Having just finished up my first semester at the University of Michigan, I applied to be a course assistant for the summer. To apply, I had to answer two essay questions, and one of them was to describe my first term at Michigan and the intellectual transition from high school to the university. It’s a very candid essay, and I thought that sharing it might help others who have been in the same boat, or who might face a similar situation in the future.
My first term at Michigan simultaneously feels like a very long time ago, but at the same time, just yesterday. I was a nervous freshman who came from a very small school, so the campus seemed enormous in my eyes, and I didn’t know when I would stop needing Google Maps to find my way around. However, as time passed, these things came naturally, and I felt more at ease among new friends and environments. In contrast, though, inside the buildings, inside the classrooms, I felt like I was always being challenged, which was something new for me. In high school, while I was never the smartest kid in the room, if I studied enough, I would get decent grades. Here, I learned that my studying capabilities didn’t fit the mold anymore, and I had to drastically change the way I learned and studied for my classes.
This is reflected in my grades from my first semester, where I earned the first C- I’ve ever gotten in my academic career, which was simultaneously also the hardest I’d ever worked for a class. I had been warned about “Michigan Math,” but the persistent part of me saw that as a challenge that I could take part in. I had taken precalculus at a community college before, so I figured that no matter how hard Michigan Math could be, I was already somewhat familiar with the material and wouldn’t have too much of a problem taking precalculus once more.
In another one of my classes, our instructor, Mr. J, was lecturing. His presence filled up the room, making a large auditorium for only a couple of students, feel the right size. While we covered a comprehensive amount of material in the class, something I distinctly remember is him talking about his C- that he had earned during his college years. It was the same grade I had received, and perhaps that is why the words he said about his own C- are very strongly etched into my mind: “It was a C-, but I had also never learned more from a class.”
I was disappointed by my C-, and it hung like a cloud over my head, triggering major imposter syndrome and an overall sense of unconfidence. Everyone always tells you that grades don’t define you, but somewhere, somehow, that C- felt like it determined everything. That I would have to defend myself about it forever, in front of countless invisible admissions officers and employers, telling them about how I wasn’t awful at math but simply wasn’t prepared to handle the expectations of the class. Doubts would rise in my mind because I had gotten an A taking the same course at a different institution. The grades were at opposing ends of the spectrum.
Mr. J’s sentence would come back to me, and I reminded myself that while it was by no means an amazing grade, it was a true mark of the amount I had progressed. Despite having taken precalculus before, at Michigan, taking the same class, I rarely ever felt like I knew the material from beforehand, and constantly felt challenged to do better. The exams were not like any exams I had taken before. Prove this, interpret that, and tests that made you wish that they didn’t give multiple choice. Tests that your instructors hadn’t made, hadn’t seen, but could only make educated guesses about: “They like to throw in some piecewise, this is guaranteed to show up, be sure to look at past exams to see what to study.”
The exam producers, or “They,” as they were often called, felt like the game makers that I read about in The Hunger Games, throwing out obstacles every couple hours and testing every competitor’s resolve. It was very difficult for me, and I don’t think I was studying properly. Perhaps it was burnout, maybe lack of confidence, or simply gaps in learning. Whatever it was, it made me realize that everything I knew about studying was going to have to change after I took this class.
From my experiences, I’ve had to realize and accept many things. I’ve had days where I felt like perhaps Michigan wasn’t the right choice, and I didn’t belong. It’s cliche and sounds like every teen’s life story, but I guess there’s a reason we can all be so insecure at times. When you fall harder than you’ve ever fallen, it’s hard to get back up because you don’t know if you can. You’ve never had to get up after such a bad fall before, and the ground below looks so uncertain. For the first time, I truly had to overcome deep insecurities that threatened my own education.
Throughout all the difficult parts of transitioning into my freshman year of university, I always found support. When I was struggling, I attended office hours countless times, finding help wherever I looked. I finally learned to put aside my pride and ask the question, even if it felt like something everyone already knew. Maybe they do, and you’re the only one who doesn’t, I told myself. Maybe you know the least out of anyone in this classroom. Maybe. But you came here to learn. In my second semester, I didn’t have any classes with my friends, and while that seemed to be daunting in December when I was registering, it became a blessing.
While my friends were by no means people who cared about the questions I asked in class, not having them there gave me a sense of confidence in a strange way. So what if anyone thinks you’re dumb for asking that question? No one here knows you. You don’t know them. This class is the only connection that links you to be here at the same time and place together. The sense of anonymity took me out of my shell, and I felt like a much different person than who I was in high school, surrounded by a class full of friends, which was a great experience, but ultimately also something that kept me from asking my questions, afraid of what the people I knew would think of me.
The vastness that used to overwhelm me became a comfort, and I found myself absorbing the atmosphere and taking in as much help as I could. I stayed late nights reviewing, came early the next day, and truly began to feel the importance of education in my life. I found my love of learning again, once lost behind in a high school classroom, lost in an eagerness to graduate and move on.
Here, I learned hard work, success, and much in between, like near-failure despite hard work. It tested my resolve and truly made me reevaluate everything I felt about myself in regards to my education. I felt a better sense of confidence began to instill itself in me, a confidence that wasn’t simply reliant on the end goal, a letter grade on a transcript, but the journey it took to reach there. I began to accept challenges more readily and was better prepared because I had fallen far, but this time, I knew I could get back up.