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Dear Freshmen

Lessons learned once the first year fear is gone: from being late to class to creating your own Jewish identity

Dear Freshmen,

You’ve probably seen me once or twice already, though you may not have realized it.

I’m the person in jeans and a button down reading the New Yorker in the park as you’re sweating through your NYU Class of 2019 t-shirt dashing to your class that doesn’t start for 15 minutes.

I’m the girl in the kosher cafeteria chuckling as you twist yourself into intellectual pretzels trying to explain to the upper classmen at your table that you’re a New Yorker, even though we could all tell in 5 minutes that you actually hail from Teaneck, New Jersey.

I’m the student that you seldom see on campus or around for Shabbat, because I’ve shifted from school grind to senioritis, which for me entailed dropping out of virtually every extracurricular activity and moving to the Upper West Side.

But just three short years ago, I was not much different from you. I was the person who sprinted to show up at 7:45 for 8 am Calculus recitation on Friday morning, the girl who told everyone I was from St. Louis when in fact I’m #StraightOuttaAnytownMissouri, the student who spent more time trying to do things in the NYU Jewish and Pro-Israel community than I did in any internship or in academic study (sorry, parents).

Though I’m certainly not the poster child for the perfect college student, I’ve been where you more or less want to be: I’ve learned a lot in challenging courses, I’ve built many beautiful friendships, I’ve been president of a campus organization and sat on the boards of several others, I’ve had great jobs and internships, and I’ve even figured out how to fill out tax forms, do laundry, and cook for myself(!)

So before you get too nestled into your exciting first year of college, let me share a few things I wish someone had told me back in 2012.

Depression and Freakouts are Normal, But You Are Beyond Resilient

No matter where you go to college, it’s stressful. You’re away from home for your first long stretch of time, no one is telling you when to get up, study, sleep, and eat, and you’re immersed in an entirely new universe of people and ideas. Perhaps this is your first time in a school that isn’t entirely Jewish, or your first time around so many people who aren’t from the United States (and no, your year in an America Yeshiva doesn’t count). As you evaluate all of the clubs you could join and try in vain to plan out all the homework assignments you need to complete and the hot internships you want to snag and friendships you want to cultivate, it’s easy to get stressed. Maybe even depressed, if you’re prone to such things or you’re experiencing a particularly rough set of circumstances.

Guess what? We’ve all been there. My first year of college on paper looks great: I managed good grades in my courses, I snagged leadership position in a club I really liked on campus, I worked at a well-paying and rewarding job tutoring math and science at a high school really close to my dorm, I was starting to forge great friendships, and I had even started seeing a boy I really liked.

But also in my first year of college, that same boy copied a paper of mine without telling me and almost got both of us kicked out of college, I realized I was no great chemist after getting a percentage in the low teens on an important test, a friend from home committed suicide and another died in a plane crash, and I missed my parents and friends an awful lot.

I wish I could tell you that your freshman year will be the hardest year of your life and that everything else in college is a cake walk after that. In a way, it is and it does: you become more resilient and you become a part of the community and you learn your way around your university; you start to delve deeply into the subjects you’re studying, and new, cooler, less paper-pushing and more exotic internships become available to you. But college is an intense four years, and life changes extra quickly during this time in our lives.

There have been days in college where all I could will myself to do that day was curl up in a ball and watch the West Wing — days after bad breakups, bad test scores, or just so much work that it seemed insurmountable. But there have also been days when I’ve felt the happiest, most fulfilled, and most accomplished I’ve ever felt.

For all the muck, you will experience more in college than you ever thought possible. I’ve gotten to meet President Obama at the White House Hanukkah party, talk with Governor Cuomo about sexual assault laws, and listen to a live speech by Netanyahu at a swanky hotel. I’ve gotten free trips to Israel and have had internships and classes where I’ve learned a tremendous amount. I’ve been on national television and I’ve been published in the New York Times. I’ve made friends from all over the world and have become intimately acquainted with the parks, libraries, coffee shops, and (recently — cheers to turning 21!) bars of New York City.

So, relax. You’re going to get through this. Study hard and follow your passions, but don’t get sucked into the muck of the temporary blues.

You’re not a Blob of Jell-O, Thus There is no Perfect Mold

What has worked for me or what worked for your parents or cousin or friend may not work for you. You may hate your school and wind up transferring, and that’s okay. You may love your courses so much that you only find time for one or two extracurriculars, and that’s okay. You may love your extracurriculars so much that you don’t do as well in classes as you could be doing otherwise, and that’s okay also.

Whatever you do, surround yourself with people and ideas that inspire you, challenge you, and shape you into a better version of yourself. Read challenging books that move you. Take hard or funky courses. Ask that boy or girl that asks good questions in class to coffee. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Dump people and classes and extracurriculars that bring more stress and anxiety than benefit. Your college life is far too short for extraneous things.

Don’t Be Afraid To Do Things By Yourself

I don’t know where the idea that the only good things in life are done in groups got started. You’re the only person you’re going to spend the rest of your life with, with 100% certainty, and it’s a real shame if you don’t know that person so well. Of course, some things are hard to do by yourself, like starting a country or passing Calc III. But a lot of things are more enjoyable and fulfilling if you stop trying to prod your friends into doing them with you and just go for it yourself. You’ll gain invaluable insight about the way you think, feel, and experience things.

My first week of college, I heard about a class on Jewish Mysticism at a local Synagogue that I thought sounded cool. I mustered up the courage and sloshed through the long walk in the rain to the old formidable building, only to find it locked.

It turned out that I’d read the wrong date and the class actually started the following week. Though discouraged, I mustered up the courage to try again the next week. I ended up going weekly for almost a year, and now count the rabbi as an invaluable teacher of mine.

I also love running, which is a good way to stumble into things, proverbially and literally. The first time I tried to run across the Brooklyn Bridge, I got so lost in Chinatown that a policeman took pity on me and asked me if I needed directions somewhere. But when I finally found the bridge (more cheers to NYC policemen and women!), the run across the water was exhilarating.

Try coffee shops and study places by yourself. Read the books only you think are interesting. Start random Netflix shows none of your friends would like. You’ll be more productive and get to have more experiences than you otherwise would’ve had, and you’ll have something more to talk about when you do get together with your friends.

Get Plugged Into the Right Outlet

While it’s vital to learn how to get along with yourself, it’s also essential to find a community, especially if you’re in a big school like NYU.

My freshman year, I thought my community would be Mock Trial; I was a competitive debater in high school, so it seemed a natural fit.

However, though I loved the people on the team, I ended up absolutely hating the rules of the event and the 40 hours a week of extra work required to excel.

Once I started keeping Shabbat, competing on the team became virtually impossible, and so I ended up quitting at the end of my freshman year.

In that extra time I gained in my schedule, I became fully immersed in the beautiful Jewish community at NYU. I made my best friends of college and loved every second I spent in the Hillel building, in the Chabad house, cooking for Shabbat, learning, or just hanging out with my fellow NYU Jews.

I could’ve pushed through and could have become a great NYU Mock Trial team member, but I gained so much more by listening to my gut and plugging into the community that was truly right for me. The same holds for friendships, relationships, majors, and most things in life: Don’t try to force your lovely self into things that aren’t the best fit, just because they initially seem like the right choice.

During college, I’ve quit two very awesome internships within two weeks of starting, because while impressive, they were absolutely not a good fit for me. Because of one of these “I QUIT!” moments, I ended up getting a much better internship offer elsewhere. While perseverance is a critical skill to master, so is, as George Straight would say, knowin’ when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.

You Are the Only One Who Can Define Your Jewish Identity

My freshman year, I spent a good six months of my life utterly anxious and feeling guilty about the fact that I considered myself Modern Orthodox but still preferred to exercise in shorts and a t-shirt. I spent an inordinate amount of time stressing about this halachic immodesty, and what effect it would have on others’ perception of me in the community. While it may seem silly, countless numbers of my friends have experienced a “Jewish Crisis” of some degree while in college: they may have grown up not so religious and now are trying to figure out how to become more so without alienating their friends and family, or they may have grown up really religious and now aren’t so sure, or they may just not feel like they’re fitting in with the community or so sure about exactly what they believe.

At the end of the day, no matter whether you eat bacon on Yom Kippur or observe all Halacha as stringently as you can, you are a Jew and you have a role to play in the global Jewish community. Our tradition is built upon dialectic; don’t let your questions get in the way. Read all manner of Jewish books and texts. Find friends and rabbis willing to talk with you about your deepest questions. My Hillel rabbi and Chabad rebbetzin were both invaluable to me in my moments of anxiety, and such resources exist at most campuses. Find them, and grow with them.

Israelly Cool To Experience Everything

If you’re reading this piece on The Times of Israel, I am going to assume you want Israel or Pro-Israel activism to be a part of your college experience. You may have even been active in high school or through your local Synagogue.

For me, I pretty much knew nothing about Israel going in, which was awesome, because I didn’t have any preconceived notions on which big Israel groups I should be involved with.

Because I’m going to let you in on a little secret: you should be involved with ALL of them.

Yes, you read me right. From AIPAC to ZOA, from JStreet to StandWithUs, from the David Project to Hasbara Fellowships and CAMERA, get your toes wet in everything. Schedule a time to sit down over coffee with people from these different organizations and figure out how they see the world. Many of these groups offer incredible opportunities to get involved (free trips! Free conferences! Free coffee!) without boxing yourself in.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to pick just one organization to align with. This year, I spoke at AIPAC’s conference, attended the JStreet conference and both the CAMERA and ZOA fundraising dinners, and threw an event with both the David Project and Hasbara Fellowships. Whew!

At NYU, our pro-Israel group does a good job of working with all kinds of different organizations, including non-Jewish ones like our NYU College Democrats, Republicans, and even Libertarians. If something similar exists at your school, awesome! If not, don’t be afraid to reach out to these organizations on your own and ask to speak to the local campus organizer.

Outside of your involvement with Pro-Israel organizations, the single most important thing you can do to make yourself an effective advocate (and just more intelligent and less ignorant person) is to read everything you can — pro-Israel, anti-Israel, about the history of the founding of the state of Israel and of the Palestinian political movements. Though emotion reigns supreme in the political sphere, being armed with the facts never hurts.

You Did Not Peak in High School

My biggest fear when I quit mock trial was a fear I’ve heard from many of my friends that were also relatively successful in high school: “Oh, shoot, I definitely ‘peaked’ in high school, didn’t I? I’m never going to accomplish anything as impressive ever again!”

Level with me: this is nonsense. Think of high school as your warm up round. While you gain valuable skills, no one, I mean NO one, cares what your grades were in high school or what awards you won or what you were involved with. And don’t be that guy that brings up his SAT scores… I mean, really guys. You’re in college now, and you get a blank slate. Think of it as the incredible opportunity that it is, and make the most of it.

And, Finally: Put Down Your Phone

If you’re reading this and you’re under 35, you’re likely reading it on your smartphone. If you’re reading it on the Times of Israel site, you’re probably reading it on a computer (unless you’re one of those rare and wonderful people, God bless them, who print out TOI articles and read them that way).

We’ve all heard the classic quote that “More than the Jewish People have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”

Whether or not you halachically observe Shabbat, the benefits of just unplugging from the web and connecting with those around you (and the natural beauty around you) will prove invaluable.

When you’re freaking out, instead of burying yourself in Netflix, try going on a walk… without your phone. Or meeting a friend for coffee and looking into their eyes when they talk rather than scrolling through Facebook or Twitter. When you just can’t think of any ideas for your term paper, shut your laptop, make a cup of tea, and just sit with yourself. You’ll be amazed at what you can learn through channelling your inner luddite and embracing everything around you.

So friends, future friends, freshmen, parents of freshmen: you’ve got this. WE’ve got this. College is awesome, and you’re going to have the time of your life.

About the Author
Laura E. Adkins is JTA’s Opinion Editor. She was previously Deputy Opinion Editor at the Forward, where she wrote about data, Orthodoxy, kosher wine, and built interactive maps. Laura has also served as the editor of Jewish Insider and an assistant blogs editor at The Times of Israel. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, SELF, the New York Observer and elsewhere.
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