October 4, 2019 | Narrative
a renovation project
reconciling past and imagined selves
As another herd of cackling bodies charged in through the front door, I decided to take a moment to properly survey my surroundings. It was a Saturday night in early September. I sat on the kitchen floor in an upperclassman dorm of unknown coordinates, holding in my hands two Nature Valley Oats ’n Honey bars, neither of which belonged to me. Beside me, my friends were chatting with some upperclassmen we had just met. Taking a bite from one of the granola bars, I smirked to myself and thought, “I bet high school me is real proud of me now.”
But by the time I woke up the next morning, I regretted everything. With an enduring buzz in my head, I sat in the Sunlab for eight hours, desperately attempting to print code for my first CS assignment, a project that I’d been quick to dismiss the night before. “Start yesterday,” Professor Andy van Dam’s voice echoed in my head. “Today is already late.” Yes, the wise man was right—it was already late indeed. I slammed my head against the keyboard as I attempted to pinpoint exactly when things started going downhill.
Was it the night of move-in day, when my failure to find the infamous “crew party” became a nagging disappointment that I wished to overcome by finding a party that could trump it? Or was it the first day of IMP orientation, when I found myself lost in a sea of new people and realized I would never be seen if I didn’t make an active effort to be noticed? Or had I already set myself up for failure the day I graduated from high school? I was an impressionable teenager who believed the classic Hollywood tropes of college life. Unimpressive high school graduates who magically evolved into successes in college—I bought into all of that. The moment I finally left high school, I vowed to myself that I, too, would begin anew in college.
My high school self was quite a lost cause. As an academically driven kid in Korea (an equally academically driven country), I became accustomed to measuring my self-worth by numbers. I sacrificed all of my free time for extracurriculars and, as a result, fractured relationships. And while I was objectively smart and hardworking, my primary passions lay in English literature, marking my future as dark and penniless (at least in the words of nosy relatives and distant family friends).
When I got into Brown, I decided all of this would change. Starting with a clean slate in the States, I would pursue my own rendition of the American Dream. Like a true Ivy League gal, I would be one of those “inherently-smart-without-studying” types. I would find soul sisters and life partners that I could go to frat parties with on Friday nights. And I would drop English and find a concentration that could land me a job in Silicon Valley.
In the weeks following orientation, I officially launched myself into a self-renovation project. I managed to resist the urge to drop out of CS15 during shopping period, went party-hopping on the weekends, and met more people than I ever had in the entirety of high school. But despite these victories, a nagging sense of uncertainty followed me everywhere I went. Was I truly better off than I had been in high school? Was I really someone new—someone marching towards success?
By the end of shopping period, I realized I was doing everything wrong. Sure, CS proficiency, partying, and an expansive social circle were all elements that I thought were integral to an ideal college life. But, ultimately, at the heart of my college fantasy was a sense of confidence and self-assertion—both of which I was still missing. Measuring my self-worth by the number of parties I attended, superficially building connections purely to network, taking classes for the sake of my resume—I was worse off than I had been in high school.
Desperate to reassemble my sense of self, I decided to return to where I started: high school me. I added an emo English class about identity to my schedule on the last day of shopping period, spent Friday night with kombucha and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in the company of a few quality friends, and started my CS AndyBot project on Saturday morning as soon as it was released. After all, my high school tendencies had gotten me this far; as much as I hated to admit it, my try-hard, nerdy nature was precisely what got me into Brown. Instead of rejecting my past, I decided to listen to it: What exactly was it that I wanted to change about my high school self? Why did I come to Brown—who did I want to become? What was I searching for?
These are hefty questions to consider, and in complete honesty, I haven’t developed coherent answers yet. But I’ve abandoned all expectations I once held about an “ideal” college life and have decided to embrace the uncertainty that lies in the future. After all, the “ideal” college life doesn’t exist—especially if you can’t even decipher your present. Maybe I’ll miraculously master Java and end up in Silicon Valley, or maybe I’ll end up unemployed but with an impressive knowledge of Shakespearean plays. Who knows? I need to start being spontaneous and bold in the face of failure if I really want to avoid being held back by prior fears.
The other day, I traveled to Boston University for a debate tournament. I had never gone to Boston University, I had never even done debate before, and I had never felt more inferior than I did during that experience. But, surprisingly, I was OK with it.
I currently exist in an ambiguous state—one that’s neither my high school self nor my imaginary college self—but for now, I think that’s a good place to start.