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Oh, and it was all yellow

If college were a medley of colors, my sophomore year would be a nebulous yellow—nowhere near as vibrant or fiery as freshman red, but still lacking the self-assurance and collectedness of the senior green I aspire towards.

The freshman urge to meet new people has waned, now manifesting as fleeting bursts of energy instead of sustained vigor. There is no shortage of personalities on campus I would love to acquaint myself with, but I’ve learned that most of these new “friends” will remain on the outskirts of my social circle as we both struggle to find the time and energy to bridge the gap between us. Many such friendships forged last year have already dwindled into mere acquaintanceships, barely sustained by cursory greetings (why bother asking how I am if you don’t care enough to stop and listen) and empty promises: “We’ll definitely grab a meal together sometime!” (whenever that might be). 

Every time I look back upon my freshman year, I am awed by how I managed to muster the energy to constantly thrust myself outside my comfort zone. My eagerness to enjoy the full college experience resulted in a few too many boundaries being transgressed, with socialization often taking precedence over work, sleep, health and family. I caved in to peer pressure too easily, allowing the almighty fear of ostracization to maneuver me like a puppet on strings. Basing such a large part of my identity and sense of belonging on others’ perceptions meant that I felt compelled to constantly cast my social net wider, while ensuring that I was putting enough effort into existing friendships. The more people I “knew”, the more secure I felt, as though recognizing one more familiar face somehow made this colossal campus a little less daunting and my existence feel a little more validated.

For better or for worse, over the summer, I decided that I had had enough of this lifestyle. I marched into sophomore year with the resolve to reorganize my priorities, establish firmer boundaries, and cultivate healthier habits. I’ve trained myself to say no with conviction, although the fear of missing out still rears its head from time to time. No longer a nomad who hops from common room to common room, I often retreat to the peaceful solitude of my single room, where productive work sessions are adequately interspersed with pockets of time to do chores and indulge in Netflix or YouTube. Going to bed in the wee hours of the morning, once deeply entrenched in my nightly routine, is now but an occasional occurrence. 

Yet, comfortable as I am within the privacy of my introverted shell and the structure of my routine, there are times when I feel suffocated by the walls I have erected around me. There are times when I miss my friends and wish I could revert to the freshman who constantly surrounded herself with people and savored the thrill of spontaneity. The desire to socialize is sometimes briefly reignited, triggering a slew of meals, study dates, and weekends packed with social plans. But then, the burden of neglected responsibilities and looming deadlines start weighing down on my shoulders again. The obsession with safeguarding my painstakingly established routine gradually tightens its reins, beckoning me back to the peaceful quarters of my room, where I grind in isolation for days on end, struggling to make up for the lost time. For the past two months, I have been swept helplessly along this relentless ebb and flow left wondering when I will achieve the perfect balance between fun and responsibility, if ever.

On the academic front, everything no longer evokes the same dreamy-eyed fascination it used to, my rose-tinted lenses now jaded by routine and familiarity. I have outgrown the idealistic and energetic freshman, who was entranced by the surreal feeling of taking classes with accomplished faculty at a renowned academic institution. The intellectual curiosity that once burned intensely within me has been partially smothered by the tyranny of metrics. Being passionate about learning as an end in itself is almost impossible when maintaining stellar grades demands pragmatism and efficiency. I have given up entirely on many of the aspirations I came into Duke with, that reckless ambition having been humbled by the sobering realities of time and energy constraints.

As a freshman, I was often reassured by upperclassmen and advisors that I had plenty of time to take classes in a variety of disciplines before deciding on my academic focus. Indeed, having two whole years to make this decision does sound luxurious. But everyone left out the important caveat (at least for STEM majors) that the freedom to explore was contingent on being able to complete degree requirements on time—and let’s not forget the plethora of onerous prerequisites that precede them. Two years honestly isn’t a lot of time, especially when a decent part of it is spent taking introductory classes, which—while absolutely necessary for building a strong foundation and excellent for acclimating to the academic rigor of college—are grossly inadequate at helping me ascertain if I want to devote my life to a particular field. Two years certainly isn’t a lot of time for Pratt students like myself, who have to adhere to four-year plans that are packed to the brim with classes in a preordained and largely non-negotiable sequence.

Sophomore year is a strange, awkward and uncomfortable place to be in, one in which the rhythm of college I settled into as a freshman has been plunged into utter chaos. The same uncertainty I experienced last fall is haunting me again, albeit now compounded by a sense of urgency to figure things out and no longer obscured by naivety and enthusiasm. 

Nevertheless, if college were a novel, my sophomore year would probably be the most interesting chapter in hindsight—the slump following the first climax, replete with hidden developments that set the stage for the rest of the narrative arc. It may not be as exhilarating and vivid as the previous chapter, or as calm and predictable as the coming ones, but it is certainly instigating me to make difficult choices about my goals and priorities.


Valerie Tan is a Pratt second-year. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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