Image from Flickr

Image from Flickr

College freshmen aren’t expected to do much. Bad grades? That’s ok, you’re a freshman. Can’t balance social life and academics? That’s ok, you’re a freshman. In the end, they sound like excuses folded into a thin line of truth. The better question, then, is not why certain things are not going to plan in freshman year, but rather, should they be going to plan? Should you go in knowing your major, taking all of the classes that fulfill degree requirements with the goal of graduating early, and joining a research group and remote internship in order to land yourself a summer internship?

Seems like that would just about kill freshman year, sucking out the life of this world of new opportunity.

On the flip side, there’s the first year who turns the freshman experience into a social explosion, doing every possible thing that would not (at least directly) lead to the secure job that parents dream of for the future. For a while, that kind of year seems rather worthwhile in itself, but then money insidiously worms its way into your thoughts. With money comes the inevitable quantification of most everything. Is 60k a year worth the amount of partying, class skipping and “fun”?

The cop-out answer to the glaring issue is, simply, to strike a balance. If you want to land an internship at Facebook or Google in freshman year, life during the school year will likely be far, far away from “balanced”. Granted, some people enjoy the perpetual busyness, research projects, and sitting-at-the-computer-in-lieu-of-physical-exercise. And to many extents, it is invaluable, especially when you encounter graduating seniors who regret not interning or cannot find a job despite the pricey education their families paid for.

Is it worth replacing a socially adventurous and fun first year experience with one that is tilted more to academic stress, research projects, and other resume building activities? I’d honestly err more on the side of yes.

No, don’t drive yourself to the point of suicide in order to do well in classes. But note that going to college is increasingly less about enjoying a 4 year life experience than it is about preparation for the real world–unless you’re paying for college completely on your own, to which I say, make it whatever experience you’d like. But as long as there’s some financial dependency on someone else who is looking to your future well being and security, there is an obligation to fulfill those wishes.

The guilt of having fun is a cruel one that sinks in the pit of your conscience, relentless and glaring. Suddenly, college morphs into a Machiavellian ordeal: do the ends justify the means? The guilt is likely inevitable, especially when grades plummet and egos take detrimental hits. But another large part of college is resilience and the ability to rebound and face, often times, harder challenges. In terms of my college first year, in which first semester was characterized by an inundation of clubs and second semester by multiple simultaneously ongoing internships and a research position, I regret nothing.

I am learning far more (and am having much, much more fun) working on coding projects for internships than I am through juggling a rather painful engineering course load. But either way, it’s doable…ish. Being a freshman in college should not be seen so much as a transition as it should be seen a wonderful challenge to push your limits to excelling. The only way to really cope with guilt about personal priorities is to: work hard, play hard, and get your tuition’s worth by trying to get out of school with a job.

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the author

Lucy Zhang attends Duke University and is majoring in electrical and computer engineering. Her passions include watching anime, sleeping, and writing the occasional article or two when productivity levels are high enough.

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