardless, here are some tips I wish I’d known when I first got to college. Hopefully, they’ll help you get a head start on having a great year.
Check out campus clubs within the first few weeks of school. Clubs are probably the primary way you’ll make friends, so it’s important to find a club that fits you and your interests. That way, it’s a win-win situation: you’ll get to be involved in something that’s important to you and you’ll make connections with people who share the same passion.
Try something you maybe would never have tried before college. Each semester, I promised myself that I’d push myself out of my comfort zone in at least one big way. First semester, I joined Amherst’s mixed martial arts club, and second semester, I participated in a small flash mob performance. (I have no experience in either arena and am an especially clumsy dancer.) But though my entire body throbbed for days after each martial arts practice and I spent the entire dance performance with my face flaming red, it was exhilarating to know that I’d had the guts to do something a little scary — and stuck with it.
Being sick sucks. The first time you get sick in college, you’ll find yourself really missing and appreciating your parents. You have to go out and get your own chicken soup and hot teas, you have to rely on classmates for notes, you have to check your temperatures yourself and decide whether or not you’re capable of attending activities. So try your best not to get sick; it just becomes such a burden. You’re better off regularly taking care of yourself and resting the moment you feel something coming on.
People care way less about your GPA in college. At Amherst, no one ever asked me, “What grade did you get?” It was such a refreshing change from the culture of academic striving in my hometown of Palo Alto, California. In college, it’s not about making the next benchmark. It’s about discovering what makes you light up — what creates the spark in your eyes. Don’t try to hold yourself to other people’s standards; instead focus on what interests you and what you can do with what you have.
You’ll meet people who are rude or inconsiderate but you’ll also meet so many more people who aren’t. Don’t let the bad apples take away from the good ones. Make the most of the time you have with people who care about you and want the best for you. You only have four years in college, but those four years will feel like lifetimes because in college, your friends really become your family. So don’t give up on friendships just because of a disagreement; instead, pursue the people who matter to you.
In a similar vein, don’t let what people say get you down. Not everyone in this world is going to like you, and that’s sometimes hard to take. But at the end of the day, you’re only going to be sharing the same space with them for four years. Think big — in five, 10 years, unless they’re devastatingly attractive, you won’t even really remember what they look like. Don’t let other people’s opinions of you dictate who you are and what you do. Choose to pursue what you want for yourself — what aligns with your heart.
Widen your perspective — talk to people you wouldn’t normally talk to. So much of what I thought was right and true was thrown out the window the moment I set foot on campus. I come from a pretty homogenous town, and getting to talk to people from all walks of life — different race, different socioeconomic status, different upbringing, different opinions — made me much more aware of how limited my understanding of the world is. When you start to appreciate the nuances of each person you meet, you too will be able to develop a more comprehensive perspective of this world and its people.
Be on top of your workload — no one else is going to do that for you. This was really difficult for me in the beginning because I’ve never gotten in the habit of using a planner, but I found out you don’t have to use a planner to stay organized. I started using a simple checklist on my phone that helps me focus on my priorities and accomplish what I need to do each day, and it worked really well for me. Poke around and see what can be of aid to you.
Find spots that work for you off campus. As the year went on, it became clear that the on-campus environment could be too much for me to handle sometimes, so I started exploring off-campus spaces, working at a different cafe every day until I figured out which one felt the most comfortable for me. These spaces can give you a moment to breathe away from the sometimes suffocating social and academic scene on campus.
Know what resources are available to you. I didn’t know that Amherst offers funding for its students’ unpaid internships until an upperclassman sent me the application link. After that, I spent two days exploring the Amherst website for any other Easter eggs — of which there were many!
Keep up with school events so you don’t miss out when a prominent figure visits campus. This year, one of my favorite authors, Ta-Nehisi Coates, came to give a talk, and I was shut out of the event because I didn’t sign up fast enough for tickets. That will remain one of my biggest regrets for a long time, I’m sure.
Keep in touch with your parents — this became increasingly hard for me as my workload piled up, but no matter how much adulting you do, you’ll always be your parents’ child. They want to hear about all the new ventures you’re chasing in college, and they’ll want even more to know when you’re having a hard time. Besides, letting them know what’s going on in your life might just increase the chances of receiving a care package during a period of difficulty!
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I know this is cheesy and everyone says it, but in college it’s especially true because you won’t have family members checking in on you every day. No one will be able to tell that you’re struggling unless you tell them first. And if you’re struggling, that’s normal. Each semester brings its own challenges. Rather than waste time and energy pretending they’re not real challenges, reach out and let people know. Check out the counseling center. Talk to your professors. You’ll find that people are much more supportive than you might expect.
At the end of the day, college doesn’t make or break you. There are high points and there are low points. You might not fall in love with your school right away, but as a clever man named Elton Lin once said, “Love is not always at first sight.”
College will be a lot more enjoyable if you make it your mission to make the most out of your experience. Before you know it, you’ll be done with your first year, and you’ll look back and be amazed at how fast it went, the good and the bad. Me personally? I missed Amherst the minute I left, and I can’t wait to go back and see what’s in store.
-- Shawna C., Junior at Amherst College