Finding your place in college: Be your own Pathfinder

Have you ever had those moments when, as they’re happening, you realize you will look back on them? 

That moment for me occurred during my PittStart while I waited for my first advising appointment. A recent graduate sat down next to me and said, “I would kill to be in your position right now.”

Just a heads up: If you don’t want to read a mushy Pitt memoir, you’re looking at a baby-food level of mush in the paragraphs ahead.

It was really strange to hear her say that because even she could tell that I wasn’t having the glorious day that everyone else seemed to be having. While everyone giggled over icebreaker exercises and meeting new people, I felt completely isolated. I hated figuring everything out on my own and no one really caring whether I was in the right place or not. I remembered the anxiety I felt simply looking for classrooms in high school, and this was that anxiety times 10. Picking classes, meeting new people, explaining to my adviser what exactly I was trying to get out of the next four years in my life and all while basically alone. How were people so thrilled about this?

I forget exactly what this new grad said to me — something about how I would soon find my place and that the next four years would be a blink. Whatever cheesy encouragement she gave me at the time, though her enthusiasm really didn’t match my mood, her prediction was completely correct. Despite the fact that I spent a lot of time alone during my early semesters, navigating my undergraduate career with new confidence, I did find my place. And it really has been a blink. 

What exactly did I do during this blink? I can essentially split it into three major lessons that Pitt has taught me, but they all depended on me essentially becoming my own Pathfinder (I warned you about the mush). I figured that the first item on the agenda was to get friends because “you make the best friends of your life in college,” as the saying goes. That, and all my high school friends were constantly Skyping me and telling me about how much they love their new groups at their small liberal arts colleges within the first two weeks, while I was picking seats at Market Central suited for a party of one. So I talked to everyone and asked where they were from, the whole “I make a stupid joke and laugh and you make a stupid joke and laugh” routine as if I would find the best friends of my life socializing like I was at a suburban open house. 

But after a few weeks of dissatisfaction with my fake self, I eventually realized that I wasn’t going to find genuine friends if I didn’t behave genuinely. One of the first things that Pitt taught me was to be myself — a person, not a college-bubble-enclosed freshman covered in blue and gold. Truthfully, I’m a dry person who doesn’t find every joke funny and sometimes can go a day without smiling at all — and I really don’t get along with every single person the way I was making it seem. Taking off that costume was a relief, and even more of a relief was the fact that I found genuine people almost immediately afterward. Once I started acting like a normal person, not someone who was filled with Pitt spirit and energized with the thrill of being on my own, I found some genuine people who acted the same way.

Let me take a moment to point out one of my favorite things about Pitt: This university doesn’t use its name to brand and label its students like typical state schools, but instead becomes the medium for a really diverse group of people without attempting to instill a single identity. You meet people from hundreds of miles away and fellow Pittsburgh natives like me: art enthusiasts and sports fans, computer nerds and lay-in-the-grass philosophers, Urban Outfitters cardholders and fellow Kohl’s shoppers. And despite all these differences, you can still look at each person and say ”yup, that’s a typical Pitt student.” There’s nothing that defines you as a Pitt student except yourself. 

Along with all of this soul-searching came another important task: the eloquently titled agenda of “do stuff.” You quickly learn from studying in a city environment to embrace constantly moving and being active in organizations. While this is something that all universities encourage, more or less, there’s something very particular that I have to attribute strictly to Pitt once again. Unlike the small schools or large state schools that basically ensure you have some campus function to attend at all times, Pitt urges you to take advantage of a wide arena of activities, both on campus and off. We’re encouraged to explore, get a little lost with our free bus passes every once in a while or to join one of those obscure clubs on campus. 

With this attitude in mind, I found myself in positions that I truly had never imagined — an a cappella group, a service sorority, a pre-law fraternity, the rowing team — that last one only lasted a semester and a half, but I still figured it was brag-worthy that I spent the majority of my freshman year in Spandex. 

These organizations are where I met people with whom I will definitely be in contact for the rest of my life and where I experienced moments that made this blink a surreal experience. I never imagined meeting my closest friend while getting lost running during a crew practice, standing in front of 500 strangers singing repetitions of harmonized “doh” to an a cappella rendition of an Arcade Fire song or pretending to be on Chopped behind the scenes at the Jubilee Soup Kitchen with complete strangers. Pitt builds a certain type of person: unafraid, adventurous, with the “seize the day because we have free busing” attitude that we want to share with everyone. I will always be grateful for being able to meet these people. 

Despite finally becoming comfortable with my activities and friends, I did find myself asking, “What do I do now?” one last time during my junior year. I pretty much had student life figured out — I had something to do all the time, but within that complacency you find yourself looking for more. 

I recall realizing one Friday afternoon while running through the Schenley trails behind my house that there’s one more step besides all the extracurriculars and academic work that I need to take, and the answer hit me in the cheesiest, most movie-esque way. I started rounding a corner of the trail where you can see a decent glimpse of the downtown skyline, and it hit me: I need to associate myself, outside of Pitt, with the city of Pittsburgh.

That day, I sent in an application for an internship and soon found myself working for a nonprofit legal organization for the following seven months. This is how Pitt taught me my final lesson.

When you live in Oakland, you really start to see that line of privilege that most universities don’t explicitly offer. Lacking a typical campus has made it difficult to live in a college bubble because you’re constantly reminded of the real world without meal plans and with more responsibilities than a syllabus. And to be around people with the same privileges makes you appreciate yours and use your time to help others — at least, that’s what I found. Pitt has a community that makes you realize the position you’re in and realize that you’re sharing a city with many who aren’t in it.

In the end, I really want to extend a huge thank you to you, Pitt, for not paying very much attention to me. You didn’t ensure that I made friends the first day, or suggest clubs and classes to fit into some preconceived idea of success. You made me struggle and figure these things out by myself, pushed me to define myself as a person, not simply as a student in a university. I’m glad you didn’t hold my hand or tell me who to become, but instead, decided to trust me to do that on my own. I have to say that I’m pretty pleased with what I’ve done for myself. You were the stepping stone to my becoming an open, adventurous, original person, and that’s an attitude I’ll carry as long as I’m a Pitt alumna. 

To those of you who still have time on the stepping stone, enjoy it, because it really is a blink. To those who are stepping off with me this year, make sure you show off that individualistic attitude in whatever your next step may be. Thanks once again, and Hail to Pitt.

Write to Sophia at [email protected].