I thought I was prepared for my freshman year of college. I had spent the past four years fastidiously studying and dreaming of the day when I’d finally get to eschew classes like geometry and physics in favor of women’s studies and Marxist social theory. I endured my awkward social standing, sure that once I left my hometown I’d find my “people.”
My freshman year ended up being something of a disaster. It turns out a good SAT score and vague knowledge of a dorm-friendly packing list hardly prepared me for what ended up being an emotionally challenging transition to an entirely new life, in a new place, with new people. I emerged from my first year of college alive, but confused as to why I had been so completely unprepared for the reality of it, especially as a woman.
But instead of feeling defeated, I tried to leverage everything I learned that year and wrote the book I wished I'd had as a rising freshwoman. It turns out a lot of people saw the value in that book, College 101: A Girl's Guide to Freshman Year, as the second edition was just released— an excerpt of which is below.
There’s a popular theory that college is the ultimate opportunity to reinvent oneself. But I’d argue that college actually facilitates the first real opportunity to get to know who we’ve always been, but have been encouraged to repress. Women are especially bred to please others. We’re raised to feel that we must eat, dress, and exist in a way that leads others to perceive us as beautiful. We’re taught that our good grades aren’t so much an indication of our personal knowledge and passion but of how “competitive” we are to attend a certain school. But if we continue to attempt to be flawless ideals rather than authentic, flawed humans, how are we ever supposed to know what we truly want beyond what we’re expected to want?
Applying and going to college may very well be the first time young women, in a society that regularly objectifies and demeans us, are asked to invest in ourselves, to make a choice that will benefit us and revolves around our own self-fulfillment. But we can only take advantage of this opportunity if we have established an identity complete with self-confidence, self-esteem, and assertiveness.
Luckily, college is full of opportunities to freely allow ourselves to figure out who we are. Here are just a few ways you can embrace this opportunity.
Speak your mind. My entire first semester of freshman year, I was too terrified to speak up in any of my classes. I was worried that my peers would judge what I was saying and think it wasn’t insightful enough. I was hyperaware of my freshman status and assumed that upperclassmen had access to a wealth of knowledge that a lowly freshman like me couldn’t comprehend, and therefore shouldn’t challenge by speaking. And, of course, I was just one of many women similarly afraid to overtly project any sort of confidence, while our male freshman peers didn’t think twice about doing so.
In retrospect, holding myself back from speaking was ridiculous. I was being hypercritical of myself: When I finally started speaking in my seminar classes, I never embarrassed myself; I just benefited from contributing to a discussion, which, it turns out, is a really valuable part of your education. I also realized there wasn’t any blinking neon sign following me around, demarcating my freshman status—my comments and presence in class were taken at face value. A college education is not about sitting lifelessly in a lecture, alternating between taking notes, daydreaming about guest-starring on Jane The Virgin and befriending Gina Rodriguez, and online shopping. It’s about engaging. And I recognize that sounds like very official, textbook advice, but it’s so true: You gain so much more by actively participating in your classes—it’s the difference between being taught and learning. Also, being able to offer your opinion and speak in front of a group are really vital life skills—they’ll be relevant and hugely important to whatever work you end up doing, especially as a woman. I promise you that.
Try something you’re afraid you’ll be horrible at. Young women often view the college experience as another step in their quest for perfection. We envision a perfect experience because that’s the standard to which young women are held to generally in this society: The prospect of anything less is a failure because there is no intermediary alternative. And so, we often hold ourselves back. We restrain ourselves to doing only what we know we can out of a fear of failure.
College is the perfect time to embrace this fear. If doing something terrifies you, it’s one of the best reasons to pursue it. One of the things you’ll likely find in college is that everything is at your fingertips if only you embrace fear and gather the courage to reach for it.
Have you always loved singing, but only to the audience of your shampoo and showerhead? Have you always had strong opinions, but a fear of public speaking? Now is seriously one of your last chances to truly explore a hidden talent or unexplored interest. Any adult will tell you that once you’re a “real person” with a “real job,” it becomes infinitely more difficult to pursue such things. And who knows? You could get involved with something that changes your life—whether it changes the course of your study, shapes your social life, or just makes you feel fulfilled and happy, you wouldn’t be the first person to be positively impacted by embracing the possibility of failure.
Befriend somebody you don’t think you’ll get along with. It’s so easy to relegate yourself to hanging out with the same type of people you did in high school: If you’re a theater person, it’s easy to gravitate toward other people in the drama program; if you’re an environmentalist, there are undoubtedly countless eco-enthusiasts ready to reach out to you. But college campuses are full of passionate students with unique talents and great intellect. Make it your personal mission to find somebody radically different from yourself and befriend him or her. Although it’s great to find people who understand you on an intimate level, who can relate to you in a specific way, it’s also vitally important to meet people who can expose you to completely different perspectives and values. Maybe the friendship will work in the long term and maybe it won’t, but it will definitely be a valuable experience in some way.
Because you are a special snowflake, I can’t tell you exactly what to do to fully take advantage of your college experience. But I will encourage you to try some of the aforementioned things so you can figure out who the hell you are. Our society does a good enough job of actively sexualizing women and breeding us to believe that there is no deeper self to invest in beyond our bodies, which only exist to please and/or attract men, without us giving in and helping them. And what better venue to try to figure this out than one that’s pretty forgiving and full of a bunch of diverse options and influencing forces, both academic and social?