Pride and Persistence

Incoming students to UChicago should keep in mind that the only way out is through.

By Annie Dhal, Columnist

Picture me, around this time two years ago. I am freshly 18 and naively tender-hearted, facing an unthinkable open road of independence, distance, and expectation. The start of college represents the beginning of my uncertain future, and I, unable to really cope with all that this entails, sit among my unpacked bags and watch Lady Bird. When the main character stands in her new college city and calls her mother, the camera zooms in close on her face, and I start crying. Squashed amid every single piece of clothing I have owned that I now must pour into two suitcases of new life—away from the house I grew up in, away from the only town I have ever truly known—this idea of change, of reaching the final point of childhood, is almost too much to bear. At the core of my anxiety is a vibrant and bitter fear that I will squander this grand opportunity that has been placed in front of me, that the University of Chicago will chew me up and spit me out, and I will have nothing to show for it.  

As it turns out, this fear was hardly unfounded. My first year of college, mired as it was in the throes of the pandemic, was also the worst academic performance of my life. I limped through nearly all of my classes, quarter after quarter, and the learning curve that promises to even out never did. I switched majors, from biology to biochemistry, and then dramatically to economics, but even now, my scores are hardly anything to write home about. The math is hard, the concepts do not immediately elucidate themselves to me, and I still feel woefully outmatched by my peers. 

 What has changed, though, is my interest level. Suddenly, the squeamishness at dissections and the fogginess at quantum mechanics have been replaced with questions about Euler. It still doesn’t come easy to me, but for the first time, I care truly and deeply enough to work past that. I attend more office hours, I join study groups, I give myself grace. Through the rest of my first year, through second year into now, I stumble, I get back up, I tack on new things to my course planner, and I learn to accept failure as not a stop sign, but a bump in the road. 

In many ways, this experience marks what is to be expected from college entrants. You will change your major, you will investigate what you are meant to do, you will be amazed and astonished at the direction your life takes. Hardly ever in these assurances are you told that, even after finding the pieces of your pursuit, you may still struggle to gather solid footing. When—not if—that happens, I urge you, perhaps feeling just as frightened and intimidated and keen as I was then, to keep at it. Although it is disheartening to fall short of where you feel you should be, incoming college students should keep in mind that persistence is just as vital as inquiry when searching for where they really belong, academically or otherwise. 

Even at the very start of your higher academic career, it is very easy to worry about who you will be in three years’ time. Will you be proud, successful, and accomplished, or a fourth-year thinking dreadfully that you are stuck with the mistakes you made at age 18? Will you have risen above the storm of insecurity and fear, or will it pursue you through and beyond Hyde Park? It is paralyzing to realize that this entry into the “real world” has such massive stakes when weeks ago, high school administrators dictated the length and frequency of your bathroom breaks. Understandably, then, the most obvious and common advice given to new college entrants is to slow down, to be cautious, to convince yourself that it is not immediately necessary to know exactly who and what you are meant to be. At the very least, these words give you breathing room and time to decide. 

But while I would agree that these are important comforts, I’m not certain they are always constructive. Of course, it is okay to be unsure about the exact course and direction you want your life to take—fundamentally, college is a period of discovery—but I encourage you not to dismiss the years of experience you have with yourself. For every inch that college is a new start, it is also an opportunity for you to build on what you have already developed. 

If you have a love for biology or economics or English, nurture it. Take the classes that sound interesting to you, that feed your passions and strike your fancy. Then, even more importantly, stick by them. It is too easy to extrapolate struggling in a class in a subject that used to come easy to you as a failure or a sign that you should move on. It is too easy to let expectation make a body of us, skin and bones and the weight of everything you should be doing. However, if college is to be the launching pad for your future, you need to be willing to be let down, even by yourself. 

In other words, I want you, the fresh-faced first-year that you are, to not be so wary of your own potential for failure, to understand that the circumstances, course material, and assignments being more difficult than before is not indicative of your inability to eventually master it. A part of that oft-touted “time to grow and learn” is derived from struggling through difficulty. To learn what you really enjoy, you have to be willing to separate the actual experience from your fear of misfiring. It is absolutely a natural thing to be unsure of yourself and where you stand, unsure of how you will make use of what you have been given and what you have earned, but it is vital that you do make use of it. 

For me, switching from biology to economics proffered the right fit. It was my discovery moment, my opportunity to separate who I wanted to be from who I thought I was. In sticking by economics, even when my grades and spirits dipped lower than ever before, I truly and firmly cemented a direction for myself. To uncover that takes dedication to what you have already accomplished to attend UChicago, and strength in your belief that you will know when a path is not right for you. Above all, it requires a faith in yourself to survive even the worst of upsets. 

Attending the University of Chicago is as enormous a responsibility as it is a privilege. You are here because you demonstrated a passion for thinking brilliantly—outside, around, and over the box. You are here because you care, not only to succeed, but to learn as you do. In service to that mission, the expiration of your perfectionism is a necessary casualty. To do yourself justice, you must see the plans for your one wild and beautiful life through, despite what monsters—and horrible P-sets—threaten to get you down. 

Annie Dhal is a third-year in the College.