What the movies tell you about freshman year (and what they don’t): A personal essay

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Lights, camera, action! Picture this: a preliminary shot of Sather Gate, busy with students running to class. A couple of leaves fall to the ground, and as the camera settles at eye level, a group of stylish students comes into focus as they take pictures in front of Sather Gate. They’re freshmen getting ready to take the first step on campus, so of course they have to post it on Instagram. Maybe they can all Boomerang a jump? Or maybe add a black-and-white filter?

In 3, 2, 1…

Snap. The screen goes dark and sad music plays. Fade in to an organized not for long dorm where another freshman, female, sits at her desk. She watches people outside and sighs. Fade to black. The music ends. Darkness.

Yes, the girl in the second scene is me, facing the first day of freshman year alone, watching surrounding peers form friend groups and establish connections. As the weeks went by and I watched people meet up, I found myself wanting to go back in time and do everything over again. How could I have already messed up my first week? Surely the next month would be better?

As the weeks went by and I watched people meet up, I found myself wanting to go back in time and do everything over again.

Don’t get me wrong — I think an important part of growing up is letting go of the past and embracing the forward movement of time, but as I approach the end of my first year of college, I often find myself feeling regretful. Like many students at UC Berkeley, I strive to be the best possible version of myself, but this mentality of perfectionism and desire to have a momentous freshman year put me in a negative mindset.

All my life I had been told that freshman year was the year. It would determine everything: whether I got a boyfriend or not, had a group of friends, aced my classes — the list goes on. And I fully expected all these things to happen, I really did. I went in with high expectations and never really escaped my delusions, remaining trapped in the folds of my oversized hoodie.

This concept of finality in the freshman year of college influences many students, whether they go to a community college or university. Media relentlessly presents the quintessential “freshman experience” as a journey that starts out rocky, often ostracizing the protagonist. It then develops into a film where the main character gets the girl/guy, retains lasting friendships despite whatever they did wrong and gets either really famous or filthy rich think Beca from “Pitch Perfect.”

The point is, these freshman characters are portrayed as losers at the start of these films; their situations necessitate change. At the story’s conclusion, they leave their freshman year fully developed, on the path to finally become who they are meant to be. But what if they didn’t undergo this transformation? What if these characters didn’t make any very good friends the first year, didn’t meet anyone special, never discovered an affinity for a club? What then?

What then? My life. It happened to me. I always thought the worst thing in my life would be to lose my best friend on homecoming night or wear the same dress at prom as four other girls did, but no — unexpectedly, this was worse.

Upon arriving at UC Berkeley, I thought I was going to live out my own idealized version of a freshman year experience, but instead I just gained the freshman 15, a boba addiction and a futile rivalry with AirBears. I didn’t find a large friend group, I didn’t end up rich (I wish), and sadly, I didn’t find a partner. My grades plummeted, I started naming all my acne, and I cried even more than those ostracized movie protagonists.

My adjustment to college life was a constant battle. I spent my days surfing through social media and watching all my friends settle into their new colleges their posts looked like spitting images of a movie scene! They had tons of friends, went to parties with the most glamorous outfits and never failed to include an “inspirational post of the day.”

Meanwhile, I endured my first semester by hiding behind a hoodie and eating those addictive but expensive chocolate chestnuts from Daiso. Yes. I was that person. My lifestyle mimicked that of a hermit as I stayed in my room all day, avoiding people like the plague all because I believed I had ruined my first year. I watched other groups from Golden Bear Orientation hang out months after the first day of classes, and I wondered if things would have been different if I had been placed on another team.

I felt like I didn’t belong at UC Berkeley just because I didn’t fit the “perfect freshman experience” portrayal I grew up watching. I didn’t realize that finding friends is a long process, one that varies with each person. So I began to question myself as classes began. Did I do something wrong during the first few weeks? Maybe I took too many classes and that prevented me from making friends. Maybe I took too few classes and didn’t connect with the people I was supposed to meet. Did I dorm in the wrong place? If I had dormed where my high school friends did, would I have made more friends?

I felt like I didn’t belong at UC Berkeley just because I didn’t fit the “perfect freshman experience” portrayal I grew up watching.

I sat at my desk and pondered. I wondered if I could have worked harder, both in school and with my social life. I looked at my hallmates around me and wondered how they seemed to be so happy and then asked myself if I’d feel the same having done the things they did. Regret consumed me and filled my every waking moment. It prevented me from going out and talking to people because I felt like I had already blown my chance.

Would I have been happier somewhere else? Was this university right for me? Was I going to feel the same way next year? Would things change?

Needless to say, my first semester was rough. I felt like I had ruined my chance at having the perfect freshman year, especially when it had always been emphasized as the final chance to find belonging. In my mind, results were binary: You either assimilated into college, or you found yourself lost. It was the year that determined the rest of your life. Why did everyone seem like they had their lives handled? When had they become the stars of their own movie productions? Did I miss the camera cue? Where did my spotlight go?

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Upon going back home, I talked this idea over with my godparents, and they gave me some unexpectedly good advice.

“That girl who parties all night? Yeah, she’s actually really lonely,” my godmother said, explaining her own college experience to me. In her freshman year, she had been that seemingly perfect girl I desired to be.

“And the groups of friends you see everyone with? They’re either really lucky or only hanging out with each other to keep up a perfect image,” my godfather finished.

A perfect image. His words shocked me. Was everyone actually pretending to be happy? I’m sure some of them genuinely were thriving in their new environment, but how could I be so sure that their lives were as cookie-cutter as they made them out to be? What if they had been struggling with their own image, desperate to be someone they weren’t just to have the best starts to their college careers?

This was certainly a revelation to me, but it also sparked reflection. Did I really want to follow the status quo and strive for perfection? Sure, you only get one freshman year, and sure, people say it’s what finalizes your path for the next three years, but did I really want to buy into that narrative?

I applied to UC Berkeley because of its message on diversity: Everyone was welcome and all careers were embraced. As an English major, I had been told my whole life to quit and pick another profession that would make me more money. Did I stop and listen to the people who didn’t believe in me then?

No.

If I had stopped, I wouldn’t be here today. Although my life these days sometimes results in studying like crazy and constantly complaining, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Who needs a silly movie trope when I can follow my own path? All the characters in my books seem to do so, and it usually works out for them well, except the ones who die, but that’s different.

Thinking back on those movies that informed my expectations for this year, I realize now that they are not realistic interpretations of the freshman experience. In reality, the process of growing continues to take place throughout all of life, sophomore year and beyond. If I keep spending so much time worrying about the past, I will never get a chance to embrace my future. I’ve learned to use the mistakes I’ve made this year as learning opportunities and start applying them to my sophomore self. I want to be the person who got into UC Berkeley by defying stereotypes as I continue to fight the ones I currently encounter.

If there’s anything that statistics has taught me, it’s that according to regression, you are more likely to do better on whatever you take on next. Well, more or less I’m an English major for a reason.

I have three more years of school left, so I need to make them my own. Instead of following an overdone movie theme, I’m going to write a new script. Freshman year has ended, but my life is just beginning to take off!

My credits haven’t started rolling yet, but when they do, they’ll start with “Director: Pamela Hasbun.”

Contact Pamela Hasbun at [email protected]