Fall Quarter Junior Year Reflection: Academics, Dance, Friendships

Hi guys! Hope you all are doing well! Man, it’s been a helluva ride since I last spoke to y’all, two weeks ago. I have so much to tell you, it’s overwhelming! My thoughts are racing far faster than my hands can type!

I guess I’ll start with what’s happened most recently. Finals. I finished my last exam Friday morning at 11am. It was for my Psych 110 class, psychology of learning. Let me just rant a little bit about this class. Notorious for its difficulty, this class is one of the requirements for the psychology major. I was not looking forward to this class, especially since the professor, Dr. Michael Fanselow, was rated a measly 2.7 out of 5 on BruinWalk (the UCLA equivalent of ratemyprofessor.com). His tests are known to be extremely tricky, really testing students on how well they can apply concepts to novel scenarios, instead of simply regurgitating material (the best measure of learning– but annoying for the students, who want to preserve their GPAs). At the end of the day, though, I learned SO. FREAKING. MUCH. More than I’ve learned in any other class at UCLA. Seriously, guys, out of the 2 years and a quarter I’ve been in college, this is the first class I was genuinely intrigued by, as I could apply so much of what I learned in the classroom to my past and present life experiences. On the eve of my final exam, I took a study break and sent Professor Fanselow a very long email about how much I enjoyed his class, difficult as it was. At the time I sent the email, I was sleep deprived and hyped up on caffeine, so my email sounded a bit crazy. For anyone interested in what I sent, here it is:

Hi Dr. Fanselow,

I hope this email finds you well! 

So I was just reading over Chapter 9 in the textbook, when I stumbled across the term overtraining as it applies to extinction, and I was wondering if this phenomenon is somehow related to burnout. 
I started competitive ballroom dancing when I was 16 years old, after 10 years as a competitive gymnast. When I first began learning the skill, my learning curve was super steep– my background as a gymnast helped me pick up super fast. I saw rapid improvement in my skill every day of training. And, in applying myself to dance in the same way as I did in gymnastics, I trained like CRAZY. Every day, 5-6 hours at the studio. My first coach was quite liberal with her reinforcement, constantly showering me with praise and affirmation whenever I did something well. 
I find that in anything in life where you learn a new skill, learning rate slows the more advanced you get (as illustrated by the acquisition curve, right?). They often say it takes just as, if not more, work to get from 99%-100%, than it does to go from 0%-99%. So as the months went on and the dance technique became more advanced and intricate, I was no longer able to see daily improvement, which took away the reinforcer of visible improvement (extinction). I also switched to another dance teacher who coached with a different style, rarely complimenting his students (but when he did, it meant you did something very well… and somehow I found I improved faster under this new teacher). About 5 months into dancing, I started to feel the effects of what I think was premature burnout. I was no longer getting that reinforcement I was so used to, which probably led me into extinction (aka practicing hard, but not seeing visible results / gaining validation from my coach). I still practiced, but I often felt frustrated (another illustration of the emotional side of extinction, perhaps?) and often thought of quitting. Then college came around, and that was a good enough excuse for me to stop competitive dancing. 
I am graduating college this spring, and I really would like to get back into competitive dancing, because there obviously was something about it that once upon a time led me to spend entire days at the studio, training non-stop, and pushing myself with whole-hearted purpose and all-consuming passion (side-note– is there a science of “passion”, and is this something that’s quantifiable? If we could study passion and learn how to increase it in people, imagine what good that will do for society!). In short, the first 5 months of dancing was a great time in my life, as I was seeing so much self-growth every day, which was the product of hard, fulfilling work doing what I loved. I became addicted to the reinforcement of improvement. 
So what happened, for this passion to seemingly “fade” so fast? Before I took this course, I often wondered… maybe I am not as strong-willed or hardworking as I thought I was, to have quit dance so soon once the going got tough. Now, I’m thinking, perhaps there was something that happened in the early stages of my learning that played a role in getting me to the point I’m at right now– unable to persist in the face of extinction (the mere thought of dance practice now evokes feelings of dread). Was it overtraining? Did I train too hard too fast, and get reinforced too continuously, which resulted in my inability to power through this extinction? Was it a lifetime’s worth of burnout catching up to me? I began elite gymnastics training when I was 5 years old; sacrificed a normal childhood (no social life, no sweets, no fun, just training and school); underwent physical and psychological abuse at the hands of my Eastern European coaches (I especially liked the last lecture when you talked about how positive punishment can lead to Pavlovian fear conditioning… SO SO TRUE); probably experienced DNA methylation with the unusual amount of psychological stress I faced as an elite gymnast (I am one of a set of triplets, and I am the only one of my siblings who has generalized anxiety… mental illness does not run in the family). 
I will be honest– initially, I was not looking forward to taking Psych 110, especially after hearing how difficult the course was. But now that I look back on the past ten weeks– even on the eve of tomorrow’s final– I can’t help but appreciate this class as one of the most eye-opening, applicable, life-changing courses I’ve taken at UCLA. I plan on earning a PhD in Sports and Performance psychology, and understanding the mechanisms of learning phenomena can really help me work with athletes and coaches to come up with effective training programs, and coaching strategies, among other things. As a gymnast, I was taught that the only way to achieve success was through hard, brutal work. That pain and punishment and fear conditioning is somehow supposed to make you learn faster. It’s somewhat intuitive, isn’t it? After taking this course, I wonder if most of these tenets I’ve been raised under hold true. Is it possible to shape a high-performing athlete without stripping them of their humanity and causing long-term psychological damage? There’s a whole field of positive psychology that I am hoping to integrate with sports psychology. I am also fascinated by the concept of delayed gratification and its ability to be trained, as well as how it is tied to intrinsic motivation (do you think “passion” can be quantified as the level of intrinsic motivation one has?). The first thing athletes must learn is to delay gratification– suffer through long grueling hours at the gym and making so, so many sacrifices, for the slim chance at Olympic gold. My mental strength (which I operationalize as my ability to delay gratification) has deteriorated DRASTICALLY ever since I stopped competitive gymnastics and dance, and came to college (where temptations hide behind every corner). I get distracted more easily while studying and find myself succumbing more easily to junk food. I am not as focused and disciplined as I used to be. I often beat myself up over this fact. Only 3 years ago, I could make it through 6 hour trainings at the studio with minimal break time. Today, I can barely make it through an hour of dance practice before wanting to quit. What is this phenomenon I am experiencing? I hate it! Have I just become a lazy person? Can I train myself to go back to the focused, hard-working athlete I used to be? How is it that an individual can change so much based on their environment and experiences? These are all questions I wish I was able to ask you during office hours… but unfortunately this quarter I always had class during your scheduled office hours. 
Wow. What started as a simple question about whether or not overtraining was related to burnout turned into an essay. I apologize for that! If you read this far, I truly appreciate it. If it is okay with you, I would like to come to one of your office hours early next quarter to talk more about these topics I am fascinated by. 
I should probably get back to studying for the final! Thank you again for an amazing quarter, and have a great winter break.
Best,
Belicia 
So that was the lengthy email I sent Dr. Fanselow. He hasn’t replied yet, but I understand he’s been busy grading final exams. Hopefully he doesn’t think I’m a crazy person for sending him that monster of an email. I realize it’s probably bad form for me to email busy, important people such lengthy messages, with the expectation that they will read all of it… but I simply could not help myself, as I felt so inspired!
All in all, I think I did very well this quarter. I was a lot more studious than I was last year. Didn’t party or drink nearly as much; stayed away from boys; kept on top of my schoolwork, for the most part. I ended up with an A+ in my health psychology class, an A- in my psychobiology of sexual behavior course (I screwed up the second exam, as it was a heavy biology unit, and thus very difficult for me to understand), and an A+ in my psychology of aging class. Now all that’s left is Fanselow’s class, and I honestly have no idea what grade I will get on the final. I thought it went better than the midterm, but I don’t want to jinx it. If I get an A-, I will be a happy camper.
I am on track to graduate this spring. Just two more psychology requirements, one more GE class, my foreign language requirement, and 6 more upper division units. I can’t believe college has gone by so fast! I’m determined to make the most of my remaining time at UCLA.
What to talk about next?? How ’bout dance? Well, my dance life has been on the decline for a while now. It’s been really difficult balancing academics with dance. This quarter, I’ve essentially given up on ballroom. I no longer take lessons outside of school, and I barely attend UCLA Dancesport club practice. In the beginning of the quarter, I was actually able to find a dance partner! We competed at UCSB Beach Ball in early November and had good results– 1st place in the Gold division and 2nd place in Novice, after only 3 weeks of dancing together. However, we ended up splitting up after the competition. I think our breakup was mostly my fault. During practices, I would get frustrated very easily, and according to my partner, I “never smiled” and seemed like I “didn’t enjoy dancing”. I think training with a partner has been by far the greatest challenge of ballroom. Having spent 10 years as a gymnast, I am so used to working by myself. In gymnastics, training is not the time to smile or have fun. It’s all about hard, focused, diligent work. I am most comfortable when I work by myself. When I get frustrated, the only person caught in the crossfire of my intense emotions is myself. But in ballroom, it’s different. There’s another person in the equation, which obviously complicates things. You have to communicate when things aren’t going right, and I often found myself blaming my partner for things that go wrong. Instead of communicating, I’d keep my thoughts and emotions bottled up inside and let the negativity fester, manifesting itself as passive aggressiveness, until eventually I’d snap. Ballroom has taught me so much about myself. It’s taught me that I don’t work well with others, as I often let my pride get in the way of productivity. I pick up corrections very fast, and when my partner is slower to grasp new concepts, I get frustrated at him. It’s difficult for me to be understanding and patient with partners, because I want so badly to improve quickly. So of course I’d drive away any amateur dance partner I have! Which makes me wonder… is ballroom dance really for me? I appreciate the beauty of it and am fascinated by what two artists can create together. But if I wish to succeed as a ballroom dancer, I have much to learn about working with another individual.
On a brighter note, I spent the majority of this quarter building my new on-campus dance organization, “Bruin Burlesque”! It’s a club dedicated to promoting and sharing the sensual art of femme and burlesque dance. I was inspired to start this organization because femme/burlesque dance is so underrated and underrepresented in the UCLA dance community. I wanted to give people a chance to explore a more sensual form of movement and gain body positivity and confidence through the process. The concept of the club is super simple. Each week, I host a 2-hour-long dance workshop where we cover basic technique of femme dance, work on improvisation and “feeling the music”, and learn basic choreography to fun pop songs. We had our first workshop during Week 9 of the quarter, and I think it was a success! The first workshop was more of a test-run. As expected, the turnout was pretty small, since finals were coming up and people were busy studying. But I think the girls who showed up had a lot of fun, and I really do envision this club going places, especially as we promote and market the org through social media, flyering, and word-of-mouth. On a personal level, I think this organization will do wonders for helping me build self-confidence and leadership skills. I didn’t engage in that much leadership during high school, which is why starting my own club at UCLA is so intimidating! But I know that the more workshops I lead, the more comfortable I will become at public speaking and leadership. And it’s ultimately so fulfilling, being able to share my love of dance with others. I was so happy when I saw the smiles on the girls’ faces, after the first workshop. When we did groups at the end of the workshop (the girls performed the choreography in groups of 2-3 as everyone else cheered on), I could see that some of the girls were nervous, but I also knew they would grow so much as they gained performance exposure. And for me to give them a channel to perform and grow was so fulfilling.
Alrighty, what to talk about next? Relationships with friends. This quarter has definitely tested my friendships, primarily because I made the grave mistake of deciding to live with my closest friends this year. See, when you’re living with people you feel completely comfortable with, it’s so easy to slack off in terms of keeping tidy. When you’re living at home with your family, how many times have you dropped crumbs on the floor without cleaning up; left dishes in the sink unwashed; left clothes lying around the house? And who ultimately ends up picking up after you? Mom, that’s who. Sadly, Mom doesn’t follow you to college, and the only person responsible for picking up after you, is YOU. So I decided to room with my friends, unaware of how messy they were. At the beginning of the quarter, I drafted a roommate contract highlighting responsibilities and household rules. The 5 of us went over the contract together, and after agreeing upon the rules, signed the contract. The expectation when you sign any contract is that you’ll uphold the rules. I don’t think anyone took the contract seriously from the beginning. Trash was not being taken out when full, which attracted flies; dishes were being left in the sink overnight, which caused the sink to smell terrible and grow mold; people were using other people’s utensils and kitchenware and ingredients without asking; food was being left uncovered all around the house, which worsened the fly situation; boys were staying overnight without other roommates’ permission; the list goes on. I think I was the most bothered by the living situation, as I grew up in a very tidy home, where none of these things ever happened. I was forced to take on the role of “bad cop”, which was something I didn’t want to do, as my roommates were also my closest friends, and I didn’t want our conflict as roommates to cause a rift in our friendships. Despite my constant badgering, my roommates still weren’t following the rules. During finals week, I reached my breaking point, after being “sexiled” by one of my roommates. I almost decided to break my lease and move out of the apartment, as I was done with the terrible living situation. On Wednesday of finals week, we had a roommate meeting to hash out all the things that were not going right. Things got pretty heated; all 10 weeks’ worth of pent-up frustration and anger was released in the meeting, and I concede that the way I communicated to my roommates and friends was too aggressive. But I managed to get all my points across. I drafted a brand new roommate contract, this time making sure to enforce consequences each time one of the rules was broken. I told everyone that I would stay in the apartment, with the expectation that the rules would be taken seriously this time around. And if the same messy living patterns persist next quarter, I will not hesitate to move out.
In short, being roommates with your best friends is not easy. In fact, I highly discourage rooming with your friends, as it creates a huge conflict of interest. On the one hand, they are your roommates, and roommates are expected to respect each others’ privacy and space. On the other hand, they are your friends, and you don’t want to upset your friends because they are people who matter to you. It makes for a very complicated situation that, in my case, got so bad that I actually ended up breaking things off with one of my best friends (there were other personal factors involved in causing the end of this friendship, but I won’t get into it right now).
Alright, guys. I think that’s enough for one blog post. All-in-all, this quarter went really well academically. I’m so happy I took a class that resonated so strongly with me, and no matter what grade I end up with in that class, I know I have gained something valuable. I’ve learned a lot about myself and my ability to work with other people (dance partners, roommates, etc.). I am a very emotional person, and I oftentimes let those emotions get in the way of maintaining positive, healthy relationships. Lots to work on, but I’m up for the challenge. Starting my own dance club has been a source of great joy and inspiration, and I’m looking forward to seeing how far I can take “Bruin Burlesque” during my last two quarters at UCLA.
Each year during the month of December, I do a blog series called “Blogmas”. Each day, I write a blog post talking about the events of my day and my corresponding thoughts. So stay tuned for daily posts, starting TODAY!
Much love for everyone who follows my blog. I am so grateful for your continued support for my writing and my journey.
XOXO,
Belicia

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