The following was offered to us from Theresa Berger--a 2009 graduate of Pinole Valley High School and an ILC cohort in 2008 attending Professor Kramnick’s Freedom & Justice course at Cornell. Theresa is just completing her first year of studies at George Washington University.
To my fellow ILC students, supporters, Ms. Kronenberg and Mr. Ramsey,
I just finished my first year as a student at George Washington University and my first year living as a respectable young adult in a new world. In the course of just nine short months, I managed to grow what feels at least three years older and essentially plan the next several years of my life. To all of you who just experienced the same thing, I hope you learned just as, if not more than I did and had just as much fun in the process. And to all of you getting ready to begin that chapter, I hope you’re ready for something you’ve never experienced before, hence why I figured I might as well share a bit of my experience and what I learned.
To be completely honest, I hated the first month of school. I had very few friends, missed home, and kept to myself in my room. Attending a well-known private university in the heart of the nation’s capital where a good majority of the students came from private high schools, well-to-do families, and great ambitions was intimidating, lonely, and one of the hardest things I have ever experienced. I didn’t feel smart enough, rich enough, and felt completely out of place. Growing up in the Bay Area where the culture is as diverse, fresh, and exciting as its population and attending a school on the east coast where somewhere around 90% of the student body is white turned out to be a major and unexpected shock. It was humbling to realize how lucky I am to have been able to grow up in the East Bay and attend a public high school as diverse as Pinole Valley, something I learned to become extremely proud of when introducing myself to my peers.
Luckily, however, I soon realized I wasn’t alone in the way I felt about not fitting in. After about a month or so, I decided to get a job and began working as a second grade teacher for an inner-city after school program called “Heads Up.” At around the same time, I began talking to and becoming friends with my coworkers and some of my floormates. While I may not have had the same past as the majority of them, I did have the same present and found that we were all just as nervous, unsure, and confused as the other; we were all freshmen in college, away from home and everything we had ever known. I soon realized that becoming friends with someone wasn’t about finding people who were the “same” as me, but rather it was about learning to bond over our differences and what we could learn from each other. I think it became the most important thing I learned the entire year.
Of course, my social life wasn’t the only thing I was worried about and ended up learning a significant lesson about. One of the main reasons I chose GW was for its academics and the challenges they promised to provide. I would be lying if I said I loved all of my classes, especially the science ones I was forced to take to fulfill my general education requirements and the Biology class that gave the biggest perfectionist in the world the first “C” of her academic career.
Retrospectively, I think it was a good thing and a nice reminder that nobody is perfect and not everything we want and may think we deserve goes as planned.
However, believe me when I say that the amount of material you are exposed to and the individual attention provided by the instructors of a private institution is one of the best things you can ever hope to experience.
My favorite class during my first semester was an upper level Early American Cultural History course I decided to take. I was one of two freshmen in a class of about twenty-five that required close to fifteen hours of reading per week, an intensive amount of writing, and an extremely intimidating discussion section with juniors and seniors in which putting together a coherent sentence was a struggle. Nonetheless, I tried my hardest and learned to not care about what everyone else thought. I loved the material, barely slept, and went to my professor’s office hours almost every week.
Eventually, my hard work and dedication paid off when I got the highest grade in the class. That class inspired me to take a few other American Studies courses, all of which I was one of a few freshmen, and all of which became my absolute favorites. As a result, I am now a declared American Studies major with a concentration in Cultural Studies and Global Connections, and, coupled with my amazing experiences as a Heads Up tutor and a member of the ILC, would like to go into education policy when I graduate.
I finished my first year of college in a position many only dream of being in, with a declared major and a goal to work towards. I was only rewarded as such, however, because I was willing to explore, work hard, and challenge myself, actions I promise will provide you with the best experience possible so long as you give them your all.
I could go on and on about what I learned and about some of my favorite experiences, but I think the above two do well serving as the highlights of my freshman year. Although scary at first, one of the best parts about going to a new school is meeting new people and being able to learn not just about them, but also about you in the process. Embracing difference and developing self-confidence are what help make you as an individual as well as some of the best friends you could ever hope to find. Similarly, taking risks and embracing the most strenuous of academic challenges also build tremendous character and provide rewarding lessons of their own.
College is all about you and what you make of it. And a little selfishness can definitely go a long way.
Cornell University Summer College c/o 2008
Pinole Valley High School c/o 2009
George Washington University c/o 2013