I forgot what it felt like when I got into Penn all those years ago. When I opened my acceptance letter for the first time ever with the music of “The Red and Blue” playing on my phone, I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude. I had made a lot of mistakes in my life, especially in high school, and I was grateful that Penn took a chance on me despite my shortcomings.
Now, as my time in college is coming to an end, I frequently lament about not having the experiences that I wanted to have in college. I no longer remember that gratitude I once felt for accepting a student who probably did not belong in that school. The admissions office took a chance on me, and I seem to have forgotten that. My experiences in college did not live up to the expectations that I had, so how could I forget about the circumstances that led me there in the first place?
When I arrived at Penn, I was not prepared to thrive at Penn, even after completing the module titled, “Thrive at Penn”. I was shy, idealistic. I had such big goals that I wanted to accomplish yet was so incapable of functioning as a normal human being much less accomplishing those goals. That was the state I was in when I came college, but it’s not the state I have as I leave college. Even though I entered unknowing the goals I wanted to achieve or how to achieve those goals, I exit with a sense of confidence in my understanding of myself. For that, I am grateful.
I have an okay idea of what I want to do with my life, at least as okay of an idea as any 22-year-old could have. I am a lot more sure of a person leaving college than I was coming into college, so my college experience has done its part in forming the better person that I eventually become. If I am formed by my environment, then Penn and the community surrounding it is that environment that formed me. So much of what I understand now as pillars of my personality was formed in this environment. It is the environment that let me in despite my not being ready to enter.
As for my first couple years in college, it wasn’t a function of who I could’ve met or what I could’ve done that would have fundamentally changed my college experience. It wasn’t my surroundings that have caused me my sadness; I’m sure if I went to any other college, I would have had the exact same experiences as I did in this one. Rather, my inability to have the college experience that I wanted to was an issue with me, which is the product of the 12 years of education that came before college.
I wish things were different, but things aren’t that bad. People change in college, for sure, but I wish I had changed in a different direction. Sometimes, I meet so many people who have changed for the better, and sometimes, I wish that was me. It isn’t that I haven’t changed for the better, but I wish I had a set of experiences that gave me a more optimistic view of the world, instead of whatever pessimistic outlook I have now. I may have not been the person I wanted to be coming out of college, but I’m closer to the person I want to be now, and I don’t know if this is a good thing or not. It is the same logic the used to plague me in the summer after high school. I wish I had been a different person in high school, just like I wish I had been a different person in middle school, just like the time before that.
From a metaphysical perspective, I think this situation offers some interesting commentary on the nature of self. I am the person I was because of the experiences I have had over the past couple of years. If I did not have the experiences I’ve had over the past couple of years, then I would not be the person I am right now. I do have a reason to be upset for not being who I am now all of those years ago, but it is the same sentiment of envy that defines my want for other material things. I could pull some of that good Nietzsche’s Amor Fati shit and think about how this life is mine and I should love it, but I don’t really Amor my Fati. I don’t love the freedom that I had to live a different life than I did. Freedom is the cause of regret.
I often wonder why I resonate with the Orwellian phrase: Freedom is slavery, but I think I’m coming closer to getting. I have been guaranteed a lot of freedom in my life. Opportunities. And, from a young age, I was constantly reminded of this opportunity. Being the son of immigrants tends to serve as a good reminder. I have infinitely more opportunities than my parents, who grew up in China before modernization in the post-1978 era. Yet, this freedom also involves the constant state of regret because of the existence of opportunity cost.
The first thing I learned in ECON 001 was the concept of opportunity cost. I think I got a B- in that class, so I might not be an expert on this. But, the freedom I experienced as a child only translates into a sense of guilt as I grow older. I did not have that many friends growing up because I was not a great communicator. I am still not a great communicator, but I am significantly better at communicating now than I did in the past. My self-compassion would probably point to how English was my second language, and I’m sure that had something to do with it. But, the bottom line is: I have the opportunity to have a good life, yet why I wasn’t taking it?
I frequently talk about how I think life is deterministic, which is a way for me to redeem my lackluster past. I don’t think I have done any very bad things in the past, but there is a lot in my past I wish I could have done better. There is such a sharp discrepancy in information between now and the past, and I wish I knew back then what I do now then. If I did, then I would have a signficiantly different experience growing up. But, because I was not born in an environment with that type of knowledge, I could only accumulate knowledge as I grew up. Information, in that regard, is just like a material endowment in any other regard, and it was an endowment I was not born with.
Yet sometimes, I am convinced that information is just as much a choice as hard work. I did not know what finance was until junior year of college. Sure, I “knew” what it was,but I didn’t know what it was. My parents have regular, middle-class jobs. My extended family is filled with doctors. It is a piece of information I did not have. Even though I wish I recruited for finance sooner, how could I have possibly known to? It is an absence of information, yet I treat it in my head as a choice. Networking is a way to address information assymetries, but how do I do that when I didn’t know what networking is either? I did not have information, and I did not know how to get information.
Sometimes, I wish the universe happened to me differently than it did with other people. Some people found communities in college that have changed them and “opened their doors” or whatever. I wish the universe happened to me like that. I wish that I was able to find communities that happened to me that allowed me to pour my love and spirit somewhere. Because, the truth is: in college, I had so much affection to give but so little outlets to pour it into. I had so much spirit at the beginning of college.
All I wanted, especially in the beginning of college, was to give my love all away. I wish I had a community to pour my love into, but I didn’t, so I held onto my affection to myself, until one day, I stopped carrying onto it, so I set it down and moved on, where it withered, and died.
Happy memories in college — they’re a possession. it just so happens that these are not possessions that I have. But, on the other hand, I don’t own a Canada Goose jacket, nor did I have a skateboard growing up. For these material things, I have made my peace with it long ago. I don’t really want a Canada Goose jacket anymore even when I can afford one with my signing bonus, and I decided to buy a skateboard during my sophomore year of college. I have so thoroughly intuited the idea that I am not defined by what I have or do not have in terms of material possessions. I know who I am regardless of my possession of a skateboard or a Canada Goose jacket. These things are so insignificant to me. I can move on from these parts of my past. Yet, why do I still so care so much about the happy memories in college I was not born to have?