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Nov 13 2017
by Mei Xiu Zhang

How I Learned You Don’t Need to Help People In Their Classes to Make Friends in College

By Mei Xiu Zhang - Nov 13 2017
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I grew up being told that college is when I’ll find my lifelong friends and will be the best times of my life. I loved the idea so I strived to be a supportive person that fostered a community with whoever I met. Constantly being told, “Don’t change; you’re fine the way you are,” I thought I would be just fine in my transition from high school to college, but I was wrong and I want to share what I learned with you.

Coming to Barnard, I knew I wanted to be a young woman that encouraged others and wanted to be friends with everyone because we’re a community of empowering women. I loved all these ideas of females in STEM or self-care, yet I didn’t realize what kind of cycle I was falling into. During orientation week, I acknowledged that I had imposter syndrome, the feeling of never owning up to my accomplishments and seeing myself as just a facade, when all along, I had it. Back in high school, I always devalued my accomplishments with the idea that they weren’t important and that I always had to be humble. I took this “proverb” with me on move-in day and then I felt a surge of overwhelming feeling within the next week. Every girl around me looked so happy and sparkly. As much as I was trying to smile and have fun like they did, I had this empty feeling of just not belonging because I didn’t have much to offer in conversations.

I suddenly started to think about choosing computer science as my major. My advisor and every adult I talked to, assured me that it was perfectly normal to change my major and on my birthday (the second day of orientation), I felt lost. Despite all the happy messages I received, I could not shake off the feeling that I was not fit to be a software engineer. I had barely any coding experience and was not good at math or science. So what was I doing? I didn’t know. Talking to my older sister next to the fountain on Columbia’s campus barely shook my fears, but I resolved to try Intro to Java anyway.

I was happily surprised to realize that I wasn’t as lost as I initially thought I would be. I reached out to many other girls from my school because I wanted to make a community of people that could support one another. I felt a bit relieved when I discovered that not everyone was on top of their affairs and knew how to do every coding project. But this is exactly where I saw a change in myself that I didn’t like. I was still myself in terms of academics; I made sure I was on top of all my assignments, ranging from programming projects to English essays. But I felt I had an obligation to help others when I went to Office Hours for Intro to Java. I got the help I needed and suddenly, another person would ask me about my project and how to, for example, fix this error in her code. I was happy to help the initial times and even felt that this was the perfect way to retain the information from class.

Then it soon escalated to people just texting me to ask me how I did, practically everything or if I could help them debug their codes. I was apparently happy with my title as the “Unpaid TA,” but in actuality, I was very tired. Was I really this person that was selfless to this extent? If so, why am I sighing and dreading another text from this good friend of mine? And then I thought about a conversation I had with one of my closest friends. In the first month of classes, we FaceTimed and she said that she thought college would be brighter than it is now. At the time, I was happy with where I was: being on top of all my classes, helping others with assignments and hanging out with my closest friends during meals. But then, I saw the change in me. I felt like my life was becoming monotonous precisely because I was helping others so much so I could have more friends. Admittedly, I befriended people and continued to stay up late to help them because I wanted to be friends with more Columbia students.

Of course, I enjoy helping others, but I was in a vicious cycle of helping others too much, to the extent that they became dependent on me only for what I could do to help them in Intro to Java. All the dissatisfaction built up in my thoughts was also due to the fact that I helped others so much when I did my work with my own work ethic. I was giving them the opportunity to get the same grades as me for a fraction of the work I put in to my own work. Thankfully, I was able to voice these concerns to my future roommate and a close friend. I want to share the advice she gave to me.

My intentions were very clear from the beginning: wanting to be a bold, beautiful Barnard girl that helped others because that’s my job as an empowering young woman. But I was being excessively helpful, to the point where I lost sleep trying to fix someone else’s program. That was wrong of me because I am responsible for only myself. Her advice was for me to tone down the helpfulness because I don’t have an obligation to anything but my own work. Despite knowing my nature, she told me that I would find people that appreciate me, without needing to try so hard to win favor in that manner. I knew I found a future best friend in her in that moment.

I let a feeling of inferiority make me someone taken for granted. I thought I had to show my worth, the reason why I was chosen to be a part of Barnard through always helping others and showing that I knew what I was doing. I also felt like I needed to help lost Columbia students to show that I deserved a spot in our collective Class of 2021, but that was ridiculous of me. I always knew I was never perfect and neither is anyone on this campus. I have met the greatest friends that saw what I was doing and disapproved because they knew how hard I worked and how I helped others just because that was me. I had transformed into someone that helped others to prove myself to literally, no one.

But the biggest thing I realized was that I found the friends I was looking for without becoming this person. The “munchkin Asian girl that’s always smiling” has always been me. Without changing myself, I’ve found the friends that make me feel loved and appreciated. They’ve made me laugh so much and I’ve enjoyed every memory I’ve had with them. And of course, they text me for normal things, like eating dinner together or random bursts of anger.

In addition to spending time with my friends, I took care of myself. Besides the usual examples of self-care—drinking tea, putting on face masks with friends, chatting with friends, eating late-night food and laughing and watching horror movies just to hear my friend scream—I tell myself this: “You don’t need to make lots of friends. Don’t feel ashamed to go to Barnard because we are a wonderful community of awesome women. Saying no and focusing on yourself does not make you a terrible peer.”

I was becoming someone I didn’t like because of my misconceptions of what I had to be, to be a part of this amazing community. Thanks to my true friends and self-reflection, I’ve realized that I just need to be myself. I hope my story has helped to open your eyes to some of the many troubles a college freshman may have. Know that you shouldn’t change yourself or make so much time for others, when it is deteriorating your own self-image. Don’t feel like you’re inferior to others because the people that make you feel that way can be easily shut out of your life. Everyone will find their circle and they do so by being themselves. And for Barnard girls reading this, you don’t have to be a part of Columbia College or The School of Engineering because you represent bold, beautiful, Barnard. And that is a wonderful title, already.

Lead Image Credit: Unsplash

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Mei Xiu Zhang - Barnard College

Mei Xiu Amy Zhang is a freshman at Barnard College and wants to pursue computer science. Hoping to become a pillar of support in her new community, she wants to find a balance between STEM and writing.

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