A Letter to My 17-Year-Old Self (Part 1)

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My dear 17-year-old self,

Congratulations. You’re on the verge of graduating from high school and are about to embark on a completely new life on an American college campus. At least that’s the plan now.

If I remember you correctly, you’re struggling with the application process, this being late November. You have just aced the TOEFL and the SATs and are chasing our high school teachers around for letters of recommendation. But you are utterly lost as to what else you should be doing.

Convincing American admissions committees to, well, admit you to their august institutions is a subtle game where Indonesian rules don’t apply. Yes, admissions committees at great American universities want to see stellar grades and impressive test scores, but brain power alone won’t cut it. Ideally, they also want to admit into their incoming class of freshmen people who show the potential of becoming high-achieving, well-rounded, self-aware, and erudite alumni.

Please, you say, knowing this doesn’t really help you with writing the personal statement. This is the last stumbling block of the entire college application process, and it is giving you grief. What does Susan Sontag’s musing about silence, like what the University of Chicago is asking this year, have to do with college admissions anyway?

Let me tell you a secret: whatever personal statement topic the university throws your way is almost beside the point. What the admissions committee wants to read, framed by the topic presented, is a clear, specific, well-evidenced, and engaging essay that hints at who you are as a person and where you’re heading in life. The pivotal personal statement is your one chance to show the admissions committee that you have those qualities they’re looking for.

You are more than a step ahead of your peers in this regard. You’ve been doing the right thing by ignoring the herd and excelling at things, like drama and German, that few in Indonesia understand or care for. You have been volunteering at a local retirement home to read books, letters, and e-mails to the old folks, and to be around and helpful in general. Marching to the beat of your own drum, however miserable it is making high school for you now, provides genuine fodder for a compelling picture of yourself you can use in the personal statement. Besides, if nothing else, things philanthropic make you a more interesting and arguably better human being.

To whet your appetite and to cheer you on, let me give you a glimpse at how our life will unfold once you have sent off the last of our college application packets in early January. Your life will be a roller coaster over the next couple of months, but everything will turn out fine in the end.

By early next year, you’ll have heard where you will end up studying. Many schools will reject you. A few will take you in. As if fate has decided to knock our youthful hubris down a notch, our safety school will say no.

No matter. By next August, you will wonder how the part of the United States you will find yourself in could possibly be hotter than tropical Indonesia. Once you have finally settled in your dorm room and you survey the quad out the window, it will strike you that you are alone. And you can’t be more excited for what lies ahead.

Perhaps majoring in chemistry is a good idea? You have a vague notion of pursuing a career in the natural sciences or a profession. After all, these are all our small circle of Indonesian society has subliminally told you to be worth pursuing since childhood. Besides, chemistry is coming easily to you in high school—even if reading histories and studying languages are what really stirs your soul.

So having tested out of calculus and basic science classes, you will choose to take classes with this major in mind that first semester. And a few other classes that will raise eyebrows back home. Advanced calculus, upper-class chemistry, chemistry lab, English composition, and–because you can–a class on the psychology of sex and a philosophy class on Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz.

As the months roll though, questions revisiting your idea of an ideal post-college life will begin to pop up in your head with an increasingly alarming frequency. You should embrace being so unsettled. You, not Indonesian society or even our parents, will have to live your life so you need to resolve the questions on your own. Keep an open but critical mind, but watch out for advices from those who have little actual experience with or informed opinions about what they’re talking about. Look deep inside; you might like what you see. (Don’t roll your eyes! You’ll see what I’m talking about.)

In the meantime, what will really move you is finding, and devouring, the translated works of Pramoedya Ananta Toer you will come across while browsing the opulent university library for a good textbook on chemical synthesizing. Yes, that Communist–or is this New Order propaganda leftover?– you have been hearing about but whom people seem to be giving you a hard time for reading. You will start getting to know the land of our birth, and in turn yourself, better ten thousand miles from home.

The University of Virginia, where the author studied.

Two other things that you will do are making new friends and checking out things you have never tried out. You will never again find people more open to friendships and socializing than those first few weeks of college.

You will say hi to the cute guy sitting next to you in PHIL 351 and he’ll invite you to hang out with his friends who rap together. You will sign up for a part-time job at the central library that will put extra cash in your pocket and allow you to meet the most fascinating people in your life so far. Like that 30-year-old MD/PhD student who has just spent a year in the depths of the Brazilian jungle researching leaches.

You will ask if you could join in an almost-full table at the cafeteria over lunch and find out that growing up in Saudi Arabia is actually more interesting than you’ve ever thought. You will check out intriguing clubs at the activities fair the first week of class. You will be most interested in spelunking with the nature club, learning how–and eventually failing–to play the mellophone with the pep band, and singing with the glee club.

I know it’s hard but you need to, and you will, get over your worry about your accent or how you have never actually had to speak English 24/7.

Your first academic paper in English will be atrocious, and that’s OK. It will get better, I promise. Your English, too, will get better the more you use it. You just have to put yourself out there, and faking it until you make it is a good first step. In fact, Americans lap up confident gregariousness, real or otherwise. In other words, be yourself–I know, it’s a trite cliché but bear with me here. Talk about racism in the American South and apostasy in Islam until 2:30 AM that first Thursday in the dorm common room. Experience American mores on alcohol that first weekend of college. Learn how to tie a bow tie for that first college football game in the fall. For the first time in our life, you’ll feel like you’re truly fitting in.

The first Friday afternoon after classes have started first semester, you will be reading the Vagina Monologues under the grand magnolia in front of our dorm. Some girls hanging out on the balcony of the upper floor of your dorm will find the sight of you with the infamous play too irresistible to ignore. They will come down to chat you up. They will ask you to recite some passages from the play.

Somehow you will find yourself on top of the nearby wooden bench in front of the dorm reciting the play for the dozen of people who have gathered to listen. With your Indonesian accent. In your Swallow flip-flops. Fresh off the boat from Indonesia.

And that will be how college starts.

Photo credit: Microsoft, Gargola87 on Wikimedia Commons.

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Ray Hervandi
Ray Hervandi, Jakarta-born and -raised, works on the intersection of international relations and economics in Asia at a think tank in Turin, Italy. Prior to Europe, he worked in New York City and Washington, DC. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia and the Johns Hopkins University. He welcomes direct communication and constructive criticism of his pieces at rhervandi at gmail dot com.
  • TP

    This is just a delight to read. Thanks Ray! – Togi

    • Ray Hervandi

      Togi, thanks for the kind words. I’m happy to read that you enjoyed my writing. :)

  • Jeff OK

    Great writing, Ray!

    • Ray Hervandi

      Thanks, Jeff! Hope all is going well in Cape Town.

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  • Eu

    You’re the guy who was checking out a cute guy in a philosophy class.