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Navigating a big world: A note to my 19-year-old self

We welcome Diploma Programme (DP) graduate Rachel Tseng, who reflects on her experience coming to the U.S. as an international student from Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) in Singapore. This is her first story in our graduate voices series.

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By Rachel Tseng

“Was the work-life balance going to be the same? Was I going to find friends easily? Was the school environment going to be similar to what I was used to back home? Did I make the right decision to move overseas for college?”

These thoughts constantly circulated in my mind.

Admittedly, traveling overseas for college, 9359 miles to be exact, was not an easy transition. Having to navigate not just the U.S. school system but also stepping out of my comfort zone and having to assimilate into a different culture was challenging. More than two years later, I look back at my 19-year-old self and, in retrospect, the fears that I once experienced were valid but at the same time, I wish someone told me that everything was going to be okay and that I did not need to be so worried.

“I learned things that I never expected to learn, and this showed me that the Western and Asian culture are not mutually exclusive”

Some of the worry loops that I found myself in, included the difference between the Asian and Western culture. I used to think that the Western and Asian culture were mutually exclusive, but I have come to realize that there is so much to learn and grasp from this cultural mosaic. My other worries included the fear of missing out, or as my generation likes to call it, FOMO. I constantly thought of ‘what ifs’, and that caused me to be trapped in a vicious cycle of apprehension when it came to stepping out of my comfort zone and experiencing new things. Looking back, I am glad to say that through conscious efforts, I have learned to embrace my Asian roots while also soaking in the new experiences college has to offer. I have also learned to let go of, or at least minimize, ‘what could have been’ thoughts too.

If you see yourself having similar worries, I hope that there will be at least one takeaway for you to consider by the end of this article. Successfully bridging Western and Asian culture has played a huge role in creating the advice that I currently live by.

Define your feelings: Happiness vs. fulfillment

My life motto has always been to live life to the fullest and be happy. I’ve always stood by the fact that as long as what I was doing made me happy and made me feel like it was the best use of my time, all was going well. It was only after coming to college that the concept of fulfilment greeted me. Being introduced to this concept of ‘fulfilment’ was pleasant and I was immediately hooked on it. Being happy is one thing, and it is great to chase happiness in everything that you do, but fulfilment is just in another league, in a whole new dimension. People experience fulfilment differently—some feel flutters in their stomach, others feel their cheeks glowing with pride. For me, I feel a sense of warmth in my heart, coupled with a sense of relief. I learned how to convert the nerves that I constantly felt to motivation, in an effort to fuel the fulfillment that I longed for. I probably felt it before but I never encapsulated all these feelings and labeled it as being fulfilled.

Being in and navigating college equates to taking many steps forward in life. We are one step closer to being fully independent, one step closer to being a full-fledged adult and many steps closer to deciding what we want to do for the rest of our lives. With this independence comes choices and responsibility. It may sound scary but with responsibility, comes a deeper sense of fulfilment. Being in the U.S. for college has allowed me to explore the many resources available and has also taught me how to be more open-minded. It has taught me how to conserve my energy for things that matter most, instead of fretting on things that did not go exactly how I wanted them to go.

One common example that I always use is riding a bike and accidentally falling off. Pre-college me would have been annoyed and upset at the accident but now, I would laugh, pick myself up and carry on with life. This approach has allowed me to live in the moment and experience things in a lighthearted manner. Consequently, it has also allowed the feelings that come with fulfilment to manifest in many more ways. I learned things that I never expected to learn and this reiterates my point that the Western and Asian culture are not mutually exclusive, and at times, actually complement each other.

Forget FOMO, remember to take time for yourself

I’ve always grown up being taught how to put others before myself and I’ve always found so much meaning and satisfaction when helping others and seeing them smile. Smile … that’s such a simple thing to do, isn’t it? Seeing such genuine smiles and hearing laughter fill up the room, are experiences I will not trade for the world. I enjoyed spending time with the people around me so much that I thought that this could fully replace the time I had for myself. I put the pressure on myself to always be there for my friends, but I realized after a while that it was ok to have friends that were there for you in times of need too.

Perhaps it was because of the nature of college, where we had to live on campus for the first two years and so we were constantly surrounded by friends compared to pre-college where students rarely stayed on-campus that I began to make this adjustment. It was easier finding time for myself at home, as my family was physically present and were there for me but able to give me time and space when I needed it. I had a solid group of friends at home as well and we always hung out in school, so I had the flexibility to choose how I wanted to spend my time after school. Perhaps this also emanated from the FOMO, you could say it was pretty real in a new environment, so I wanted to attend all kinds of activities even if it may have been better for me to take time for myself.

“I realized after a while that it was ok to have friends that were there for you in times of need too”

I managed to find a supportive group of friends who came from different nationalities and soon my fears of not being able to find friends easily waned. I was able to find time for myself outside of social time and my mental and physical health improved as well—I was less stressed, less worried and falling sick less. I learned this priceless life lesson in a harder way than I wanted to but it made me further cherish everything that I have. I am grateful for the friends that I found in the U.S. and also for the time that I have for myself in college. So, if you are reading this right now and worried about the future and putting yourself in new environments, I totally understand how you are feeling. What I can assure you is that your worries are valid but it is less scary than you think. Always remember to take care of yourself while finding your solid group of friends.

Seize the moment, but not every moment

There is a famous saying that “less is more” that I used to dismiss but now it has become my mantra. In college, there are so many active clubs and organizations, with many being classified under similar categories such as ‘philanthropy’. I soon found myself signing up for many organization’s listservs. Many people can probably attest to the fact that we want to do as much as we can and if we are not doing anything, we are then not being productive with our time. Some people can pull it off but for most of us, keeping ourselves busy every single minute is not healthy and in fact, recedes our productivity levels. I was aware that I wanted to keep myself busy but it took me some time to realize and acknowledge the fact that I had to slow things down and participate in the opportunities that meant the most to me instead of trying to do everything.

That being said, the increase in my awareness towards this particular life lesson arose because of the immense opportunities that college provided. Everyone will be able to find their niche in at least one thing in college. The beauty of the existence of many organizations and clubs include that you may discover an unfound passion just by getting more involved in that specific skill or activity. This could influence your future decisions and could potentially lead to you finding the best jobs and internships that suit you.

“I had to slow things down and participate in the opportunities that meant the most to me”

Prior to college, I was very focused on getting good grades and controlled the number of activities that I was involved in because classes were taking up close to 35% of my day. However, after coming to college, I was given the liberty to choose my classes, customize my schedule and often had only one or two classes a day. This gave me the opportunity to get involved in more clubs and organizations. Through the combination of experiences in Singapore and in Chicago, I was able to solidify this extremely valuable life lesson.

These life lessons are simple and may come as natural to some, but it is the experiences that I went through during pre-college in Singapore and college in the U.S. that make them life-learned lessons.

Bonus: Ask for help!

If you are on the fence about whether to go overseas for college and your worries are holding you back, I hope this post has helped to get rid of some of your fears. If you have questions, ask someone who has walked the same path that you may potentially take. You may not get all the answers you want but, as many have said, if you don’t try, you will never know. Don’t live the rest of your life wondering ‘what if’— eliminate those thoughts and trust yourself. Whatever it is, believe in yourself, everything is going to be okay, and remember what Spiderman said, “That’s all it is … it’s a leap of faith”.

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Rachel Tseng is a graduate of Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) in Singapore. She is currently completing her final year at Northwestern University in the United States where she is majoring in neuroscience and minoring in chemistry. Outside of classes, you are likely to find her doing research or cooking at home. You can connect with her on LinkedIn here.

To hear more from Diploma Programme (DP) graduates check out these IB programme stories. If you are an IB grad and want to share your story, write to us at alumni.relations@ibo.org. We appreciate your support in sharing IB stories and invite you to connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and now Instagram!

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