Twenty years ago, I started college as a know-it-all, confident, 17-year-old. A National Honor Society member, an AP Scholar of some sort, and several other accolades that I no longer remember even vaguely. I got into the University of Michigan with enough credits to almost be a junior. I had everything perfectly mapped out. As a young, first-generation Indian-American woman, this was completely according to plan.
Then, reality hit. I was away from my parents, living with my peers, in a space of intense competition, judgment and all the hormonal rollercoasters of the late teenage years. No one really taught me how to take care of my sanity and well-being, and, as a Desi immigrant kid, I had no ideas of my own. My parents were thirty minutes away, but I couldn’t tell a single soul that I was struggling. The fear of being perceived as a failure was real, and it was often paralyzing.
In so many ways, this next chapter of your life will force you to discover and reinvent the idea of “you.” The goal is to set yourself up for success through your collegiate experience and after it as an adult. Along the way, you will outgrow some friendships and relationships, and build others. Your limits will be tested in ways that you may not even have conceived of yet. All of those things that have helped you get into college may not work in helping you get through it successfully though. It doesn’t mean that they have lost their value; it’s just that the context of college is very different from what you may have experienced until now.
While it may seem like you are now competing against thousands of other nearly perfect students, the stark reality of the college environment is that you are only competing against your toughest opponent and critic: yourself. This can be somewhat daunting given that we are a part of a culture that thrives on external comparisons, judgments and perceptions of perfection. How do you possibly compete against yourself successfully?
Faking it till you make it is not a wise tactic here, because it leaves you with no idea of who you actually are deep down or why you are the way you are. In this case, success actually means buckling down on authentically building your inner core, strengths and inner fire. It means leaning into the personal growth and development you will experience throughout your transition. While this is a process that is unique to each individual’s values, purpose and goals, here is a simplified three-step process that will hopefully at least help you think about your transformation into a force to be reckoned with…in college and beyond.
Step one: Make your well-being your highest priority.
Over the course of your entire life, nothing trumps your wellbeing — your health and overall sense of happiness. It is the foundation that the rest of your core values and identity rest on. Until now, you might have had your family or extended networks take care of your immediate needs. While these support systems don’t disappear, in college you are expected to be in control of your well-being. If you are physically or mentally unwell, you will not be able to sustain success, no matter how hard you try.
So, check in with yourself to see how you are doing every single day, maybe even twice a day. Too often, mental challenges such as episodes of “the blues,” anxiety, low self-esteem, panic, lack of confidence and other symptoms can stem from stress, and vice-versa. Don’t stay silent or oblivious about it; strike pre-emptively or as soon as you realize that you are starting to struggle.
Be very aware of the pressures being exerted on your physical and mental well-being, even if they’re from people you think of as friends. Peer pressure in college can be a leveled-up, super-end-boss on steroids. If you feel unduly pressured by anyone in any situation, walk away as quickly and as safely as you can.
There are resources available to help you find ways to prevent well-being road bumps before they turn into seemingly immovable mountains. Most college campuses have health support services in various forms; find out where they are and what they offer as support.
Step two: Develop a sustainable growth mindset.
No grades or point systems are worth your physical health or your mental sanity. They don’t determine your true substance or value. Thinking that they do is a sign of a fixed mindset, that your skills and abilities are immutable and unchangeable. People who have fixed mindsets don’t thrive in life, regardless of the masks they put on, because they believe they can’t change. Start learning for the sake of developing yourself. Realize that failure is not the end of the world; rather, it is an opportunity for you to practice resilience so that you can make your core stronger. Understand that change is inevitable, and that practicing your agility through constant personal growth is the only way to be adaptive to it.
When you switch from having a fixed mindset to one of growth, you recognize that you are an ever evolving, fluid entity. External judgments lose their power over you. You no longer “need to act cool”, because you realize you already are. You start tapping into the true power of your potential that lies within you. Focus on maintaining this growth mindset. It will allow you to hone your strengths in a class, field of study or area of life and transfer them to other areas. It will empower you to practice grit, creativity, innovation, confidence, and self-belief, all in the process of your transformation into a leader. And it will immediately distinguish between people and situations you should hang out with and those who are just traps for your growth and wellbeing.
Step three: Learn the art of balance.
Make sure your schedule is balanced to allow for growth and development, especially in areas outside of your field of study. That is the whole point of college: to allow you to discover how your values, passions and strengths actually align in ways that allow you to be genuinely happy. Broaden your perspectives and horizons with liberal arts and humanities courses. They will help you understand the interconnectivity of all things in life, and they will help you relate to others more effectively. Take courses in personal accounting and finance, and take control over your own financial future and stability.
As tempting as it may be to knock out all the advanced courses you can take every semester, allow yourself some room to breathe and to nourish your mind in non-technical ways. Take workshops or courses on the soft skills that are equally important in life — networking, relationship building, public speaking, and more.
Balance your courses with your social activities. Seek out opportunities that are more than just resume builders. Search for experiences that allow you to thrive, grow and have fun in the process, regardless of whether you can turn them into a bullet point on your resume or not. They’ll still have valuable lessons to teach you about yourself. It can also be tempting to sign up for every club, group and social initiative on campus but remember, you’re not in college to become a sheep. Look for groups and spaces that allow you to be authentically and transparently you, as you learn and grow.
The truth is that this is not even the tip of the iceberg. As an empowerment and success coach, consultant and a social psychologist among other things, I work with young adults and their parentson assisting them in developing customized, sustainable long-term paths for their success. I chose this profession because my storyof navigating all of the turns of life has been neither easy nor straightforward. It took nearly 15 years, on and off. But, it also led to a tremendous amount of experience, meaning and personal value, and, it helped me find my calling in life.
So, I’ll leave you with one final question: How much could you grow in 15 years if you started off your journey of success with the right tools and the right support? Good luck, graduates! Our future rests in your capable hands.