A few weeks ago I helped my younger sister move into her new dorm room, where we unpacked boxes of clothes, school supplies, bedding and of course, loads of disinfectant wipes. Her room gradually began to take shape, and I was hit with a wave of nostalgia once we finished — I’d only been in a dorm room once since I’d moved out of mine several years earlier, and my sister’s new room reminded me of my own first-year home.
My excitement during move-in day is one of my sharpest memories from first year, probably because the following days were a blur of meetings, new faces, new classes and more. It was overwhelming — I was filled with excitement tinged by nerves — life was moving quickly, and there was so much to adjust to.
Thinking back on these memories makes me so sympathetic towards first years and those adjusting to life at the University — it’s hard enough to try to move away from home to a new place, much less during a pandemic. I imagine that a lot of people are feeling more nerves than excitement right now, even if they’re disguising it.
An off-hand comment by my sister made me remember an anxiety I’d forgotten I’d had my first year, and I think this worry is particularly relevant now — my sister mentioned that she wished she could skip to the part of her first year where she had found her set group of friends, had figured out which direction she wanted to take with her coursework, found a place to live and other scenarios of certainty.
She was comparing her situation to my life as a fourth-year student, not knowing that I had basically none of that figured out by the end of my first year. She, and probably many other first years, likely think that most of your college life is shaped during your first year, and the rest of your college experience depends on how well your first year goes. That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself.
I remember explaining to my sister that most of my life as it appears now has been the result of choices and events that happened after my first year. I met several of my close friends at the end of my second year. I wasn’t fully set on my majors and minors until my third year. I didn’t join The Cavalier Daily or begin running again until second year, I didn’t take some of my favorite classes and visit some of my favorite Charlottesville restaurants until third year and I didn’t learn how to cook until this year.
Honestly, most of my first year was just spent trying to survive it — by experimenting with clubs and classes, by meeting as many people as possible and by practicing being kind to myself on challenging days. Much of my current life is the result of what I’ve built during my second, third and fourth years — not my first.
Shaping my college life has happened gradually through small tweaks to my habits and lifestyle, and not so much with significant decisions that sent me down permanent paths. The accumulation of these minor daily decisions has resulted in where I am now, like I’ve constantly been picking small doors to walk through — not one rare large door offered once or twice a year. Although it can feel like the pandemic has shut so many of these small doors, you have to move through the ones that are still open, knowing that there will be infinitely more after your first year.
This means that you can have a difficult first year and still have a great college experience. It’s atypical to have everything figured out by the end of first year anyway, and this is the first time that we’re trying to figure anything out during a pandemic.
My advice to my sister and her fellow first years is to make the best of the current situation and to remember that you can still have an amazing college experience despite the way it’s begun. Your first year might feel tough, but I promise that better times are coming. Keep walking through the doors.