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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.