Letters from the Dorm: My freshman year was "a hot mess"; here's why that was a good thing

Joyee Au Yeung

Having to deal with the fact that she was average, a Hong Kong student’s first semester at a US university helped her learn that quality is more important than quantity

Joyee Au Yeung |

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Transitions are hard, but my freshman fall (a US term for autumn) was particularly tough. As an international student, I had to settle down in an unfamiliar country, knowing that almost everyone that I had ever known will be thousands of kilometres away.

All of these difficulties piled on top of my school work, and before I knew it, I was drowning in midterms, readings, and presentations. Under a great amount of stress and motivated only by the urge to prove myself, I did terribly in my first exams. I cried a lot and could not deal with the fact that university was so much more difficult than I had anticipated. I had always considered myself a hardworking and intelligent person, as that was what my life before Penn told me I was. Dealing with the fact that I was average here was terrifying, and it made me feel like I did not belong.

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Club rejections served as the second round of bullets for that semester. When a meeting, a written application, and two rounds of interviews for each club position ended up with a rejection letter, I started asking myself why I was not good enough for those posts.

The number of clubs you were in as a freshman somehow determined a kind of social status on campus. My friends were running back and forth between five club meetings and I was sitting in my room, on my own. I felt so lonely. The surprised looks I got when I said that I was only involved in two clubs stung, and my “impostor syndrome” really kicked in.

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However, it was in those moments of weakness that I really connected with the people that became my close friends. People dropped by to make me tea or they brought sweets to cheer me up, and studied with me just so I could have a shoulder to cry on. I learned that it’s okay to be average or imperfect – it’s normal to take time to adjust to a new environment. Sometimes, letting yourself be vulnerable is the only way to grow.

I still jokingly tell people that my first semester was “a hot mess”, but a lot of it shaped who I am today. I learned how to enjoy my classes, making the studying process a little less painful; and I learned quality is better than quantity and being proactive in one club can mean more than being in five.