Three Things I Wish I Knew Before Stepping into College

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I arrived in San Francisco right before the fall semester began. The temperature had already dropped—layers had become a necessity (though I didn’t realize then that, thanks to my delicate upbringing, layers were always a necessity), and the trees had turned … well, not red, because San Francisco doesn’t have the right trees or the right weather for that storybook red, just slightly balder than usual.

I hardly noticed, though, because I was too busy freaking out about my first college experience.

I started at City College of San Francisco. Comparatively speaking, I started out with much better resources than most of my other peers: I had an older sister three years into her own undergraduate degree, an apartment only one bus ride away from school, and a pretty good grasp of the English language. What I lacked was confidence… and the realization that college was supposed to be experienced, not stressed over.

We’ll start small. I want to share three things I wished someone had briefed me on before I stepped foot into college.

The first thing I wished I knew was to keep my documents in a safe, easy-to-remember place. The holy trinity of an international student’s life: passport, i-20, and i-94. These were the first things I needed to check before crossing international borders—in or out— at least two weeks before. Because it took a while to procure new ones—I learned the hard way.

The second thing I wished someone had told me about on my first day of classes? Essay writing. If you went through a perfectly ordinary Indonesian pre-college education (international standards don’t count), a gentle warning: you will screw up your first essay. Mine was for English class—a subject I actually enjoyed when it didn’t involve sixteenth century poets—and I got a C- (And I didn’t take it well).

This, according to my then-professor, was a common problem for international students. Our pre-college education didn’t require us to read, comprehend, and write our interpretations on works of literature. We were never taught how an academic paper should be structured or how to make a coherent argument. This was a source of stress for weeks. Luckily I was informed of a way to minimize this disaster: find a writing tutor. They usually came free (for students), hung out in libraries or the tutoring center, and got paid to teach you how to write and edit your papers – so make sure you take advantage of them.

I had a lot of love for the English language and the determination to learn, so I skated by with a decent grade. As such, if you were a less language-inclined learner, just cross your fingers and hope for the best as you complete your linguistics requirements and rack up enough credits to specialize in the field you actually want to.

Finally, there was the culture adjustment. Not shock—just adjustment. Actually, it was really more my problem than theirs. At eighteen years old, I had a chronic case of Social Awkwardism: I was a pro at shutting down small talk, I practiced ordering take-out, I loathed talking on phones, and above all, I hated asking people to repeat themselves. This was a big disadvantage in a foreign-speaking country. I spent the first two months being scared of talking to everyone—including the teenager behind the frozen yogurt counter and the old lady who waved at me when I walked by. It took a while to adjust.

Eventually, though, I learned some important things. People… don’t really care. San Francisco, in particular, has a lot of Asians and immigrants. Eventually I realized that talking pretty wasn’t a necessity (unless, of course, if you were in class). People were willing to listen to you, and people were really chill about communicating with foreigners. They were so chill, in fact, that some of them wouldn’t care how you communicated what you wanted (I love you, old Chinese restaurant ladies).

Eventually, I learned that I could walk slow and smile at complete strangers. Sometimes they smiled back. Sometimes they didn’t—but that was okay, because sometimes I pretended I didn’t see them, either.

Of course, you should still exercise some self-preservation. Never look like you don’t know where you’re going. Never walk alone in dark alleys. Never pull out your cellphone to show the time to strangers and/or hold your iPod outside your pocket (again, learned it the hard way). Otherwise, you’ll be fine. I mean, I made it. Trust me: you will, too.

(Also: study hard. No, seriously. Your parents worked their teeth off to send you to the US—it sure as hell wasn’t cheap. Study hard. You won’t regret it.)

Photo credit: Maxwell GS on Flickr.