Saturday, October 8, 2016

College Advice

We've had two weeks of school. I am busy but with good things, worthwhile things. I've been missing Deutschland, especially Berlin. But being back at school has its advantages, one of which is being surrounded by other students and being in positions of authority--some de jure and some de facto.

Now a junior, I've gone through two of the most transformative years of my life since coming to college. I was thinking today about things I do that have improved my college experience, and have assembled a list of ten:

1. Be considerate of the staff.

If you make a mess, clean it up yourself. Pick up your trash, use the doormat so you're not tracking leaves and mud inside the building, and so on. If you take dishes, cups, utensils, etc. from the dining hall, bring them back. Be patient if something is taking longer than usual. Say hello to people.

2. Refrain from assuming you know people's lives.

Race/ethnicity and assigned gender may seem visually obvious, but be aware that people's experiences are not monolithic. Economic background can be more difficult to determine and no matter the patterns of behavior that people exhibit, be aware that you could be reading them incorrectly. The two factors that I have been most surprised by, because I wrongly assumed things about people, are 1) mental health and 2) relationship to family.

3. Avoid buying textbooks at full price.

Some classes may not really require the textbook, or you can get an old version and copy problems from a book in the library. Do a thorough search for PDFs. I have no sympathy for textbook publishers.

4. Maintain a calendar.

I need to be able to orient myself in time, so I have a lot of calendars. But keep track of assignments, long-running projects, deadlines, exams, events, etc. because they pile up really fast. A term-long calendar, taped above your desk, is great. Leave a column to write down a list of things due that week, it actually helps a lot.

5. Decorate your room.

Whether you spend a lot of time there or just use it to park your body while you sleep, making the space your own helps counteract any homesickness that may occur. Or, if like me you don't really get homesick (...because home is half an hour away), it still feels nice to have a place that is yours.

6. Try working in different places.

If your original study place happens to be the best, you can always go back to it.

7. Combine food in the dining hall.

I learned what an Arnold Palmer is in freshman year (lemonade + iced tea) and my life is improved because of it. Adding pasta or rice to soup is also good.

8. File old notes and work.

Cheap paper folders, stacks on your bookshelf, whatever. Keeping old stuff organized by course helps a lot when reviewing for finals. If you file stuff away promptly, e.g. at the end of every week, then it's a super low-maintenance system. Much worse is letting stuff pile up and needing to block out an hour or more to sort through it all--not that I don't enjoy that kind of thing, it's just less efficient.

9. Schedule in vacuuming and doing laundry.

You don't need to put them in on your calendar formally, but doing them at the same time every week (or two weeks, or three weeks, depending on your desired frequency) builds the habit of doing them. Same goes for any sort of housekeeping task.

10. Check in with yourself.

Some stretches you barely have time to think, you're so busy. But if you have a chance to catch your breath, gather your thoughts as well. They may surprise you.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Return

I am back in the US, back on campus, all moved into my dorm room and with a full week of classes behind me. Not going to lie, it's strange being back.

After leaving Hamburg, I spent a few days in Berlin. My host parents from the spring were kind enough to let me stay with them, and I had two full days--Sunday and Monday--which I spent in exactly the way I wanted, saying goodbye to my favorite city.

On Sunday I went to the Flohmarkt and got souvenirs, finally made it to the DDR Museum and the museum in the Holocaust Memorial, and watched the news coverage of the Berlin elections with my host parents. On Monday I had some business to take care of and experienced the thrilling paranoia of walking home with over 1000 Euro in my backpack from cashing out my bank account. Then I watched Tschick in a near-empty theater and spent too much money on notebooks and wandered around the Freie Universit├Ąt.

I woke up on Tuesday at 0530 in Berlin and went to sleep on Tuesday at 2200 in California.

My Wednesday to Friday were spent writing emails, eating, walking, and sleeping. On Saturday I moved back and got my room all set up. I'm fairly pleased with how it turned out.
(I particularly like the parallelism of these decorations. The Polaroid-style postcards are from Berlin and Hamburg; the MRI is of my head; Memento Mori e Festina Lente. The art on the bookshelf is all by the infinitely talented Lieutenant Sarcasm.)

I want to write more in-depth posts about my six months abroad before it all fades away in the rush of the school year. The bubble is really a vortex that strips away everything you may bring with you until you remember no life before setting foot on campus--or at least that's how it felt freshman year. And this year feels like a second freshman year for a variety of reasons more or less superficial--I started a new journal so I can't read back to the previous two years, I'm in a dorm where I don't know most of the people, some of my most important people are far away (on the other side of campus, abroad), I've been away for six months so campus feels new--but I have begun, slowly, to regain the feeling of being a continuous creature, of building something that will last me the rest of my life.

This quarter I am taking four civil engineering classes (or rather, five but one is a weekly seminar), which is a little scary. Fluid mechanics, geotechnical engineering, structural analysis, and steel design. I really want to do well in all of them. Somehow I ended up in leadership positions for two extracurrics, so those are also taking a lot of time, but I also greatly enjoy having power and being the person making executive decisions.

The first week back is always exhausting, and the rest of the quarter is likely to be the same--although once things settle into a routine I'll be better able to manage it. It's going to be a long year, I can feel it, but also one where I really build the knowledge and skills that will (ahem) be the foundation of my professional life.