College: Freshman Year — Transformations

A bunch of kiddos on a nice Providence Day

A couple of weeks ago, I wrapped up my first year of college. It was a whirlwind of an adventure and went by waayyy too quickly, but I’m super glad it happened. Freshman year, to say the least, was a lot. I learned that 9am classes are way harder to get up for than I initially thought (and 8:30am classes are actually the worst). I learned that motivating yourself to do work can also be really difficult, even if you have two midterms that week (woops…welcome to Procrastination Station). But most importantly, I learned that the people you meet and become friends with is honestly one of the most impactful experiences you can have. I know that tons of people write about their transformation in college, how its the best four years, yada yada yada… but I wanted to tell a few stories that highlighted some of the most significant changes that happened in my life.

We love a generic finance photo

Going into Freshman year, I was pretty unsure about what I wanted to study. I knew that I liked math (at the time ahaha now pure math is the bane of my existence) and I knew that I liked application-based math. AP Econ in high school was one of my favorite classes (shoutout to Ms. Landau) and I definitely wanted to take more econ classes in college. As such, I decided to pursue a track in Brown’s joint program in Computer Science and Economics. I ended up taking:

  • Mathematical Microeconomics
  • Multivariable Calculus
  • Integrated Introduction to Computer Science
  • ENGN 9 (if you know you know)

Given that my brother studied Finance and Accounting in college, I thought that I might give this route a try. And then, three things happened:

  1. I took (dropped) Macroeconomics in the Spring. To say that I hated it is a bit … underwhelming. The professor was disorganized, the class was large, and the work felt uneventful. Not only was the math not super relevant, but the equations derived in class were super meaningless. It was always “based on some assumption” that we would inevitably disprove later. And so I was always questioning “why would I take a class where the model that we use is wrong?” So I dropped it. And my Econ major because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get through that class without literally dragging myself through the mud and because I knew that I liked math enough that Applied Math was for sure an option. The switch was easy and I haven’t looked back (yet). Plus with Brown’s open curriculum, I have the opportunity to take whatever classes I want which has been the best thing so far.
  2. I met with one of my friends, Jessica, who was also planning on majoring in computer science. We both came from Bellevue, WA and so we talked about transitioning and life both there and back home. I mentioned that I was potentially interested in banking and she asked if I read a book called “Young Money” by Kevin Roose. I told her I hadn’t and so later that day I got it on Kindle and started reading it. The book, a short documentary-style novel, follows six junior analysts as they make their way in the banking world. Some of them are at Goldman Sachs, some at Deutsche Bank, others at Bank of America. However, there was a main reoccurring theme: They were all somewhat miserable. And it was kind of depressing not going to lie. All these high-achieving youngsters getting their ambition and life sucked out of them for two years. Many of them wanted to quit, used psychedelics, and were unhappy with their life. Everything was about moving to the next step, the next rung on the corporate ladder, the next paycheck. And I realized I wasn’t about that life. The book also mentioned that people who worked in Finance didn’t really have any value add. All of their work was about fluctuating markets, figuring out prices, and selling literal tons of oil. I realized that I really enjoyed building things, whether tangible objects or products through coding, and that this lifestyle of managing money was not it. And, moreover, I liked interacting with people. Humans are naturally social creatures. And I want to tap into this innate love of people.
  3. Math and CS happened. You know, that one subject that is universally hated. Yeah I started to like it (woops). Brown has one of the best Applied Math departments and I thought that having this opportunity to branch out (albeit slightly) was a chance I didn’t want to miss. That, along with the fact that I was thoroughly enjoying my CS classes (and things that are happening in the industry/academia) means that I really didn’t want to miss out on these opportunities.

All in all, I’ve been extremely happy about it (one of my friends hasn’t been and is jokingly pushing to go back towards economics). Will it change? Who knows honestly but I’ve been quite content with where I’ve been so far.

I think this quote from the book sums up my feelings about the industry:

“He told the associate that there was a lot of economic value in the work the desk did — that helping companies hedge their energy costs was a legitimate function of the capital markets, and that Goldman was the best place on the Street to do it. The associate took a moment to contemplate, then said, “You know, helping the world is great and all, but you need to be motivated by money.” He’d said it so bluntly that Jeremy attributed it to the booze, but the next day, as he came down from his hangover, he couldn’t help but think that the associate might have been telling the truth.” -Kevin Roose, “Young Money”

Tag yourself, I’m the dude stuck behind the the brick wall

Like every other quintessential CS major out there, I attended a hackathon in the fall. Not only was it my first hackathon, but I also knew basically 0 useful languages (I knew functional languages hehe). But, ya know, I thought to myself, “It’ll still be fine right? Not everyone who comes to these types of competitions knows how to code or is super technical.” Boyyyyyy, was I wrong haha. EVERYONE WAS A LITTLE TOO PREPARED. There were people who:

  • Brought their own hardware
  • Walked around talking about their projects
  • Threw around AI, Blockchain, ML, Deep Learning, and so many other things that I literally didn’t understand
  • Coded in wayyyyyy too many languages

Meanwhile, I was just chilling there, very confused about what the entire heck was going on. I distinctly remember setting up the Wix site, doing the good ol’ drag-and-drop when my friend who I was on the team with me mentioned that he was having troubling with calling the function from the site and wanted to ask the Wix mentor. Dutifully (and meekly because at this point I’ve been doing my math homework which was super rough) I went up and asked the guy to help me. He directed me to their webpage which had instructions for this and proceeded to explain the code to me. At this point, I had no clue what the code was and sat their nodding literally SO CONFUSED about the entire thing and came back to the table. Needless to say, I did not hookup the website to our ML model. Or much else.

The entire hackathon made me question my decision to CS. The entire time, I remember messaging one of my friends about my entire crisis, going through all the stages of anxiety and hitting the fun wall that is imposter syndrome. I think I was stressed for two out of the three days and felt absolutely useless.

I’ve had this problem before. Impostor syndrome is super real in the CS world (and Brown and life). There are the kids who have been building apps since they were seven and you have kids like me who literally don’t know what an API is or what the difference between front-end and back-end is. But in the same vein, it’s motivational. I was sad as heck during the entire hackathon, questioned my entire major, but honestly came out of it more motivated to learn and improve my skills. As such, I decided to work on side projects, get more involved, and crush my CS classes. I haven’t done the most revolutionary work, but I’m getting there! Peep my website posted below which I just finished a week ago :)

But yeah, moral of the story is college is a time to check yourself on where you currently stand but also motivate yourself to go further. This idea translates nicely into my last section which is…

Some dumbos in Vermont over Spring Break ❤

I want to start by saying that, hands-down, the friends you make in college are some of the best people you will ever meet. Everyone says it (because it’s true). Everyone goes to college for the same reason — to improve their craft, to learn more, to become better. And usually the college you’re at is somewhat self-selected. People at Brown go to Brown because the open curriculum and all the opportunities it has to offer. As such, you meet some of the most talented and crazy people.

FIRSTLY, I want to preface that all of the information below is my opinion. Take it with a grain of salt, take it with lots of salt. But yes, anyways…

College is so short that spending time with people you don’t vibe with isn’t worth it. Seriously. You shouldn’t force yourself to hang out with people you don’t like or don’t vibe with. I had the fun (and unfortunate time) of living on the same floor with people that I didn’t particularly vibe with and that these same people also hung out with some of my good friends. You might be thinking “Oh Ivan, what if you’re just super biased and these people are actually good!” And your point is super valid. I would illustrate a couple of short stories, but I think we should continue spreading positivity in our lives. So instead, you’ll get some stories of why the friends that I’ve found are some of the best and greatest people I’ve ever met.

First week of school/orientation week will be un-fun, stressful, and kind of sad for everyone. There will be those kids who you see flocking around in large groups. You might vibe with them, you might not. Who knows. I definitely didn’t for sure. I remember the first week, I struggled with like five different things: being away from home, having a roommate, not knowing anybody, impostor syndrome, and the fact that I got off the wait-list. I know, everyone always says “oh you’re here now!” but the fact that a college had to look at me twice before they were like “welp, fuck it” is a bit disheartening. That, combined with a super rough college app season made me question my already dwindling self-esteem.

So that first week, I tried my best to extroverted. I tried to talk to everyone, introduce myself, join in conversations, all that good stuff. It’s really hard, especially if you’ve never done that before. Eventually I got burnt out and just wanted to sleep. I ate alone for the first couple of days, didn’t really do much, and just tried to figure out factors that I could control (like my schedule).

I think my favorite part is the fact that I met some of my friends at this random orientation event. I just stumbled in on their conversation and they were all like “yo we’re all pretty cool let’s hang out again!” And then it just…happened. I thought I would never see most of them again (literally I have so many phone numbers from people I’ve met once) but here we are, a full year later with so many dumb photos, memories, and weekends that I’m so appreciative of. I guess the moral of this aside is that you will find people that you vibe with, care about, and love to hang out with. Just give it a moment. And never doubt that you’re at the wrong spot. Just give it a semester.

Back to your regularly scheduled stories of my struggles and how my friends are great.

  1. Support

College is a tough time. Everyone knows that. Freshman year is especially rough because of transitions, classes, finding new friends, developing your own schedule, developing your own life, finding out who you are, having impostor syndrome hit hard, rinse and repeat.

I had a pretty regimented high school schedule. I would go to school from 8:30–3:30, either go to a club for an hour, go to golf for two hours (or both), go home, eat dinner, do homework until who knows when, and then finally, sleep. Coming into college, I knew that my schedule would fluctuate. A lot. And so, having friends that were flexible (aka I’m really sorry that I’m late all the time) and actually cared about meeting up with me was really helpful. Not only did they reach out whenever I needed it, but the fact that I could count of them, even if I was just doing my own work, was such a safe feeling to have.

The fact that every weekend, we always hung out and that we have a group chat that people responded to and are so open with each other is heartening. I never had this kind of relationships with my friends back home and it was such a nice change of pace.

Also if you know, you know (#Shine)

2. LMAO CS

This one is just a short and funny story (in retrospect) but during second semester of my intro CS sequence, my code for one of the homeworks decided to spontaneously combust and disappear. “Nice” I thought, there goes three days of work. I was also waiting a couple hours for a TA to help me with my assignment and I distinctly remember just staring blankly at the TA as he walked over. I just said “my code just deleted itself.” (he was just as confused as I was). Didn’t really do much, sat in the chair, called a couple of people, almost had a mental breakdown.

After I finally redid the entire assignment, it wasn’t working. There was some small piece that was off that I had working earlier and I just couldn’t fix it. At this point, I was super tired, had stared a screen for too long, and was just about done. I called two of my friends in the class (it was around midnight) and they came over, looked at my code, fixed it, and honestly got me through the night. If it hadn’t been for them (and literally every other time), I think I would’ve failed my CS classes the past two semesters.

I guess I just want to end off with saying that the main thing I learned that I still say to this day is that relationships (both friendships and actual relationships) are really a two-way street. Both parties have to care, put time in, and genuinely like the other person. This builds healthy bonds and friendships where everyone is open with each other, recognizes when the other is feeling down, and makes a commitment to the other person. Actual relationships are the same probably, just haven’t experienced that one yet lmao.

Three dumbos on a rock

Freshman year has been fun and I’v really enjoyed it. I’m excited for all the new prospects to come in the future and I don’t want college to end :( Never have I met such a talented group of people that I can’t wait to see what they end up doing and am grateful to call them my friends ❤.

Also…dogs

Note: if you’re not pictured here, know that I very much love you but I probably look atrocious in the photos we have together.

Thank you so much for reading. Please drop a comment or follow me if you want to keep updated with what I’m doing with my life(still trying to figure that one out)

engineer | designer | baker | dog-lover | http://ivanzhao.me