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Lessons from our freshmen selves

It is almost 10 p.m. on a cold Sunday evening in December, and I am walking across the quad on my way home from a (somewhat frantic) Principles of Microeconomics TA review sesh, the likes of which I’ve never experienced before. It is chilly and dark, and the campus has a general “stressed out pre-finals” vibe about it. I, myself, have a general “stressed out pre-finals” vibe about me. 

It is 2019. And for some reason, all I can think to play on Spotify as I pace around campus is Juicewrld’s “Ring Ring” and Alanis Morrisette’s “Hand in My Pocket.” See the type of nervous and/or angsty vibe I’m feeling here? You can practically feel it. 

Freshman fall had been a whirlwind of an experience. The new friends and relationships, the different culture, the harsher weather — no one adjustment was too much to handle on its own, but the sum of these had thrown me in for a spin cycle (and paying for laundry was completely new). 

Things felt weighty. Like everything mattered immensely. Maybe some of this can be attributed to the sense of novelty that all my experiences carried along with them. I can still vividly remember the series of “firsts” that happened: my first home game, my first tailgate, my first SYR, my first philosophy paper, my first midterms (though I may wish to forget that last one). But even apart from that, I had a sort of first-year chip on my shoulder, not from any wrongdoing per se, but instead from the mere fact that I knew I had to prove myself. I had to live up to that Notre Dame name I had praised so highly in my admissions essays just a year before. There was a good feeling that came along with the importance I felt in even the most mundane of tasks.

My freshman year abounded with small moments that became big because they were indicative of decisions I was making on my own. I began to really consider my priorities and what truly mattered to me, on even the most minute of a scale: what I wore on Friday, if I woke up early to work out this week, the tone with which I emailed my boss or my professors, the list goes on. 

This obviously amounted to immense stress I felt with every micro-decision I made. After all, did “sincerely” accurately reflect who I was as a person, or was “best regards” a better fit? 

This stress did come along with a lot of self-compassion, though, and somehow I was able to be patient enough with myself and allow myself the time and space to make mistakes, knowing I’d have three more years to fix them and really hone my email sign-offs, amidst other things.

Now, a few years later, I’m learning from different mistakes, and the pressure is still turned to a 10. But I’ve noticed I am a lot less patient with myself. There’s an added “you should know this by now,” a judgment that has tacked on with time that is not conducive to a true growth mindset. 

After this reflection, inspired by when “Hand in My Pocket” came on after shuffling my Spotify liked songs while walking to class, I want to make sure my lessons from my freshman self are not merely constructions of nostalgia or an oversimplification of what times really were like back then. I want to make sure there’s something material I can actually take away from 2019 Alexa. 

And I think that every now and then, it’s important to take a step in the shoes of my freshman self, to adopt the viewpoint of my younger, more nervous and turbulent alter ego to remember a couple things.

Firstly, the small efforts we make here on this campus and here in this world matter. Conversations with a professor in office hours, whether or not we did that one reading for theology, the people we wave to on our way to SDH — these little actions and decisions can carry a small but beautiful weight to them that can leave a mark on us and others long after they’re carried out. They can be a reflection of our integrity and of what we value.

And secondly, although even the little things carry a weight to them, it is important to remember that we are human, and we make mistakes. A cliché at this point, maybe, but remembering to not cast aspersions on myself after erring and just allowing myself to take things in stride has made a huge difference in my life.

Now, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to bring TikTok into this column, as I have oft-done (and as is my right!) When the trend of “being the main character” came about, I dismissed it as some sort of appeal to internal narcissism. But now, after going through this vivid flashback or montage of freshman year, I kind of see the light. Things feel nice and concise when we pretend we’re in a movie.

In the spirit of romanticizing our lives, let’s take this first-year throwback’s lessons into our slightly more mature adult lives. We are, after all, still in the freshman phase of our adulthood. 

Alexa Schlaerth is a junior at the University of Notre Dame studying anthropology and linguistics. When she’s not slamming hot takes into her laptop keyboard, she can be found schooling her peers in the daily Wordle and NYT mini crossword, rewatching South Park or planning her next backpacking trip. As an Angeleno, Alexa enjoys drinking overpriced, non-dairy iced lattes and complaining about traffic because it’s “like, totally lame.” Alexa can be reached on Twitter at @alexa_schlaerth or via email at aschlaer@nd.edu.

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A gap in time

My parents are sitting in the living room with the 9 p.m. news on, my mom sipping on a cup of tea. College move-in is only a week away and my bags are all over the house, haphazardly overflowing with clothes, bedsheets and books. “I think I want to take a year off,” I tell them. The glow of the TV reflects off the glass coffee table and the reporter rambles on about the economy, the weather, maybe a corrupt politician. Alright, they tell me, okay. 

Coping with the outbreak of COVID-19 was turbulent for the whole world. It accentuated the sobering acknowledgement of how fortunate some of us were to have access to the resources and communities to keep us in health and safety. At the brunt of things, it was still impossible not to hyper-fixate on its personal, objectively smaller inconveniences. But my peers and I had never dealt with a global crisis with such permeating immediacy, and I think it is worth noting the validity of the adversities we experienced, the frustration and discomposure that came with our measurably changed lives. 

I was a senior in the class of 2020, completing my fourth year living in Germany. The ending to that chapter was meant to be poetic memories of a senior trip to Greece, a prom with an open bar, a ceremonial post-exam disposal of IB textbooks. All the emblematic rewards we had been promised for years were canceled and replaced with masks and online classes.

After a socially-distanced graduation ceremony, my family moved to Seoul. And I was experiencing an ugly burnout. I was burnt out from the last years of schooling across three continents, five cities and eight schools. I was burnt out from COVID-19 diminishing my goodbyes and clouding the next year with uncertainties. 

I spent the summer completing forms,  joining group chats and getting to know other incoming Notre Dame first years. I watched YouTube videos of game days, packed my winter clothes and planned which clubs I wanted to join. I was pushing through my subconscious fatigue and trying to ignore how unprepared I was for this transition. 

My whole childhood and adolescence consisted of being the new girl every two to four years, in a new city that spoke a new language each time. In retrospect, I’m beyond grateful for my experiences and background, but I also wish I could go back and tell myself at high school graduation that it was okay to feel overwhelmed. I’d been in a never ending process of constant adjustment and adaptation, and the idea of packing up yet again for an international move on my own, amidst a global pandemic, slowly began to suffocate me. 

It took the entire summer for me to email my advisor, only days before move-in, that I would defer my enrollment by a year. The University was understanding and supportive of my decision to take a breather amidst the unknowns. Today, I have full confidence that taking my gap year was the best decision I’ve ever made. 

My year in Seoul was the first time I was able to spend months exploring the city and Korea, connecting with my family’s background and history. I frequented art and history museums and fell in love with my culture and discovered corners of Seoul to escape the craze of pandemic restrictions. I took coding classes and learned basic Python programming. I picked up tutoring and saved up by helping students prep for their SATs and IB exams. I got a trainer and learned how to actually use the big, intimidating gym equipment. I got my driver’s license. Then I drove myself to the beach and learned how to surf. I read books, in English and Korean, fiction, nonfiction, essays and poetry. I got really into film photography and began a modest vintage camera collection. 

Four seasons came and went and the leaders of the world figured out how to get the pandemic just a little bit under control. August came back around again, and I was ready to head off to college. I think that I wrapped up my gap year as a completely different person than when I was at high school graduation. If the pandemic had never happened, I wonder if I ever would have considered taking this break. But I’m glad I did. A full year to detach myself from identifying with any one school or institution pushed me to consider myself just as I was. Not a student at some school or a part of a larger community. I found myself, a nineteen year old in her parents’ home city, feeling more grounded than ever. 

Three continents, five cities and eight schools later, I know I have roots in every place I’ve been. And now, in Notre Dame. 

Reyna Lim is a sophomore studying Finance with a minor in Journalism. She enjoys writing about her unsolicited opinions, assessing celebrity homes in Architectural Digest videos and collecting lip gloss. Reach out with coffee bean recommendations and 80’s playlists at slim6@nd.edu