On Reflection

holidaysStrewn across my table are hectically scribbled notes from twelve weeks, tightly printed papers left to read, and a grim list of to-dos for the next forty eight hours—the countdown to my first final exercise deadline. Racing through pages of divergence theorem and Poisson distribution, I can’t help but feel a little agitated at myself for my management inadequacies for much of the semester. Times and times again I’ve been admonished that freshmen year won’t be exactly what I expect and many adjustments must be made, but I didn’t pay too much heed.

Reflecting on the past few months as I brace myself for the barrage of culminating exams, I wish I hadn’t turned off my ears to advices from my family, friends, and upperclassmen.

Though I’ve been told that college is a place and time to explore who I am rather than to materialize a preconceived notion of what I should become, I funneled myself into a sequence of math-heavy introductory courses, dropping the one creative writing workshop I was selected for just to cross off a few items on a typical graduate school’s list of prerequisites. Looking back, I had missed out on an opportunity to pursue my own interests even with more freedom and free time, having excused myself from writing, ceramics, orchestra, and close- up magic simply to stay afloat in multivariable calculus. Hence, my college academic life for the past semester almost seemed like a replay of high school, though I had only eighteen hours of classes per week compared to thirty five. I lived on a razor’s edge where “every A is a fix that temporarily quells the anxiety of failure, the terror of falling short” to quote from the Excellent Sheep.

To make matters worse beyond cryptic problem sets and jam-packed lectures, unlike in high school where sufficient practice with regurgitating formulas will seal the deal, college classes do not cut the slack, something I didn’t quite grasp until two weeks ago. Dauntingly long textbook readings can no longer be short-changed by internet notes; Google failed to answer questions I neglected during biology lab. Forty plus hours spent with three hundred past midterm problems for multivariable calculus a few days before garnered me slightly above 50 percent on my first exam. For most of us who never paled at the thought of academics, coping with the initial shock of college rigor called for some grit. As a graduate student said to me, “If you don’t put your mind and soul into what you do—following the daily reading schedule, understand the problem sets, ask for clarification in class—you will always be twenty inches away from doing a good job.”

Ultimately, I probably should have spent more time during the summer before college to research courses and evaluate my aspirations. A large part of my course selection rationale derived from my mother, who insisted, after pedantically studying Fortune Magazine from cover to cover, that certain majors are more lucrative than others. Taking pre-med, computer science, or engineering courses will put you in a safety box, or so it seems. Thus, ignoring my limitations, I registered for four courses a day before the semester started, only to learn soon that I cannot excel at something unless I truly enjoy it.

Here’s hoping for a more meaningful semester!

Jessica Li, Quest Scholar, Princeton ’18