college

2017: Life’s Surprise Roundhouse Kick

by Erica.

2016 was life’s forecasted left hook, with the expected difficulties that came along with graduating high school, saying goodbye to home, and moving halfway across the country for college. But 2017 felt like a surprise roundhouse kick to the face—a surprise because I didn’t know life even knew how to kick—followed by a display of the phrase “kicking him while he’s down”, as if I needed an explanation of what that idiom meant.

After an uneventful start to my year, a number of unaddressed issues in my life decided to coalesce, dragging me to the ground, leaving me flailing on the floor (sometimes literally) from March to May. I had never really cried before college, but there I was, crying in front of a priest I had just met five minutes before, mopping up my tears and mascara with the box of tissues on his office desk.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I hit summer, where peace was promised, and where I could sit and reflect on the past few months of emotional Inferno in solace. But the quietness became crippling after day one and the emptiness only provided room for more stress and breakdowns in the void that school and tests typically filled.

So I breathed another sigh of relief when summer ended and school began again. But even then I was not content, reverting to a period of feeling depressed again, some days unable to get out of bed, some days refusing to function. Then, as if I wasn’t already miserable enough, the one thing I had managed to hold on to the entire year—my grades—faltered too, with a string of really bad test scores making me wonder if I was still the same human being that I was in high school.

People kept telling me that “GPA isn’t everything”, and while that is true, it became difficult to let that comfort me when these same people were excelling in their own classes and didn’t just fail two midterms and a final like I did. It felt like the one thing I had to cling on to while struggling to mitigate the damage in every other aspect of my life—emotional, spiritual, physical—was my ability to do well in school, but after my fifth bad grade and my sixth week of feeling mentally numb I could only shake my head and wonder what’s next, Lord? because I truly did not know what to do next.

But this past year has been filled with realizations of the ways in which I need to grow, not despite these lows but because of them. There were many slow nights this summer that I sat on the Liberal Arts building patio, sometimes journaling, sometimes praying, sometimes crying, sometimes all three, relinquishing any idea that I ever had total control over my life. It admittedly has been a long, slow struggle to understand that God’s intentions for my life and the ways in which He works are something that I may never fully grasp, but no matter how painfully slow life seems, He is still moving me.

And while there were some lows, this past year had the highest of highs in the smallest of moments—eating at that beachside seafood market in California, dancing at that Jon Bellion concert, sitting outside with Allison at 1am—whenever I was hit with an overwhelming gratitude for the moments and people I have been given.

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The Flu and Finals

By Allison.

I spent the weeks leading up to finals with one fervent prayer: could I not, just this once, be entirely stressed out during finals week? Could I take these tests in peace and keep them in perspective, could I please remember that they’re just tests and that they’re going to come and go?

I shared this with my boyfriend, who nodded his head in understanding. Being nineteen is just like that, he had said. There’s something about the hormones and the stress, but things will change over the next few years. Hang in there. 

I’m not sure why finals week was so bad in the past, why I couldn’t seem to just get through it like a rational human. But something about the flurry of too hard exams and too close grades teetering between minus and plus signs threatening to ruin my GPA just created the perfect storm.

And so I prepared to hunker down for another end of semester typhoon: struggling under hours of studying, spending more time rolling around in bed thinking about failing all of my classes and trying to recall calculus theorems than actually sleeping, and dragging my body to the library instead of the dining hall each morning.

But then on the first dead day, the beginning of a two day hiatus in which the university gifts students a full 48 hours to study before the onslaught, I woke up with the flu. At 8 am I staggered out of bed, telling my roommate I felt a little funny, but passed it off as nerves. At 9 am, I opened my online homework and tried to study. By 11, I was shivering uncontrollably. I think I’m gunna go back to bed. I staggered back to my dorm room and slithered under a pile of blankets. I woke up a few hours later considerably worse. My head was spinning and I was sure I was running a temperature. I tried to open up my calculus textbook, but I spent five minutes staring at the page before I accepted reality: I was in no position to study. I was too weak to feel guilty- normally I would feel a twinge of embarrassment over my apparently weak work ethic. A better student would be able to study through the pain. But when my roommate returned to the room that night and told me that I just needed to tell myself I wasn’t sick, I knew this was more than just the common cold that I could power through. I slept through the next two days, waking up to take the maximum recommended daily dose of acetamenophin, falling asleep, and waking back up to throw up the aforementioned medication.

By Thursday night, I revived myself from my fugue state long enough to compose coherent emails to my professors. “I’m not well enough to take your final, how do I handle this situation?”

Their replies were overwhelmingly unsatisfactory: It turns out handling having the flu during finals week means taking finals with the flu.

So I took exams, half shaking, half coughing, sitting in the classroom until I could circle an answer for every question on the test, leaving as soon as my Scantron had fifty penciled in bubbles. I was the first to leave the room. When I made it back to my dorm, I crawled into my bed and fell into uneasy sleep.

By Monday, I made it onto my flight home to New York in some semblance of order. My symptoms had largely dissipated other than an unrelenting, hacking cough. I had taken all of my finals but one, which had been pushed off until January by a merciful professor. And with vague feelings of uneasiness about the probability of the flu having just ruined grades which I had been working hard all semester to maintain, I realized with a weird feeling of satisfaction that during this whole ordeal, I hadn’t succumbed to unsurmountable anxiety. In fact, I had felt almost none.

I spent the week in bed, sweating and crying, and I hadn’t had the energy to really care about finals. I took my exams without studying, I did what I could, and I moved forward, because it was really the only option. So here I was, sitting on a plane, waiting to finally be back home, but feeling oddly satisfied, because, after all, we don’t get to choose how God answers prayer, but He will answer, and sometimes, in the weirdest of ways, getting the flu can feel like an answered prayer.

The Quiet of Summer

Erica.

The last time I was on this yellow-brick road, I was dodging my way through crowds, swimming through the rush of students that poured out of every building at ten before the hour. But now it was barren—a single biker sped past me—and I could zig and zag all I wanted without a human obstacle in my way.

Here I was, back on campus for the summer, and everything was silent.

The most-coveted study spots on campus were devoid of human presence, and even the highly-populated stir fry line at the dining hall was only two people long. Compared to the bustling city within a city UT was between the months of August and May, summer here was a ghost town, and here I was, one of the ghosts.

If last semester was a mathematical function, it’d be a polynomial to the seventeenth degree—its haphazardly-fluctuating slope dependent on the number of lab reports and differential equations and chemistry problem sets due that week. It was sixteen weeks of half-finished to-do lists, running to and from academics, social obligations, emotions, and what have you, but it came and went, and like even the biggest of waves, after crashing, receded back into the sea.

I had spent the entire semester hoping for a break from the suffocating plethora of responsibilities and stress school had brought about. Summer, with my lack of concrete plans, was bound to bring it about, I was sure. And it did—my life did a complete one-eighty in the span of a month, but I soon realized that ironically, the complete stillness seemed even more suffocating than the busyness before.

The first several days were filled with sheer panic. My only class was at 3pm, and nearly everyone I knew had gone home for the summer—those who stayed were either working forty hours a week or slaving away in multiple summer classes. My once-filled schedule was now wide open, and my daily to-do list contained only a couple low-intensity items—a concept I was unfamiliar with. Where was the homework? The student orgs? The friends? The perpetual state of stress?

But here I am, halfway into summer, slowly adjusting to the slower pace of life that has been brought about. Every morning, every night, is a lesson in being content in the quiet, in finding a sense of fulfillment in every day without having written a lab report or slaving away in the library until three am. While the lack of constant human interaction is still often draining, my open days have provided more room for dredging up old hobbies and attempting new ambitions that during the semester I had pushed off, filing them under “things to do when I actually have time.”

For the next couple of months, being unable to hide behind the all-too-convenient excuse of “I’m too busy” means cracking open the C.S. Lewis book I bought months ago, filling out empty journals, and going to the gym more than once every two months. It means spending my mornings building the perfect Spotify playlist, and walking to the music building to play the piano for the first time since middle school. It means sitting outside in the warm night air, listening to the cicadas and hoping the raccoons wandering around the patio don’t carry rabies.

After a semester of running, literally and figuratively, from one commitment to the next, this summer I am learning how to be still.

An Open Letter to My Freshman-Year Roommate

By Erica.

To my roommate, who, as of two weeks ago, technically no longer holds that title,

I remember almost exactly a year ago, just after graduation, when my best friends were swarming you, badgering you with “make sure she eats three meals a day”, “make sure she stays hydrated”, “make sure she doesn’t do anything too stupid” comments. I laughed at the time—I was too used to Allison and Veronica’s motherly worrying—but little did I know that in the next twelve months, you’d go above that and beyond.

Deciding to room with you seemed like such a minute decision in the flurry of other important life changes last May. I was scared of moving away from home to a school where a measly 8% of students were out-of-state, and clinging on to the single person I knew at this fifty-thousand-student university seemed like the obvious move. Granted, even though we went to the same high school we were still acquaintances at best, and even the littlest things, like having the same Fiction Writing teacher senior year, made feeling at home in Austin a little bit easier.

Thank you for cultivating the immense amount of patience it took to live with me, from dealing with my nonstop morning alarms to my obnoxious household questions (from “do I need to refrigerate this avocado?” to “how do I boil water?”). You are undoubtedly the sole reason I never got food poisoning and could make tea whenever I felt under the weather.

Thank you for your unending selflessness—when everything in my life seemed to be crashing down on me and all I could do was sit on the floor and cry, you stopped studying to come back to our dorm and take me to get cream puffs, where you sat and listened to the same broken spiel of mine for the seventeenth time in the past week. When life knocked me down and I didn’t want to get up, you sat next to me, making sure I ate a reasonable amount, slept for a healthy number of hours, and told me everything was going to be alright—until I brushed myself off and stood up again.

Thank you for pushing your way into my friend groups, befriending my college best friends, getting to know my high school friends, and even entertaining my cousin when she came to visit. Thank you for always checking up on me, for making sure someone walked me home from parties, and for getting coffee for me when I needed it most.

Thank you for always being more than willing to help my friends and I with chemistry homework—suppressing the urge to strangle us when we didn’t understand orbital hybridization or dative bonding until the third time you explained it. And even though you weren’t even in physics, you still tried to help me with my problem sets and affirmed my complaints and frustrated yelling just to make me feel like I wasn’t the only one struggling.

Even when I reneged on our “we should go to the gym together on a regular basis” pact by the third week of college, you continued to go while I took naps instead. Even when I’d give up on being productive by 10pm, you’d stay up studying till far past midnight, and still wake up earlier than me the next day. I don’t know how you did it all, but you are and were the functioning young adult that I strive to one day become. Deciding to room with you may have seemed like a minute decision at the time, but it turned out to be one of the biggest things that shaped the beginning of my college career.

I’m going to miss that hour between turning off the lights and falling asleep, when we’d talk about everything and everyone that ever crossed our minds. I’m going to miss the consistent level of messiness we both had, and the always slightly-cluttered but homey dorm we came home to every night. It was a good nine months of you being my roommate, mom friend, and biggest support, and I would probably be a flaming pile of ashes without you.

My freshman year regrets are far and few, but the one that is always on the forefront of my mind is the fact that that I’m not living with you next year. And while our apartments will only be seven blocks apart, that’s seven blocks farther than we are now.

I’m now in a new dorm for the summer, waiting for a roommate to move in that isn’t you—referring to my room as ‘my room’ and not ‘our room’ is something I’m going to have to learn to get used to. But as we close out our first year of college, know that I am forever thankful for everything you’ve done for me since the day we checked in.

Your (former) roommate,
Erica

How to Cry Gracefully in Public and Other Useful Tips

By Allison.

Sometimes it’s a Wednesday morning amidst a very difficult week and you wake up with bad hair and you can’t find clean socks and you have three exams before 1 pm. You are awake at 7 am to study for these exams and you open your backpack to discover that there is a smashed banana at the bottom of your bag, effectively coating every single one of your books in banana guts.

This is a reasonable time to cry in public. Perhaps it’s even the proper time to cry in public.

However, there are certain aspects of this experience which ought to be handled with proper conduct so as to make your public and inevitably embarrassing emotional breakdown less unpleasant, both for you and the innocent bystander.

  1. Do not wear liquid eyeliner if there is more than a 0.5% chance that you will cry that day. The Laws of Nature and Black Eyeliner ensure that you will cry should there be even the slightest opportunity for tear shed. Do not test this law, it will win.
  2. If you must cry in a public and humiliating fashion, bring a friend. The general public will feel less inclined to make awkward gestures of comfort if they believe you are already being aided by someone with more personal experience helping you cope with your emotions. If a friend is unavailable, do not seek a classmate whom you do not know well and may have to maintain contact with in the future; this interaction will scare them and make sitting together in CHE 3332 weird. Try to find a stranger, preferably one who is transferring to a different university next semester. Allow them to offer you uncomfortable words of solace; they may try to pat you on your back, be prepared.
  3. Under no circumstances should you wail. Cry silently.
  4. If a professor should approach you to ask what is wrong, do not tell them about the smashed banana incident. It will seem like a normal story in your mind; it will not seem like a normal story when you begin to share the experience aloud. Well adjusted people do not wind up with smashed bananas in their backpacks. Be a well adjusted person.
  5. If you can manage to make it appear as though your tears are caused by allergies, or perhaps overwhelming joy, do this. Be prepared to tell someone you have the flu or are sensitive to sunlight.
  6. Call someone on the phone. Strangers will be less inclined to become involved in your personal disaster if you are occupied by a phone call. If you do not have a reliable friend who will pick up the phone, pretend to be speaking to your mother.
  7. Seek a private area immediately. Avoid bathroom stalls, as your cries will echo.

From Computer Screen to Lecture Hall

Erica.

6:20 alarm. Two flights of stairs. Desk. Laptop. Log into online classroom.

For more than seven years, this was my Monday to Thursday routine. For more than seven years, my class was a webpage, the teacher was a webcam, and my classmates were microphones. It was a school, yes, in the modern sense of the term, but it was no physically-established school with halls swarming with students. There was community, in the technological sense of the term, but it was some chaotic dichotomy of distant yet personal relationships that spanned counties and countries.

Every day, for four days a week, I’d sit at my Ikea-bought desk, gazing into a computer screen from 6:30am to 12:30pm, typing into a chat box and talking through a mic. When my six-hour stint was over, I’d get up, eat, sometimes shower, sometimes nap, only return to my laptop again, working on whatever essay or Latin homework I had that day.

Those seven years flew and dragged along, some years going better than others. But eventually I completed all my classical language requirements, eventually I finished six years and twelve classes of great texts, and eventually I wrote the final sentence of my 40-page senior thesis. And less than three months after donning a cap and gown, I tumbled into the world of four-hundred-people chemistry lectures in a school 200 times larger than the one I left.

There are the obvious differences. Having to change into presentable clothing, pack a backpack, and walk to class is a routine I had never adapted before. Class material was no longer presented on a PowerPoint on a screen a foot from my face, and instead during every Differential Equations class I sit, in the very back row (due to my constant just-in-the-nick-of-time arrivals), on the edge of my seat, blinking furiously, begging my brain to decipher what Greek letters my professor is scribbling down before he erases it and starts a new proof.

But while getting ready in the morning takes longer and reading whiteboards has become harder, the general thrill of school has increased. While high school was engaging in its own right and while discussing Greek epics and studying organic chemistry over Skype calls was undoubtedly unique, the end of high school brought along triteness and the longing for something new. The move to UT certainly provided the shift in atmosphere and sense of vibrancy that my life needed.

There are the friendly faces, always willing to study together, to argue over the humanistic architectural factors of the student union, and to share in frustration about not knowing how to calculate the eigenvectors of matrices with repeated roots. There are the many study spaces, from the main library, to the gym, to the picnic benches, to the coffee shops along the river—no longer am I confined to my desk and dining table and local Starbucks. There are the classes that only spur on my excitement to become a civil engineer—while I appreciated the seven years of Latin I took growing up, my excitement about my upcoming classes in concrete materials, reinforced concrete design, and advanced concrete design is incomparably greater.

Admittedly, I don’t know how to be anything but a student. While the setting of my academic career has changed from being at home to the internet to now a public university, the themes are still the same. Classes, homework, and tests have ruled my priorities since as long as I can remember, and school has always been one of the few loves in my life. But learning feels more personal, more tangible, more exciting, and more relevant to my aspirations than high school was. Maybe this academic high is only temporary, and maybe I can only tell myself so much that being an engineering major will not demolish my morale and happiness until it turns into reality, but until then, here’s to the next 3 (4? 5? 6? 7?) years of school.