My impression of “college” was a place that determined who you would be, perhaps permanently. This idea haunted me, because I had repeatedly been told that I needed to obtain a certain level of college education in order to start my life right. If not, well, maybe that was it for me.
In middle school, I told my parents that I didn’t want to go to college. I wanted to be a writer and couldn’t imagine what a college could possibly teach me that I hadn’t already learned from my books. Then I went to a preparatory school in Pennsylvania and got absorbed into the strong college preparatory culture. It almost felt like a game: looking at different statistics and comparing my performance to previous acceptees. The summer after highschool graduation, however, I felt hollow. I still wanted to be a writer but didn’t see the point of studying writing in college. I feared my originality would be stamped out in a classroom setting.
When I finally got to the magical place that supposedly molded you into an adult and set you on a path to be somebody, I soon found out that many were like me: recent overachieving high school graduates, unsure about how they’ll use their college degree.
Although most people were not exactly sure about their career path, they seemed to know what major they wanted to (or at least thought they wanted to) pursue and why — “Molecular and Cellular Biology is the easiest to finish pre-med requirements,” “I want to be a Psychologist,” “I want to go into finance,” “I want to make money,” “I want to cure cancer,” “I want to make a change in the world through XYZ,” and so on. It fascinated me: How did they already know what major they would both enjoy and be good at and what they wanted to be?
If my freshman self could be drawn in a caricature, I would have been a big question mark.
In hindsight I actually knew what I wanted to be: a writer. I was just hesitant to study writing in college for many reasons, like haughtily thinking that writing can’t be taught and wanting to explore what I didn’t know. In freshman year, my primary goal was to try all the majors that I didn’t have the chance to learn about in high school. These majors included International Studies, Cognitive Science, Writing Seminars, Psychology, Computer Science and so on.
I eventually chose Cognitive Science as my major and ended up loving it. I am undoubtedly happy with how my college career turned out: I was given opportunities I would have never imagined a couple years ago, devoted my heart’s content to my major through research projects, met great mentors and found new perspectives I wouldn’t have known prior to studying Cognitive Science.
However I sometimes wish I listened to my gut more — to not doubt myself.
I always liked to think of myself as bold and daring. However, I learned in college that I can just as easily be indecisive and an overthinker. I was afraid of what was at stake when, in fact, it was not all that important.
I now know college is not a place where your life is determined. Now, it seems closer to a place that shakes the roots of your identity, where you merely start to explore what is out there beyond the scope of your previous knowledge. In a practical sense, as students in the U.S. higher education system, our life path is so malleable with the numerous post-baccalaureate programs and career changers. In a more philosophical sense, we are too young, and there are so many unforeseen obstacles and opportunities that can lead us to paths that we would have never thought of a year ago. In short, nothing needs to be set in stone.
Even just over the last four years, I have seen many friends, who once swore they spent their whole lives wanting to be doctors, decide against going to medical school after being disappointed by the U.S. healthcare system during the coronavirus pandemic. I have also seen a friend, who said she was a Chemistry major in the first week of classes but was clearly not interested in pursuing science as a career, drop out of college to become an artist. I have also seen friends who have taken multiple gap semesters to understand who they are and what they want to do in life — including myself who also took a gap semester. On the day of graduation, each one of us will have taken a different path to get there.
If I was a freshman again, I might have considered choosing Writing Seminars more seriously, despite how much I have loved Cognitive Science. I would take more classes I am interested in rather than taking classes I thought would be “educational” or “helpful”. Most classes are educational, of course, but the degree of how much information I will absorb depends on how invested and how interested I am in the course material. For example, some of the most memorable and impactful classes I have taken were during my freshman year, and I still remember texts I read for those classes. On the other hand, I don’t remember what I learned from a class I took last semester to the same degree because it was not as gripping. I would worry less because I now know that post-college doesn’t mean I can’t make new choices again.
But all of this is wishful thinking.
To be honest I might end up choosing the exact same path as I did the first time around, even if I somehow time traveled back to 2018. Without the experiences I had, I may not even reach the same conclusion I make today. Perhaps I would have regretted not trying to push myself in other directions if I stuck with just writing.
What I do know now is that, just as college wasn’t the ultimate determiner, I will also be able to make new choices after graduation. I am excited to find out who I will become and what choices I will make. I hope I’ll be pleasantly surprised.