5 things every undergraduate should experience

I’ve put this off for some time I know. Despite my finals ending on the first day of exams, I’ve been mainly busy with gaining gainful employment (which I have, thankfully) and finishing up long overdue work at my part time work.

I first thought of doing something like this when a friend told me to watch Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement speech for UC Berkeley recently. At one point she talked about breaking down and confiding in a friend, 11 days before her husband’s death anniversary. She asked, how would we live if we had 11 days left?

It was an incredibly unthinkable thought for me, and quite likely the last thing on most of the graduate’s minds. And yet it was a poignant reminder that life is fragile and yet precious. Graduation represents the end of one’s formal education, a journey that most will toil and trouble through, cursing constantly at every misstep, every failure and every unmet expectation. To go through all that and be told that 11 days is all we have left of our life ahead of us, really sets things into perspective.

I thought for a moment what is it that I would do if I had 11 days left. I’ve always wanted to make a difference. I wanted to influence people. I wanted to share my experiences and make sure that they wouldn’t make the same missteps that I did.

So perhaps someday someone, on the verge or in the midst of their undergraduate journey may chance upon this article and hear (or read) my two cent’s worth. I’ll try to make it as general as possible, but do note that I come from a business background.

Here’s the 5 things I wished I had (or already have had) experienced in my 3 years of undergraduate life.

1. Get a lousy grade

I don’t mean to seek controversy but I sincerely believe in this. It’s a familiar story. You see everyday examples of students getting such perfect grades that they cannot even afford to score an A-. People who take up electives if and only if they are confident of scoring an A for it. There is no room for failure.

Maybe we should go back to the reason why we have chosen this route. To enroll in an university and get a degree and probably find a job or further your studies AND THEN find a job. Having perfect grades could probably help (its no longer a guarantee, as even Big 4 firms like Deloitte and PwC is moving away from hiring based on grades) get your ideal job. But here’s why getting lousy grades are better.

Firstly, it breaks apart that sense of vulnerability you have towards your grades. Your grades are holding you hostage – one grade too low and you don’t quite make it. That moment when you check your results after the summer/winter break and realize you screwed up some subject isn’t the end of the world. I’ve experienced it in my second year. What happened next was the stark realization that, alright I’ve screwed up. But what I realized next was that I could either wallow in misery and rue the loss of my grades OR appreciate the fact that since that particular grade class isn’t going to be achievable anymore, I can actually focus on other aspects of “doing well”.

And that brings me to the second point. Without that much concern over my grades anymore, I realized that I was able to genuinely learn like I have never been able to before. I did not care about class participation anymore. I thought that would lead to me clamming up more but instead something weird happened. Instead of only speaking up when the profs asked a question (baiting the students and painfully waiting for a reply), I began to question and ask my own questions. I spent more effort on creating mind maps and notes, sometimes just days before finals. My peers asked me why in the world would I spend so much effort on something that may not even be tested, and even share it voluntarily with everyone else. I stood by the fact that I believe it would be easier to refer to these in the future and eventually I did find myself constantly referring to my old notes when I was in my final semester.

Finally, grades are one dimensional. If you are going to score a perfect GPA 5.0 (or 4.0 or 3.0), its ultimately not enough because someone else can do the same. In the rat race that is the undergraduate job hunt, it’s not enough to arm yourself with this one weapon. You can’t possibly go into an interview and say like, “yeah my grades are pretty decent”. No shit sherlock your grades are on your resume (and if its not, we are done here). You’ve got to arm yourself with more and that means stuff like your CCAs, startup ventures and social initiatives. The beauty about all of these is how unique they are, and hence harder to compare to each other. In other words, its a blank canvass for you.

2. Make friends in more than 1 circle.

We definitely have friends within our field of study, be it from tutorials, project groups or orientation camps. It’s easy to stick close to this bunch because it eventually becomes part of your comfort zone, where you will always have commonalities to talk about etc. Making friends from other areas such as interest groups or from your hostels will exponentially widen your network and understanding of the school. There will also be points in your life when you might need help from somebody who can do graphic design to Chinese copywriting to using plasma wakefields driven by a proton bunch to accelerate charged particles (or maybe not).

Also, diversifying your friendships does not necessarily mean forsaking any one of them. I used to find myself close to both my orientation friends as well as my hostel friends, being one of the group leaders for both orientation camps. There will be times when priorities clash and you can’t be at two places at once but all will be well so long as you come across as sincere about it.

3. Do not be afraid to make a different decision (be it in studies, life or which damn library/study area to mug at)

My university life started with me being drafted into a different orientation group as my 2 secondary school friends (we were supposedly to be in the same group). Back then, I realized that being different is difficult. But difficult doesn’t mean it can’t end up well. I faced the choice to stick with convention many times throughout these 3 years and I must say that it takes moral courage to stick up for yourself, and that it pays off too.

With more than a thousand students in my field of study, I made the choice to join a degree specialization with little over a 30 students. Most of my friends went into the more common specs like marketing or banking & finance and had an already established network of friends to do their projects with. I remember my first semester in year 2 for waving hi and bye to my close friends while we head off for different classes. Most of the time I was heading to the canteen to eat lunch by myself. It was a stark difference compared to year 1 where our group of friends could easily take up one whole table and chill for hours on ends. But it was worth it as I took up a huge interest in Business Analytics (check out my review here) which forged my career path and most importantly answered the most important question in everybody’s university life (“What do you want to do with your life?”).

I made a drastically different decision to go to Nepal instead of the tried and tested countries like Laos, Vietnam or Cambodia for the year that I chaired my hostel’s Overseas Exposure Program. I did so because I followed my heart and a cause I believed in, having had a fateful encounter on the way up to Everest Base Camp a few years ago. Even though disaster struck in the form of the 2015 Nepal Earthquake and the trip was cancelled, I found peace with the fact that I have at least visited the beautiful country twice and will be back again.

I ended my last paper of my entire university life without attempting one whole part of a question. I did the paper differently from the rest (which my friend behind me attested to, having seen my method and what the other students were doing) because it was the proper way to do so, despite being slower and potentially not giving me enough time to finish the paper. It reminded me of consequentialism and kantian theories at that time, as I was more concerned with the approach, the “how” of doing things, compared to the consequences of it. This brings me back to the point about true learning. Learning takes place anytime and anywhere. We don’t learn just to perform and “slay” the final paper. I proved to myself in my last academic act that I am prepared to learn at the expense of my grades and I am proud (somewhat) of that. (for the record I still a managed a decent grade for that paper)

Point is, do not be afraid to be justifiably different. I say justifiably because there really is no point in being a rebel without a cause.

4. Overload yourself (be it in terms of work, side ventures, relationships or literally module overload)

It’s easy to say this now but I feel that I have learnt the most from being at the various breaking points of my life.

Go out there and don’t be afraid of this question that will always be at the back of your mind: “Will I be able to cope?”. Alright, unless if you are already like president of 3 clubs and taking up 2 part time internships and overloading 5 core modules perhaps you should reconsider. BUT. We are always afraid of stepping out of our comfort zones. To step out of the comfort zone we have to first realize we are comfortable in it. That’s the “If I don’t do so much extra stuff this semester I will be able to pull up my grades!” speaking and no it does not work that way.

Overloading will develop a form of resilience in you that sticks and stays. Its the voice that comes back to you in the toughest of times and tell you “you have been through worse shit than this before, so what’s stopping you now?”. My first ever semester was quite solely focused on my studies and I eventually got through with mediocre grades. My second semester was on the contrary hell compared to the first. Cheerleading and dance finals took up the entirety of the first half of the semester, effectively making me a part time student. I also had canvassing work for 2 orientation camps and a overseas expedition to help with. Out of all these, I was forced to prioritize my time and efforts. To my surprise, I eventually finished that semester one grade class higher than my previous semester.

More importantly, we are at our prime to overload ourselves with side ventures. While you still have the capacity, go ahead and take up the part time internship, go for that hackathon or case competition, start your own venture or social initiative. There will be times when you feel that twinge of regret (I had to attend a 2-day workshop 4 days before an important finals and it DID affect my grades a little) or feel that it is impossible to cope (I had to take 2 weeks off my part time internship to catch up with school, which didn’t go down well with my supervisor). But it will all pay off, and we have to trust that it will. Which brings us to the last point.

5. The power of networking

Alright, I can already hear the “Seriously?? Networking??”, but hear me out. People who know me will never believe I am saying this about networking but it works. It depends on what perspective you adopt towards networking. What I mean is the literal meaning of a network, and that is the way how different and seemingly unrelated facets of your life can somehow come together in a positive way.

Steve Jobs talked about how we must trust that the dots will connect and to experience the power of networking, we must trust in the process and recognize opportunity when we see it. We must also be hardworking enough such that when we do see it, we will be able to make the most of it.

Trusting in the process: we often overthink our career choices or try to engineer for success. Rather, expand your circles, join events (networking, seminars, conferences) that you genuinely have interest in. I found myself benefiting from such when I was involved in a side venture with a few friends and found a potential mentor in a separate social enterprise I was volunteering at. Not long after a fellow volunteer introduced me to a friend of hers that provided me with advice for the venture too.

Hard work: In the end, I believe that even in university, hard work still pays off. It’s the constant strive to keep at the top of your game and it applies to networking too. I have been to so many career fairs that my friends (or job buddies) don’t even tag along anymore. Ultimately, I did not give up and went for my last career fair on my own. One thing led to another (a story for another time) and I got an unexpected interview with one of my ideal company.

So, trust that it will all fit in the end. And to my friends who ask why are they not where they want to be, or how come things are not fitting well for them, its all about perspective (Note to self: this is quite the counter-argument :P).

 

Well this brings to an end one of the more fateful chapters of my life. Whoever you are reading this, thank you for reading this very long-breathed piece and feel free to share your experiences too, personally or in the comments below.

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3 thoughts on “5 things every undergraduate should experience

  1. Bro, this is so damned well written man. Cheers and all the best in your future endeavours, i’ll check this space out when you post more stuff in the future

    Like

  2. Couldn’t agree more. I think overloading and packing as much as possible in is a tricky line to walk. Having friends in multiple circles has been the highlight of my university experience for sure. Lee

    Like

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