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Life at Michigan: Little Fish, Big Pond

Do you ever feel like you are in a situation where there is never enough you can do to stand out? This is how I have felt my entire life.

I would say my story is pretty typical. I am a twenty-one year old female who is currently in my third-and-a-half year of my college education. Third-and-a-half, what does that mean? I am graduating early, but only a semester early. Was this always in my plan? No. Do I feel like I need to do it? Yes, because it makes me stand out.

Standing out, isn’t that what everyone wants to do these days? When our parents were younger, they finished high school, went to college, and got a job. Times have changed. More and more people are going to college, making employment more competitive than ever. The biggest focus of my time here has been finding a way to secure that I am the one getting the future I want over others. But I am one of many with this same dream.

From the time I was in the ninth grade, the concept of college in general seemed surreal to me. Prior to high school, like many, I had yet to find my goals, ambitions, confidence, and myself. So I struggled. My teachers did not have any confidence in me, recommending I be placed into all lower level courses beginning in high school. When I asked to be placed in advanced courses, they did not listen, telling me I wouldn’t be able to handle it. My whole life I had been told, “You can do it,” and all of a sudden I was being told “You can’t do it.”

I am currently unsure as to whether my actions were provoked by self comparison theory, or plain discouragement; however, I knew that I had to be like everyone else in order to defeat my own self insecurities, I gave my parents consent to sign paperwork to push me out of standard level classes and into accelerated ninth grade classes. Something about the pressure caused me to finally begin to care, and I found a way to turn my failures into successes. I pushed myself through a rigorous high school curriculum, fighting against 300 something other students trying to do the same. The struggle had never felt so intense. Let me repeat, intense: the perfect adjective used to describe my high school. I come from a town of cutthroat rigor, tremendous pressure, and competition. Kids in my high school would do anything to get that A, because nothing less was acceptable. I watched my friends progress through classes, the SAT, and the entirety of the college process, watching a multitude of tears, fights, and struggles.  The air hung with a scent of anxiety on a regular basis. And this was just to get into college, the first step of a very long struggle.

“Congratulations, you’re a Wolverine, how does it feel?” read my acceptance to the University of Michigan on December 16, 2011, at 9:00 p.m. I bounced up and down, watching my dad stand in the driveway clothed entirely in maize and blue, in tears, playing “Hail to the Victors” on his electronic device. Daddy’s “little engine that could” all of a sudden had been accepted into his graduate alma mater.

Pause right there. I was thrilled, but I was not unique. I was one of 45 students in my high school accepted that day to the same school. Three weeks from then, I rescinded all of my other applications and mailed in my check. My father told me something very valuable, something I will never forget: “Getting into college is the hardest part. Once you are in, it’s all a breeze.” I have always looked up to my father, but more importantly, I have always trusted him. For the first time, I regret that decision because he was wrong. His intentions may have been benign, but that was not the reality of college.

Attending the University of Michigan may be one of the most intense struggles of a lifetime. While the idea of a cutthroat environment is anything but novel to me, having grown up attending a top-ranked school district, U of M brings this to a whole new level. First of all, there is that initial shock because of the common notion, “I thought high school AP classes would prepare me for college.” They didn’t. That shock sets in when you first talk to your GSI and they say to you, “Why on earth are you writing a five paragraph essay? What is this, high school?” Your first draft in Great Books 192, English 125, whatever your lower level writing requirement it is, gives you that taste of reality.  Okay, so as a result, you learn how to write the basic-thesis format. It’s helpful for any analytic paper.

The true issue that underlies the entire experience is not merely what you do in school, but what you do out of school.  Currently a junior, I am once again a small fish swimming in a large pond. I am grade thirsty, competitive, and a perfectionist. I study psychology, and more importantly, relationships. Concentrating in mostly social psychology-oriented classes, I have learned to frame, persuade, negotiate, deduct, and understand. How fitting, I want to be a lawyer. I want to spend my day solving puzzles, finding loopholes, and justifying action based on thought processes. I want to read. I want to be an academic. I have spent time learning to write cohesive pieces, understand, and develop a sophisticated thought process.

Newsflash, though: I am one of hundreds of people that want to do this. Law school applications may be down, but anxiety is up everywhere. I live with three pre-business roommates, one pre-med, and one aspiring actuary, double majoring in economics and actuarial sciences. One of my roommates is pursuing three degrees, all in highly selective programs. I have surrounded myself with them, and an extensive group of friends and peers who are involved each in a minimum of two clubs, one honors society, and all having had extensive summer internships and jobs. Currently, I am holding onto a mirror image of that identity.

So what makes me different from everyone else? The lesson I have learned in college is that there is no right answer. Watching the various recruitment processes has led me to believe that I am currently not doing enough with my life. I will be working as a legal assistant in New York City this summer and most likely taking on another job, I am in an honors society, three clubs, I volunteer regularly, have had two summer internships and years of work experience. So why am I not doing enough right now? Does everyone feel this way? The answer is yes. Overcome your myopia. Look past the tip of your nose and realize we are all doing the same thing, worrying about our futures.

Ladies and gentlemen, college students of the University of Michigan and company, you are all very special. What I have concluded from watching stress, as well as feeling its effects myself, is that we are all overly qualified, with perfect resumes. We all experience the hardship of competition in one way or another, and continue to feel to pain. Persevere, and you will succeed. It sounds cliché, but what more can one do? Can a student sit and beat herself or himself up because something does not go quite as they had been expected it to go?

The mistake I have made myself is getting caught up in the pain and stress of college. At the end of the day, school is a valuable experience. The most important thing is not to do everything, just to do it. Join a club because you like the fundraisers, meetings, and activities. Take a class because you are just dying to better understand the Arab Israeli Conflict and politics of the Middle East. Embrace the opportunities that the university gives you. Stop worrying about the grade, the percentage, and the GPA. The most successful students are those who take a class, and walk out having learned something meaningful. The most difficult thing to do in life is to take your own advice. I am hardly guilty of that, but here is some honesty: you are not a little fish in a big pond. You are unique. The key to nailing that absolutely perfect future is by not letting it run your life. Sit back, enjoy all that college has provided for you, and you will find the ride a lot more satisfying, not to mention the end results.  

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