I got back from UCLA on Friday 12/9/16 and have since spent the past few days relaxing, catching up on sleep, reading, writing, watching Christmas movies on Netflix, filling out applications for premed clubs and emailing professors about undergraduate research positions. I’ve also started a new habit of running twice a day– once in the morning and once in the evening. I’m determined to get back in shape and shed the “freshman-ten” I’ve gained during my first quarter at UCLA. Speaking of which…
I want to take you guys on my journey through my first quarter at UCLA, highlighting how I’ve changed and grown during the first pages of a pivotal life chapter. Because so much has happened during the past ten weeks, there was no way I could fit everything into a single post. Enjoy part 1 of this series!
The first and foremost change I’ve experienced during my first quarter is (of course) yet another worldview shift. I feel like anytime I reach a milestone or overcome a challenge, I question my previous long-standing beliefs. But this worldview shift is an important one.
I think I finally understand the value of “finding balance” in life. I mean, REALLY understand it.
Growing up as a competitive gymnast, my life was, ironically, very off-balance. Everything was devoted to gymnastics. Such is the nature of this demanding and competitive sport– if you want to go far in gymnastics, you have to sacrifice a lot in the process. There isn’t any other way.
While I stopped gymnastics four years ago due to an injury, I have still carried on this single-mindedly determined mindset in all my pursuits, be it dance or school. This ties in with my innately perfectionist and competitive character. Never in my life have I wanted to settle for mediocrity… For a long time, I believed that if I wasn’t the best in my pursuits, I wasn’t worthy… that the only way to live a meaningful life is to be the best at whatever you do.
Going in to UCLA, I was a very focused and very determined pre-med student. In case you don’t know, UCLA is famous for its sheer number of pre-med students. When I first arrived in LA, it seemed as if every other person I met was on the pre-med track. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t intimidated. I knew I needed to earn virtually perfect grades to get into a great medical school. As usual, however, I took the pursuit of my goal to the extreme. Starting week 1 of fall quarter, I was already buried in the books, locking myself in study rooms and frantically learning chemistry concepts like I was fighting for my life. My mindset during the start of the quarter was, “I cannot fail. I MUST get straight A’s, or I won’t get into medical school and my life is over.” (Yes, a distortion indeed.) Come week 3, I was pulling unnecessary all-nighters in the name of “getting more things done.” I wouldn’t let myself sleep unless I understood the concepts. I really pushed myself to the physical and mental limit, believing that I had no limits, like I was a robot.
Because of the work I put in, I got off to an excellent start academically, earning high marks across the board. At what cost, though? My social interaction was very limited, and as a result, my social anxiety crept back, largely because I wasn’t giving myself the social interaction I needed to fight the anxiety. While most of the people on my floor were bonding with one another through meals and movie-nights, I felt like an outsider. I constantly turned down invitations with the excuse of needing to “study”, even though I had already studied for six hours that day… I ate my meals alone. I wasn’t dancing nearly as much as I wanted to. There were moments when I’d be alone in my dorm, on the verge of tears, not knowing why. I felt empty. Lonely. This was not how I had envisioned my college experience to be. I thought I’d be branching out, getting involved in many clubs, becoming a leader in my community. The reality– I was so engrossed in my studies, so tunnel-visioned and obsessed with getting good grades for med school, that I completely lost sight of what truly matters. Relationships. Experiences. Memories.
So yeah, I was getting great grades… but my mental health suffered. My relationships suffered.
This was precisely the type of thought pattern I held as a gymnast. Set a goal and obsessively fight to achieve it, without any sense of balance. It was happening again… the unhealthy tunnel-visioning that inevitably leads to burn-out and broken relationships. That was the story of my life… being the outsider, the lone soldier, the martyr, all because I hungered for success. I had reverted back to my old ways as a gymnast.
The thing is, at the beginning of fall quarter, I thought I was past my former way of life. I thought I had tackled my distortion once and for all. The moment I was placed in a pool of competitive students at a top-notch university, however, it was like a switch was activated. I saw my goal and I went full throttle to reach it. It was back to the former belief that taking extreme measures was the only way I could be somebody in this life… the only way I could achieve my goals and reach success.
All the while, I was suffering inside, and I knew it, but I also believed that the degree of future success was proportional to the amount of suffering and martyrdom I put myself through in the present. Of course this type of thinking is illusory. But I didn’t truly realize the extent of my illusion until, during the end of week 4, I contracted a virus that rendered me bed-ridden for nearly two weeks (that’s one thing about living in a dorm setting with 90 other students in crowded quarters– expect to get sick at least ONCE each term).
Due to sleep-deprivation, my immune system was severely weakened, which probably protracted the illness. For nearly two weeks, I could not get out of bed, let alone study. Midterms were coming, and I was freaking out because I wanted so badly to do well. There were two nights in particular where I had spiked a fever and was shaking uncontrollably with cold sweats. I considered calling 9-1-1. It was a scary time, but I’m grateful that my brother, Austin, was there to bring my Tylenol and food when I was at my worst and couldn’t care for myself.
My memory of week 6- midterm week- is very hazy. Thankfully, the worst of my illness had passed by the time I faced midterms, and I managed to do pretty well on them, in spite of my condition.
My period of illness taught me a valuable lesson, however. I remember vividly the first day I was healthy enough to leave my dorm room and attend my math lecture. Never in my life had I been happier to go to an 8 a.m. math class. The sun was shining bright, the birds were singing, I was alive and breathing, and every inhale sent a wave of sweet, cool air into my raw lungs. I laughed with joy as I sauntered to Moore 100 lecture hall, head pounding with euphoria. That day, I realized how precious and beautiful life was. I also realized that, pre-med or not, I no longer wanted to spend my days locked in a dark room, away from people, away from the sunny Los Angeles weather, head buried in a textbook. I realized that life was too short to deprive myself of the simple beauties of relationships, laughter, sunshine and passion. Yes, it is important to have a great GPA for medical school. But is it everything? Of course not. Doctors are not emotionless robots. They are PEOPLE. Smart, focused, determined, compassionate PEOPLE.
Being a pre-med student does not mean you have to deprive yourself of happiness in the pursuit of getting into medical school. Yes, you must study hard, but what’s more important than studying hard is studying SMARTLY and EFFICIENTLY so you have time do pursue other activities beyond schoolwork.
I’d say week 7 was a major turning point in not only my college experience, but also my life. I began to make time for dancing. I committed myself to UCLA’s Latin Dance Team, forming close bonds with my fellow dancers. Instead of eating alone in the dining halls, I ate with my floormates, all of whom welcomed me with open arms. Instead of studying alone in my dorm room, I’d began to study in the floor lounge or in the library, so I wasn’t so isolated from people. With these behavioral changes, my mental health did a complete 180 degree shift. I was radiating with gratitude and newfound joy by the end of the quarter, even as finals were approaching. It is true that, during the second half of the quarter, I spent less time studying and more time working on growing myself and pursuing my passions. You may think that my grades suffered as a result. Interestingly enough, I realized that if I knew I had less time to study, I’d be much more efficient during my study sessions. It’s called practicing good “study hygiene”– being very efficient and focused during study sessions and getting the same amount of work done in a shorter period of time. The result: equally good grades and more time for pursuits that make you happy.
In the past, I believed that in order to achieve greatness, balance was something one had to be willing to give up. Now, as I grow older, I realize that balance is a REQUISITE for achieving not only career success, but also character success. If you really want to live life to its fullest, being able to balance work with relationships and extracurricular activities is a must.
I’ve also learned to be okay with COMPROMISE. Some days, I simply don’t have time to dance as much as I want to, because in college, studies come first. It’s called prioritizing, and it’s a very important life skill. I shouldn’t feel guilty or bitter about putting my studies before my extracurriculars, so long as I’m trying my best to make time for both.
I’m so glad to have emerged from this rocky but enlightening first quarter at UCLA with another distortion conquered. Setting high goals and disciplining yourself to achieving them is important to reaching success. This I learned from a very young age. But if you compromise your health and integrity and happiness in the process, what is it all worth?
Life isn’t just about achieving goals. Goals are markers of growth. But as human beings, we can grow is so many dimensions… I used to define success as being the “best” in whatever career I pursued. Now I realize how naive that definition was. Career success does not necessarily lead to “life” success. As I bring up time and time again, one could be the world’s greatest neurosurgeon, but if one’s life is devoid of relationships and happiness, what is it all worth? By practicing work-life balance, one is empowered to grow in multi-dimensions, not just academically. In doing so, one becomes a more well-rounded individual. One can say, “I have it all.” This, I believe, is the hallmark of living a meaningful life.