Take a Step Back to Run the Race

Amid the competitive environment of your first year, use your classes as an opportunity to better understand yourself.

By Luke Contreras

If I could say anything to myself at the beginning of my first year, it would be not to trust anyone whose advice begins with, “If I could say anything to myself at the beginning of my first year…” ––it’s just too clichéd. That is to say, it won’t benefit anyone who is not the advice-giver themselves. Take heart, however, because my advice is different.

This subtle criticism wrapped in a paradox might seem somewhat conceited, especially for a fresh-faced second-year. I do believe there is value in learning from older individuals who have encountered the challenges you may face in the future. However, my cynicism stems from inconsistencies I hear from the advice of adults and older peers. While some implore you to explore as much as possible, others advise that you stick to classes within your major—and the rest urge you to design a course schedule that will lead to the strongest GPA. These well-wishers tell you things that they wish they knew. Each person’s advice, while helpful, often conflicts with other advice you receive because it is framed in the context of their personal experiences. Your journey through college is uniquely your own, and you must run your own race.

In my first few weeks of college––among the uncertainties of the pandemic, an increased workload, and social life––I became obsessed with trying to discover my true reason for attending UChicago. On top of the stressors and my question of identity, I was met with many different answers to this question from my peers. On a mandatory O-Week Zoom discussion, one student commented that UChicago was his fastest track to becoming rich, while another described her college enrollment as “an opportunity that doesn’t just fall out of the sky.” Any of my in-person classes were filled with students discussing the stock markets, the RSOs they absolutely needed to join to improve their resume, or the daunting experience of being pre-med. Online forums were overrun with questions about internships, research opportunities, and career advice. I wondered, Where do I fit into all of this?

I questioned not how, but where I belonged in a student body with such a wide variety of ambitions. Was I the student who wanted a high-paying job or the student excited for the enriching learning environment? Was everyone in more RSOs than me? How did my peers already get internship offers? My questions focused too heavily on the actions of others.

There is no doubt that you will hear the same buzz across campus as you begin your own college journey. You may admire the passion of some students but lose confidence in your own. You may be intimidated by those who seem to have their careers figured out––internships secured, classes sorted out, professions already decided––and feel behind. Take a step back. This is the beginning of your college journey, and it’s much too early to determine the trajectory of your entire career.

This piece of advice is not uncommon, but it can do more than just relieve the stress you will feel entering this new environment: It can actively enrich your college experience. Some of the well-wishers I introduced earlier will follow the classic “take a step back” with, “Slow down and enjoy your first year!” I disagree. I did not “slow down” during my first year, and I certainly did not always enjoy it. My three quarters bombarded me with P-sets, next-level computer science projects, humanities papers, and mathematical proofs. However, when I stepped back from the work itself, I could understand which aspects of my classes I truly enjoyed. I learned that, although physics left me frantically scribbling calculations on a notepad before the Friday night deadline, I actually enjoyed solving math problems. Computer science projects kept me from sleeping and made my bed jealous, but the endless nights I spent designing algorithms and writing code made me appreciate the C programming language’s unique access to computer memory. Though writing about The Aeneid or The Iliad did not excite me as much as it did my classmates, I discovered that I loved argumentative writing (hence why this Maroon article, and my others, exists).

Go at your own pace, whether it means slowing down, speeding up, or somewhere in between. Taking a step back means isolating yourself from the crowd and attempting to truly understand what you, individually, want to accomplish over the next four years. Your first year will be filled with major classes and Core classes that can teach you more about yourself than what’s on the syllabus. These courses (especially the Core ones) are designed to expose you to a wide variety of topics that diversify your education. Give them an opportunity to impact not just your education but you as an individual. Especially pay attention in classes that you might not find as interesting because those often demonstrate the furthest extent of your interests and abilities.

This is probably when you may be asking yourself, “Wouldn’t you give this advice to your first-year self? Doesn’t that make you a hypocrite?” Perhaps it does. The beauty of this advice is that it can work for anyone. You might not have figured out your major. Maybe you know exactly what you want your college and career path to look like. Some of you will be more prone to taking risks, and others will be more conservative. Graduate or medical school might be your end goal, or perhaps you just want to begin working immediately after graduation. No matter who you are, you can take your UChicago education to the next level to improve yourself, discover your passions, and find hidden aspects of yourself. Taking my advice could do anything from exposing a few new interests or talents to completely deciding your major.

Your first year is not a time to compare yourself to your classmates. There will be plenty of times to compare yourself to, compete with, and challenge your peers in the following three years of your UChicago education, when you have a better understanding of yourself. This first year is instead an opportunity to realize what you want out of your education. Which classes, or aspects of those classes, do you find most interesting? How can you use what you learned to help you through other classes or your life as a whole? Even if you think you know yourself well, as I did at the start of my first year, I guarantee that this year will reveal more than you can imagine. Only by taking a step back will you learn enough about yourself to run this race successfully and make the most of your college experience.

Luke Contreras is a second-year in the College.