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A huge portion of non-journalistic articles on this blog circles around my life experiences and what little lessons I’ve been able to siphon from those events. Some of them apply to just about anyone, some are unique to me. Nevertheless, it’s always refreshing to dedicate a few hours to writing about them, reflecting on my past, and looking forward to a future where I learn from said lessons and swerve the mistakes that I’ve stumbled over in the past.
I’ve been on a gap year since May of 2020, my last chapter of education being college. As of this time of writing, I have less than two months before I board a plane headed for university, and it seems as good a time as ever to rewind the clock, so here we are with a ‘lessons from college’-esque piece, advice that I’ve picked up here and there while tucked in a scoliosis-inducing chair inside of a college classroom.
THIS ISN’T HIGH SCHOOL ANYMORE
It’s tempting to think that college is simply an upgraded version of high school because most people despise change; it’s easier to accept that something is a better model of the old rather than a new set of toys whose functions you have to relearn.
The obvious difference between the two institutions is the mode of learning. High school, if you have attended one in Malaysia, is more or less a spoon-fed experience; college is when you’d have to step into your big boy/girl shoes and, well, grow up. College, aside from the classes, is a place where you learn what it means to be a functioning adult (the key here is to learn, not necessarily to succeed as a functioning, responsible adult, because who doesn’t fail their first few times?).
Hence, it would be wrong to view this phase of your life as simply another ground for absorbing new textbook knowledge. Look at the bigger picture; understand that you can discover the full scale of your potentials here and widen the networking net you’ve cast. This is the moment the flightless bird gets pushed out of the nest.
YOU CAN’T BE FRIENDS WITH EVERYONE
That’s not how college or any institution works, for that matter. One of my worst traits is wanting to please everyone around me and it took me too long to come to terms with the impossibility of it all. The road to success is not devoid of naysayers who will nitpick at the slightest things to drag you down; the existence of those people is not your fault, but whether or not you let their nonsensical claims get under your skin is something you can control.
No successful person has gotten to where they are in life without enduring a handful of baseless cavils and illogical rumors; what sets them apart from those who dwell at rock bottom is their attitude. Instead of burning yourself out and spreading yourself thin to satisfy everyone to the extent of breaking your back, maintain fewer but more quality connections with those who reciprocate your intentions. That way, you walk away knowing that the friendships and relationships you’ve fostered are genuine and worth your efforts.
OH, THE COLLEGE COPYCATS
Dear reader, you will have to excuse me for displaying a terribly sour attitude upon the discussion of this very topic. If there is one thing I hold a zero-tolerance policy for, it is word-by-word plagiarism. Should you ask someone for pointers and consequently produce a paper containing a similar argument, that is fine by me, I have absolutely no comments; however, if you ask a peer for their paper to ‘reference’ and end up submitting the paper verbatim, screw you.
While this might stir up some disagreements, my stance is unwavering on this issue: If you are in college simply to burn money and live off your peers’ works, why are you in college at all? Academic integrity is something sacred to uphold and speaks volumes about your personal values; losing that integrity paves the way for questions such as Are you capable of producing original ideas? Should you be granted this scholarly spot when there could be someone else more deserving? If you get away unscathed with this plagiarism, does your degree still amount to the same value as that of the kid who pioneered their very own thesis?
It’s unfortunate that I have to say I’ve been on the asking end of these questions one too many times during college. I suppose the worst part of it all is the preposterous excuses the copiers will conjure when confronted, which I will not disclose in this article. With a heavy sigh, I guess all I have to say is that if you have the audacity to resort to plagiarism, at least have the guts to own up to it rather than crafting some flimsy defense that will make my ancestors roll over in their grave.
THEIR WIN IS NOT YOUR LOSS
My perception of winning and losing has been skewed ever since I was imparted the wrongful “second place is first loser” lesson in high school. Needless to say, the environment I got my education from was also a competitive one (see Why You No Doctor?).
This is something I tried to shake off in college, to little avail. If you were to ask me the greatest failure in my life to date, I would cite the Presidential Election of 2019. Before anyone unleashes their inner political debater on me, I’m talking about the race for president in my previous student council. This story brings up a bitter sentiment for me and the many who were present at the election would think me childish and foolish to still be hung up over what they consider an insignificant event; however, I like learning from my mistakes, and see no harm in a quick reflection.
If there is one thing I love more than pizza, it would be winning; let’s put our guards down and be honest: who doesn’t like the electrifying sensation of winning? The election was something I poured my heart and soul into preparing for, it was a position I’ve been vying for forever; when you devote a shipload of effort and preparation into something, you expect to be rewarded. Sadly, the creator of our universe was in dire need of entertainment at the time and decided it would be great to have me lose the election by points countable on one hand.
I had all this pent-up desolation with no outlet to deflate, and all I could hear in my head was the same saying: “Second place is first loser”. After talking to a few of my seniors, I started opening up, accepting the alternative that is focusing on what I’ve achieved instead of what I lost—namely, the seat of vice president.
Comparing ourselves to others is a self-destructive behavior because there will always be someone better, someone who has what we want. So instead of viewing someone’s win as your loss, think about what you gained in the process, think about how you can do better next time. That is how you get ahead.
EVERYBODY LOVES GROUP PROJECTS… SIKE!
It is my personal belief that if you have never suffered through group projects and are consistently blessed with groupmates who do their parts on time and without plagiarizing at least once, you are God’s favorite. I have yet to meet a student who derives happiness from doing group work; the fact of the matter is that something is always bound to go awry in group projects. There is either a lack of communication or some kid just decides it would be a super original and brilliant idea to copy half the Wikipedia page the night before submission. At this rate, it is a universally acknowledged truth that group work sucks.
The way I see it, however, it is meant to suck. College group work is meant to prep us for all the upcoming team projects in our university life and career. High school group work (at least the ones I’ve been put through) are a breeze because the teacher often designates the roles and hands you a step-by-step manual that is impossible to stray from. In college? You and the four kids you don’t talk to in class are cast into a pitch-black pit filled with monsters, with no weapons to fight with. Then, for some kids, it’s a game of “if I stay silent in the shadows, I might survive while some idiot volunteers to do all the fighting”.
The most realistic part of college group projects is you seldom get to choose your work partner, which emulates the current workplace. There will be disagreements and dissatisfaction, heck, you might even think you’re better off completing all the work alone! But that’s the lesson: To hold hands and put on a happy face even when you don’t want to.
Cynical as it sounds, real life requires us to put on a smile and suffer silently, which is a whole other issue in and of itself that we will refrain from discussing today. The more group work you endure, the better you will hone your delegation and negotiation skills; communication begins to flow easier and you get a grip of how to work with a range of attitudes and work ethics.
But you know I have to add on: For the love of God, do your part in group works and actually earn your degree instead of being an eternal free-rider.
DISAGREE, BUT WITH ALTERNATIVES
In any given setting, if you are going to dislodge someone’s idea, make sure you can present a better solution. For example, if your teammate Lily thinks that playing ‘friendship speed dating’ is the best icebreaker game but you think the players will only freeze up and remain awkward, then point that out respectfully. Then, follow up by suggesting a better icebreaker game that avoids the problems you just pointed out.
This not only strengthens your critical thinking skills (which are in high demand in today’s workforce), it also gives off the impression that you can identify flaws and work around them. This is probably the shortest but best lesson I’ve learned from college and yes, I’ve chosen to hide it in the middle of this article so only those who take the time to read will stumble upon this gem (chaotic neutral vibes, anyone?). A quick shoutout to my Critical Thinking class for imparting this to me, it has facilitated fruitful discussions for me ever since.
LEARN TO SAY ‘NO’
It’s a predator versus prey world. Those who are weak get stepped on by the powerful so the latter can get where they want to go faster. While we would love to think all human interactions we encounter are sincere, that is often not the case. It’s not a teachable skill, but learn how to identify scenarios where you are being manipulated or guilt-tripped into doing something for someone else that doesn’t benefit you (of course, helping out a friend in need does not fall under this umbrella).
Assess your priorities and know when to piece together the fourteenth and fifteenth letters in the alphabet. Take off the rose-colored glasses honey; as pessimistic as it sounds, it’s a dog-eat-dog world and you have to look out for number one sometimes.
These are your mixers, your meals, and spontaneous nights out every chance you can snatch. I cannot stress just how much I’ve learned from my peers and seniors simply through the accumulated lunches and dinners I’ve attended. Sure, these hangouts might run long, but in the long run, a highly intelligent supernova genius with no friends or connections will not amount to much—returning to the adage that no man is an island.
Your education does not live merely within textbook pages; a big part of college and university is learning through your surroundings and people. While everybody owns the same copy of textbook, there ought to be some shoes your peers have been in that you will never walk in; so perk those ears, listen and learn.
Of course, it goes without saying that having friends to navigate waters together is just part and parcel of the experience. I still keep in touch with some friends from college and it’s great to catch up once in a while.
THE PINTEREST STUDENT
You cannot be put together all the time: Shake off the perception that higher education students should show up for classes with a cup of coffee, AirPods, aesthetically written iPad notes, and a Uniqlo sweater because this isn’t a Hollywood coming-of-age film. Education after high school is stressful no matter the subject or who the recipient is; sure, some might excel at covering up their stress and lack of sleep, but trust me when I say nobody is stress-less (unless you’re the prick who gets by copying other people’s works).
Just know that everybody is in the same boat, trying to make it past the same storm.
THIS IS (NOT) A JUDGMENT-FREE ZONE
Social media, lifestyle gurus, the internet, and possibly your therapist will tell you we should go about life without judging others because it’s impossible to know the full story of somebody else. While that applies to an array of issues (personal or otherwise), it’s not always achievable.
Judgment is one of the innate abilities of humans; it’s how we make decisions, especially in cutthroat environments such as college. People are going to formulate their own opinions inside and outside the classroom, toward an argumentative prompt or a person. Either way, don’t walk around campus expecting to remain as clean as fresh parchment. People always have something to say but it doesn’t automatically mean they are right or that you should respond.
STOP WAITING FOR PEOPLE TO TELL YOU WHAT TO DO
The fundamental difference between tertiary education and high school (aside from material and syllabus) is that you are no longer spoon-fed, as aforementioned. You’re done being potty-trained how to learn and it’s time you learn how to learn on our own. That was a mind-twister.
What I’m saying is, step out of that comfortable bubble and throw yourself into the deep end. Fail and learn. Succeed and learn. Take risks and initiatives because that’s the gateway to growing as a person. Sitting around like a duck and keeping your head low in class is something all of us know how to do, but we owe it to ourselves to try more than that.
To label my college experience as a bad one and store it away in my mental attic would do the thousands of tuition ringgit paid no justice; it was a less-than-satisfactory one, undoubtedly, but I walked away knowing more than when I first walked through its gates. And I suppose, any situation that you walk away from as a better version of yourself can’t be that bad after all.