This magical land where work, friends, family, hobbies, physical activity, eating healthy, and time for relaxation all manage to fit into a 24 hour period of time.
I am not good at balance. That’s the first thing I learned when I started taking college classes.
Dedication? I’ve got that in spades.
Determination? Definitely not lacking.
But balance? It’s almost laughable how bad I was (and sometimes still am) at finding this Narnia-like land where I can be in school AND be happy. But I’m working on it.
My study skills, my test scores, my 103% average in biology, my role as graduation speaker, my acceptance into UConn, and then into the dietetics program – it can all be traced back to my lack of balance.
In January of 2013 I began taking classes at QVCC. Going to QV made perfect sense for me. It was a stepping stone to a larger university and a way to take college credits at a fraction of the cost. I could live at home, and my commute was only 15 minutes down the road. Even better, I felt at ease in that glorified hallway. I fit into the school like a slightly distorted puzzle piece. There was very little disconnect from my homeschooling past to my English and Movies classes, and none of my teachers could tell that I was homeschooled (a fact that I’m still proud of). I was working hard, and my grades reflected that. I was still slightly baffled by the classroom experience, but my teachers were kind. They supported me, gave me guidance, and I was able to prove to myself that what I was doing finally counted. I had validation from people that weren’t biased in my favor, and for the first time in my life I really felt like I was smart. Of course, in retrospect I realize that my mom would never have allowed me to get away with anything less than the best when I was homeschooled, but for those 12 years I wasn’t quite sure where I fit in academically with my public school friends. Whenever we would compare test grades from pre-calc or chemistry, they would always tell me that my homeschooled 98 didn’t count, and eventually that took a toll on my educational self-esteem. But those first few classes I took at QVCC were what helped me start to realize that maybe, just maybe, I actually was smart.
The more classes I took, the more I surprised myself. I passed my first 6-week summer class with flying colors, despite that being an intensely horrible time in my personal life due to the sudden death of an aunt and uncle. I signed up for five classes my next semester, and proceeded to shock myself by not only enjoying biology, but getting the highest grade in my class.
I worked hard. Harder than anyone I knew. Harder than I needed to. Harder than I wanted to. And it wasn’t because I was that driven. I mean, anyone who knows me knows that I can be abnormally single minded in terms of school at times, but this was a new level of dedication. The more A’s I got, the more pressure I put on myself to continue succeeding. I felt like I was standing on top of a pile of precariously stacked chairs. Each chair I added was one higher than I’d ever been before, but each time I made it a little bit higher, I felt like I had that much further to fall. I lived in fear of a moment that never came – an exam where I knew nothing. A speech that I forgot. A short answer question that I couldn’t fully answer. A question in class that I didn’t have the detailed explanation to, whether or not I raised my hand. So while I continued to excel at school, the pressure I was putting on myself to succeed was making me miserable. I knew I was capable of a happier life. I knew balance existed, but I just hadn’t found my way there yet.
Skip ahead to March of 2016.
I was wandering through the blue carpeted hallway in the east wing when a poster caught my eye. It was calling for people to audition to be graduation speaker at my commencement ceremony. I was only a few weeks away from graduating, but I had always been TERRIFIED of public speaking. (Like in an “I almost dropped French 1 when I had to present to 13 people. In English” kind of terrified). In retrospect, I could say that this is when a flip switched. This was the moment that I found the road sign to a “Happier Life”. But in the moment I couldn’t tell you what made me decide – I was just going to do it.
Everyone thought I was crazy. But after two failed rough drafts, one amazing mentor, two auditions, and one phone call, I did it. I was chosen to be the graduation speaker.
As I prepared for graduation I practiced my speech every night. I had to get on that stage and be as prepared as humanly possible. I had to get on stage and have the speech memorized forwards, backwards, and upside down. I had to know that speech in the dark, without notes, and while fighting in a zombie apocalypse. I was teetering on the highest chair I had ever been on and I thought that these 5 sheets of paper with my ramblings of a speech were what was going to send me careening to the ground.
So I practiced and practiced and practiced and practiced and practiced and practiced and practiced and practiced and practiced and practiced and practiced and practiced.
And suddenly I was standing in front of the podium, looking out at hundreds of people sitting on the lawn. They were all staring at me. That’s when I expected to feel the fear take over. My stomach would jump into my throat. My anxiety would knock my knees together while my sweat glands would go into overdrive. But nothing happened. When I started speaking, I didn’t need my notes. I really did have my speech memorized every which way from Sunday, but for the first time in a very long time, it was just me. I spoke, and reminisced on the growth I achieved while I was working through Chemistry II in my night class. I thought back to my early public speaking days, and all of the blood, sweat, and literal tears that were now memorialized in my diploma (to be mailed at a later date, of course). I think that’s when I decided to try to embrace balance and to let let go of the stress, the anxiety and the tears. I just wanted to hold onto the lifelong study skills, dedication and determination that I learned during the two and a half years spent at QVCC. (See below for a link to my graduation speech).
Entering UConn, I realized that there’s something about a lecture hall class with hundreds of students that washes your slate clean. It’s terrifying and overwhelming and impersonal, but it gave me a blank scale to start learning how to balance. My first semester at UConn was gut wrenchingly lonely at times, and I called my mom almost every day I was there just to have someone to talk to. However, my community college classes prepared me beautifully for UConn, and I reveled in surprising my advisors with my success in my classes. The courses were no more difficult than the classes at QVCC, and at times were even disappointingly easy. (I do realize that I am one of the only people on the planet that wished their Organic Chemistry class was harder, but what can you do? Instead of blood, nerdiness flows through my veins). I finished my first semester with all A’s, and even managed to escape my second semester with nothing less than an A- in Biochemistry. I must say, that class was grueling, intimidating, overwhelming, and terrifying, but I escaped and lived to tell the tale. (If I let you in on a little secret, I actually liked the information and tutor it for fun now. I know, slightly sadistic, right?) I worked part time and made time for my friends and family. Even though it was challenging, I have started to find some balance. Don’t get me wrong, I still have bi-quarterly freak outs where I look at my planner and the weight of weeks’ worth of studying/presentations/papers/reading/research crashes down on me, but that’s when my mom very calmly points out the outcome of my last freak out. (Surprise – it turned out just fine).
So that brings us to now. I am proud of who I am. My dedication, work ethic, and drive are some of the core pieces of me.
I have spent countless hours at my kitchen table; studying, memorizing, writing and re-writing. I have come from a class of two to a class of two hundred. I navigated the ups and downs of relationships, friendships, and lasting ties with teachers that I will never forget.
I am not just smart – I work hard. And while it hasn’t been an easy road to where I am now, that winding pathway and teetering tower of chairs has taught me more about myself than I ever expected.
My story is unique, but then again, whose isn’t? That’s why next week I’ll start sharing stories from other students who have taken alternative pathways. I’m a woman of science at heart, so just like any good research paper, I couldn’t just have one source. I admit, I might be a little biased, but I hope that you are willing to stick around and follow the stories of the incredible people that I have had the opportunity to talk to.