3 Biggest Lessons College Taught Me (Freshman Year Edition)

Below I share the 3 biggest lessons I’ve learned in the past year as a freshman in college. I write this as a way of reflecting on my own growth over the past year. The writing is not stellar, as its all rather spontaneous, but I hope that it will resonate with someone.

✍🏼 Lesson 1: Learn to say “No!”

A lot of really smart, really successful people will tell you “Say yes to every opportunity!” and “Do as many things as you can.” They’re not wrong – saying “yes” can certainly land you in wonderful places in several cases. But I think this advice is a bit misleading, and it’s only half the story.

In my (short) experience, when you’re in a place that constantly bombards you with amazing opportunities, there is no way you will be able to “say yes to every opportunity” and still be sane. If you take on every research project, internship, start-up idea, competition, or club activity you come across, you will most likely have no work-life balance or develop crippling depression (unless you are a superhuman).

I learned this the hard way by biting off more work than I could chew. I said “yes” whenever anyone asked me to do something, and took on jobs I didn’t even remotely like. I would constantly pull all nighters to work, but was always distressed, unhappy and tired. And I wasn’t even THAT good at it – I did so many things that I could never fully focus or get a “breakthrough” in any of them!

The change in results came to me not when I said “yes” to everything, but when I started saying “no.” I learned to prioritize, and picked 2-3 things (shoutout to VinMagazine) I loved to pour my heart into, and said “no” politely to everything else. Not only did the quality of my work improve drastically, but I was finally enjoying myself and making time to connect with my friends, family, and hobbies.

The truth is, there will always be a million exciting things you want to try (or could try), but your time, focus and energy is limited. When your focus is divided between 10 tasks, chances are you won’t do very well on any of them. Instead, learning to prioritize a few things that matter most to YOU and going above and beyond will often lead to greater results.

✍🏼 Lesson 2: What you get out of an experience is what you put into it.

Last year I had to take “Academic English” – a writing-focused class that taught us to write Comparison essays, Cause and Effect essays, Argumentative essays, and finally a Research Paper.

I started off hating it. I mean, I already knew how to speak English. Why did I have to take another basic writing class, when I wanted to learn about Space, Culture, Medicine, Evolution… so many other things? For the first few weeks, I sat feeling sorry for myself for “not having the time to learn anything fun” and did the bare minimum. Eventually, I got bored of fooling around and decided to start putting in extra effort. And I mean extra extra.

I started creating challenges for myself. Instead of choosing easy topics to write “easy pass” essays, I started picking difficult topics I was genuinely curious about, but knew nothing of. Or I’d do an argumentative essay but try to argue from the side that I vehemently disagreed with. I almost cried while writing my final research paper, after I’d ploughed through weeks of research but still had no concrete answer for how to eliminate energy inequality. Dan, my teacher, tried to reassure me. “Calm down, Vicky! It’s just an assignment, I’m not expecting you to change the world with this research!” But I still wanted to answer the question. So badly. So I tried, and partially succeeded.

After the course, I ended up learning so much more than I had ever imagined. Not just about “English”… but about Climate Change, Energy, Feminism, Confucianism… All the things I’d been sulking about “not being able to learn.” And I have no doubt that I’d only been able to learn these things because I purposely tried to challenge myself.

Turns out “I can’t learn all these interesting things because my school doesn’t offer these courses!” “I can’t learn because the education system here sucks!” or “I can’t do this, because I don’t have this piece of expensive, professional equipment” are just crummy excuses. I still remember an old friend telling me “If you’re someone who loves learning, you’ll find a way to learn no matter which school you go to or which courses you take. All you need is access to a library and the internet” and I still marvel at how true it is.

✍🏼 Lesson 3: Learning (and probably life) is not a competition.

Lastly, college is full of smart people. Legit. You could have been “the sh*t” in high school, but here it always feels like everyone around you knows more than you do. Not surprisingly, it’s easy to feel inadequate and constantly be comparing yourself to your peers.

I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach when I saw all of my friends getting internships and coming home from work famished each day, while I had just quit my job to read books on the couch. “Everyone is moving forward. Does this mean I’m falling behind?” But then I realized, what is right for them might not be right for me. After all, my friend’s 1st year goal had been get professional experience. My 1st year goal had been to learn about Vietnam’s history and culture. If our goals weren’t even the same, why was I comparing my progress to hers?

You might have heard it a thousand times, but I’ll say it again just in case you need to hear it. We all learn, mature, and grow at our own pace. Someone else succeeding doesn’t mean that you’ve failed, and their successes certainly needn’t come at the cost of your failure. No need to get upset that your friend got higher scores, or is succeeding at something more than you. That just means Vietnam has more smart people, which is literally a good thing. Anyway, we can learn to succeed together.

Oh man, I really hope I don’t get second-hand embarrassment when Facebook notifies me about this 5 years from now. Anyway, it’s been a fun year. If you read until here, thanks! Maybe expect some more posts soon, I’m feeling sentimental.

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