5 Defining Decisions That Shaped My College Years

Explore the transformative college journey through 5 defining decisions. Discover personal growth, research exploration, minor pursuits, passion-driven involvement, and the embrace of unexpected challenges. Gain valuable insights for your own college experience.

5 Defining Decisions That Shaped My College Years
Me happily skipping steps on my graduation day. Photo taken by my professional ten-year-old brother.

College is a transformative time filled with opportunities, challenges, and personal growth. As a member of the class of 2023, I navigated my college experience amidst the changes brought by the pandemic. Looking back, these 5 decisions were pivotal moments that shaped my education and transformed me into the person I am today.

1. Apply for jobs that were out of my comfort zone

You're never ready for what you have to do. You just do it. That makes you ready. - Flora Rheta Schreiber. Source Sybil

Many college students have an innate desire to constantly feel smart, often leading them to avoid unfamiliar and challenging situations. However, it is precisely these situations that offer the greatest opportunities for personal growth.

When my General Chemistry I professor approached me about becoming a learning assistant, despite having excelled in the class the previous semester, I hesitated. I feared I wouldn't explain the content well, that students would present unsolvable problems, or worse, that one wrong answer would earn their everlasting scorn.

The same self-doubt made me question my suitability for a competitive summer research program and an international communication assistant job, believing my introverted nature wouldn't fit.

Nevertheless, I took a leap of faith and applied for these jobs, disregarding my initial self-doubt.

Looking back, I am grateful for pushing past my fears. The growth I have experienced and the supportive network of coworkers, peers, and advisors I have gained through these ventures have been invaluable. Stepping into unfamiliar territory has shaped me in ways I never imagined, and I am appreciative of the lessons learned and the doors that have opened as a result.

2. Join More Than One Research Lab

I panicked when I couldn't picture myself dedicating my entire life to aquatic fungi research, the primary focus of my first research team. I believed that a successful scientist must have an unwavering passion for a specific field.

However, that initial research experience became a source of knowledge and confidence. It also introduced me to remarkable individuals whom I deeply admire.

In my sophomore year, I joined a summer research program, becoming part of a theoretical computational chemistry research group. Initially, I didn't think I would enjoy constructing biomimetic models, but this experience inspired me to explore Computer Science courses and delve into the world of technology.

In my final undergrad research group, the team was preparing to publish a paper, so I didn't have my own project. However, I immersed myself in the scientific writing process and learned how the collective research efforts of lab members contribute to the lab's overall goals.

Although I felt impatient at times, unsure of my true passion, I now appreciate the value of exploring different opportunities rather than sticking with something I wasn't truly enthusiastic about. Looking back, I realize that none of my research experiences were wasted. They provided me with diverse knowledge, a versatile skill set, and a deep understanding of lab culture.

3. Get a minor

After my paid research experience in a computational chemistry lab, I made the decision to take Computer Science courses, despite convincing myself that coding was beyond my capabilities before. I realized the significant impact this knowledge could have on my professional career and decided to give it a shot.

Navigating through fundamental courses surrounded by freshmen and electives where my peers were seasoned Computer Science pros, I often felt like the least knowledgeable person in the room. Nevertheless, declaring a college minor proved to be one of the best decisions I ever made. In fact, I believe that every student, especially those in STEM majors, should consider pursuing a minor. You can find more insights on this topic in my previous post titled Why All STEM Majors Should Get A Minor.

4. Find The Student Organization I’m Passionate About

During my freshman year, I eagerly joined five different student organizations on campus. In my senior year, I proudly served as the president of one.

As an international student, I initially put pressure on myself to be highly involved. I spent time with certain groups that didn't truly resonate with me, simply to appear "active." It took time to realize that this approach was a waste of my time and disrespectful to others.

When the pandemic struck, most student organizations struggled to survive. In the face of this adversity, I made a deliberate choice to stay with the one organization I cared about most—the Vietnam Student Association. Perhaps my attachment was partially biased as a Vietnamese student, but this group felt like my family.

However, it wasn't all smooth sailing. Our association had only recently been established before the pandemic hit, forcing us to navigate through the challenges of limited resources during this crucial time. Yet, every minute and effort I dedicated to nurturing the growth of this fledgling group proved to be immensely worthwhile.

In hindsight, I believe that one of the keys to success for college students is striking a delicate balance between exploring different opportunities and prioritizing what truly matters. Time is a finite resource, and it's essential to choose wisely and invest in activities that hold the most meaning for you.

5. Embrace The Pandemic

When the pandemic disrupted my second semester in college, I felt a wave of unluckiness wash over me. While my international friends hastily returned to their home countries, I chose to remain until the summer, only to find myself trapped as the borders closed. It seemed like a cascade of unfortunate events.

However, amidst the initial despair, unexpected doors swung open. The pandemic created a need for learning assistants in my chemistry professor's Zoom classes, leading to my first job opportunity.

In the midst of pandemic-induced boredom, I found solace in collecting pond water on campus and observing it through the microscope I purchased with my hard-earned paycheck, igniting my first research experience.

Through this journey, I've come to understand that no matter the unforeseen circumstances that arise during your college years, embracing them with a positive mindset can foster remarkable growth. Even amidst challenges, no learning experience is truly wasted. Lessons are learned, knowledge is acquired, and resilience is honed.

While I once believed my college experience would be marred by the pandemic, looking back, it stands as the defining catalyst that has shaped the very core of who I am today.

Last, here is my piece of advice for future and current college students:

Be curious, Be brave, and Be wise with your time.