Recently one of my nieces came to visit. She is a delightful person and I so enjoyed talking with her. She just finished her freshman year and is transferring to a different college in the fall. Her first school wasn’t a good fit. I’m proud of her for knowing what she needs and wants out of college – it is, after all, a huge investment of time and money, so deserves to be at a place that “fits” her.

Talking to her reminded me of my own freshmen year, especially as she was attending the same college I attended.

My freshman year in college wasn’t quite a disaster – but it was close.

I grew up as a first generation kid in a family of hard-working immigrant parents. They believed in education and effort. Acceptable choices for majors were science, math or maybe economics. So, I chose chemistry. To complement the two chemistry classes I added calculus.

I’d never been away from home other than sleepovers at my classmates’ homes. I was young and immature.

To make matters worse, I was persuaded by my well meaning dad that I should give up my loves, swimming and music, as I “wouldn’t have time to do those things.”  

I was miserable.

My parents weren’t trying to be mean. They were trying to keep me safe. I was the eldest child, so they had no experience. I see that now, but back then I felt like a failure as I struggled to pass classes I didn’t like in subjects I was not good at.

But what saved me was the fourth class I took. I took it as it fit into my schedule. A Survey of Philosophy opened my mind and lit me up. I excelled at understanding the content but more important the professor saw something in me worth mentoring. And with his gentle encouragement I branched out second semester and took two classes in philosophy. My world got bigger. I still struggled, but I could see some light ahead and it truly helped to have someone rooting for me.

A Turning Point and Lessons Learned

Over the summer I worked hard as a waitress, but in the quiet moments, I reflected on what had happened and I did not want a repeat. I spent a lot of those quiet moments thinking about what I loved, what made ME feel alive. I started the process of knowing myself deeply. And that made all the difference.

When I thought about my sad first year, I realized I had made it through, I hadn’t failed.

I had developed relationships with several faculty who wanted to see me succeed and made some good friends who showed me other ways of thinking and being. I felt stronger focusing on these thoughts and returned determined to have a better year.

And I did.

I joined the swim team, moved to a more social dorm and switched my major.

I don’t think I would have found what I loved to study or had the will to join swimming if I hadn’t been so miserable. It took a big bump in the road to wake me up and force me to figure out who I was and what I wanted. Struggling and succeeding despite the misery made me grittier and more courageous. And when I look back now, I see myself, the person I am now, emerging through that struggle, and I am happy that my younger self learned how to be resilient.

I am certainly not suggesting that you look for struggle or misery. But I am suggesting you reflect on those times and figure out the lessons that came along with the bumps.

Now when I do find myself feeling “off” or anxious or in a situation that feels hard or even impossible, I channel my younger me from that time. I stop and reflect on who I really am, what I value, how I’ve made it through other struggles and what lights me up. And because I’ve found that writing my stories is a great way to achieve clarity, I write and reflect on what’s happened before that I’ve overcome and try some of those things as well – like using positive ideas and trying things out or finding mentors and friends to help me find my way.

Writing your story is one of the best ways I know to self-knowledge, resilience and joy. 

And if you’re interested in learning more about the power of your stories to create a life of resilience, connection, and meaning, especially with friends, click here to check out my upcoming Write Into Joy workshops to learn how to build resilience and joy through journaling & reflecting.

I’m not sure how my niece came to realize she needed a change, but I’m glad she did – and I’m sure the experience of this past year has taught her a lot, whether or not she’s figured out all the lessons yet. I hope she settles in at her new school next year, finds her space and her people and the things that light her up. It’s the same hope I had for my children when they went away to college, but I knew it wouldn’t be easy, so I shared my love, admiration and encouragement in a letter when they headed off. My niece will undoubtedly face more bumps in the road as will my children. I’ll offer encouragement, thoughts, and always love, and I hope they will turn to their stories to see just how resilient they are and what lights them up and brings them joy.

P.S. If you have kids heading off to college this year (or a niece or a grandchild or anyone else special to you), a heart-felt letter can be an amazing gift and way to deeply connect. Letters sharing the things you really want to say are a touchpoint your reader can come back to again and again when they need your support. My free e-Book, 5 Easy Steps to Writing a Great Thank You Note can get you started. You’ll learn a simple, satisfying process that you can use again and again to share gratitude for gifts and kind acts with the special people in your life.


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