About a month ago, I found myself sitting next to a freshman.
The silence felt increasingly awkward as we waited for food to arrive – it was a free breakfast event, of course I’d pop in and wait patiently – so I initiated a conversation. “Are you a freshman?” I asked. She nodded, and I told her I’m a first-year masters students. I asked how she’s finding Stanford thus far, and she gushed about everything excitedly. Sometimes I am convinced that all freshmen are the same; there’s a naïvety that is still palpable, an obvious excitement fueled by anticipation and romanticized notions of college life. I chuckled to myself – her reactions and gestures are all-too familiar; I was once this way, too.
Not long after, another student joined us; a second-year masters student.
Another round of introduction, and the topic of majors was brought up. I asked the freshman girl, and like so many freshmen, she’s still undecided. “What are you leaning towards?” I prompted, because surely something stands out more than other fields. “I’m excited about everything!” she answered earnestly. “The classes I’m in, I really enjoy them. Choosing a major is so important, y’know? It’s… defining. It determines what your future is gonna be like, what you’ll end up doing for life.”
I can’t help it; I chuckled internally at her response. The other girl and I exchanged looks, hiding our grins.
“You know…” I started, “that’s true, and it’s great you feel that way because you’re thinking seriously about it. But I’ve come to realize – and maybe this is just me – that ideally, of course, don’t make the wrong choice. But even if you do, it’s not conclusive. I think it’s natural to have this is do-or-die mentality about choosing a major, but it’s okay to be mistaken, you know? Because I’ve learned that things eventually work out. Somehow, things fall into place as they should.”
I wanted to add, but didn’t, that just look at the second-year masters student. Her undergrad was in the sciences, chemistry or biology or something, but her masters? Wouldn’t you know it – African-American studies! A girl I once spoke to late last quarter graduated with a mechanical engineering bachelors degree, but is now working towards a career in the medical field. One of my classmates did finance in the UK for bachelors, but is now working towards a master’s degree in environmental engineering.
Then I thought of myself, and came to a halt.
This is what’s been on my mind for the past few weeks; this is apparently not a trivial conversation. I still can’t reconcile the inner conflict within me, and my misplaced interest is glaring. I tried to remember what it was like when I was a freshman and sophomore, filled with that burst of excitement – except we all know the story by now; I didn’t jump into environmental engineering with zest, instead it was dread. I stayed on because of circumstances, and did a conscious, purposeful paradigm shift which paid off; passion eventually crept in, and a year and a half ago, when I decided to continue to graduate school – it was, I believed, what I wanted.
I wanted it so badly. I was so certain and miraculously, it happened.
Now it’s been six months that I’ve been here, this supposed everything that I desired so badly, and I’m a jumble of emotions. This quarter is definitely better than last, though another challenge appears in place of the old one. What strikes me the most, and one that’s really difficult to overcome, is my misplaced interest. I wonder if all early twenty-somethings, fresh graduates face this dilemma – the ever-plaguing question and one I’m not sure if I want to hear the answer to, “What did I get myself into?”
Is this really what I wanted – why?
I can’t remember. I can’t, for the life of me, remember.
This is what I am battling right now, and some days it is hard. Some days it is really, really hard. I have been here for six months now, and I’ve changed so much. I want to care, when it comes to the learning process. I want to be excited and giddy to be in all the classes I am in, taught by world and nationally renowned research experts in the field. The environmental engineering program here is ranked number #1 nationwide, and California is at the forefront when it comes to environmental movement in the US. I wish I am brimming with enthusiasm, trying to maximize my Stanford experience. I wish I am constantly engaging myself with all the best things Stanford has to offer, because once I’m gone from here – I’m gone for good. If not now, when else?
But as I am learning – the hard way, mind you – it is in fact true that motivation and passion are key.
Most of the time I wish I care more about all these environmental engineering topics I am learning; I wish I am immersed in the pursuit of education, that I’m like most of my classmates – excited to learn and once the understanding is grasped, that aha moment is priceless. They’re so patient with me, repeating facts more than once when I admit to not understanding. They’re excited, and it’s infectious – they want others to benefit and get it too, and I’ve come to learn that they’re more than happy to go over the topics more than once. They genuinely do not mind, and don’t think of me as slow or silly for asking them to please repeat themselves.
I used to be like this in undergrad; heck, I was the bookish, straight-A student. I was the geeky one, the one who’d put in the extra effort, the one who’d approach professors after class to ask follow-up questions not necessarily related to what’s covered in the syllabus. I’d stay up till late getting work done, and though I bitched nonstop about it, I knew deep in my heart that I loved every minute of it.
Now I’m here, the best of the best and all that jazz, and I’m having such a hard time trying to find it in me to care.
These days I’m the slacker; I do all my work and still take part, but I’m hardly bothered by accuracy and correctness in my answers anymore. I’m the person who’d try to get the least amount of work, the last one to volunteer for anything. Suddenly I am all about doing just enough and after the mess that was last quarter, grades bother me, but no longer as affectingly. I did okay in my recent midterm – not damage control bad, just okay – and though I squirmed uncomfortably when I received my test paper, two hours later I could not care less.
When I started out here and during the application process, I’d meticulously clicked and read about each professor and his or her research work. I got so excited at the prospect of potentially being able to work for them. These days I… loathe the idea of the PhD, so much that it’s like a disease I’m trying to avert from. This quarter I am part of a short-term research project, which means I commit about 10 hours a week on research, and honestly, it is now week 7 and I feel like I’m just riding the motion. The term best is easily thrown since I’ve come here, I’m aware, but it’s true. My professor is really nice, esteemed in the field, and the PhD student I am shadowing is good, really good. The research group is fantastic; everyone is so darn good, even if they tend to talk in jargon-heavy terms. I’m literally learning from the best, and gaining from the best, you know? If one wants to point out opportunity – this here, me, right now.
Except I… am trying very hard to do as little as possible, still attempting to care more.
I hate this current me, because I know it – when I look back at my brief stint here, half the world away, I will hate myself. I will hate myself for not going all out, taking things for granted, not doing more et cetera. I know it – regret will creep in, and that’s more permanent than anything else. “Don’t let your emotions overtake you,” my sensible inner voice reasons. Sometimes when I admit my coasting ways to my Singaporean friend here, she who is trying to maximize her time since she’s on the 1-year track, she’d side-eye me. Most of the time she doesn’t say anything, but it shows in her face. Other times she gently reminds me to fight against this feeling of indifference.
My mind keeps wandering back to the conversation with the freshman; I can vividly recall her excitement, and the seriousness in her tone when she spoke about being indecisive. I remember being seventeen and thinking that way, then nineteen and once more questioning that. I remember turning twenty, that age when I finally realized I needed to be realistic; sink or swim. I remember being twenty-two and feeling so darn proud of myself for having made it; I made it, truly I did!
“I am an environmental engineer,” I’d admit aloud … but how much do I believe it?
To be honest, I still feel incompetent. I don’t feel like an engineer, though I’ve come to like how it rolls on my tongue. Engineering concepts don’t come to me intuitively as they seem to with my classmates. I am not as curious and critical-thinking, questioning the wide area of uncertainties in calculations and assumptions; I take them as given, as is. I’m not interested in the derivation of formulas, trying to understand and then prove how the equations came about. I’ve gotten so rusty at differentiation and integration that it irks me, having to brush up.
Since when has enough suddenly become more than enough?
Misplaced interest, this is what I call it. I’m afraid to call it any other name, or to entertain the thought; it’s already costing me so much, as it is. Late one night, on an emotional roll like I am now, I wrote to Eldest Sis. I was unstoppable as I ranted about returning to writing, and finding roots there – more strongly than I do when it comes to all the engineering shiz. “I’d mull over proses for days,” I wrote to her, “like Murakami’s words, trying to make sense of his hidden meanings. I can’t say I do the same for the stuff I learn in class. These days I feel like I wish I had chosen to pursue writing way back when, you know?”
The next morning, I woke up and realized how silly I sounded. If this – environmental engineering – didn’t happen, none of this would, too. If writing did happen, who’s to say my passion and love would grow? Perhaps I’d come to hate it, because the learning is then forced and formal. Technicalities and whatnot will matter, and I’m no longer a free-spirited, mistake-prone, writer. If this didn’t happen, my life – it’d play out so differently, worlds apart; this much I know is true, without a doubt.
Some days when the motivation is absolutely not there and I have to force myself to stay focused and complete work, I wonder if this is simply a slump – small bumps in life – that one goes through from time to time. Perhaps this is simply mine, and because it is the first time, it is overwhelmingly taxing? Lately I wonder if it’s my own words I should reflect upon – not the freshman’s giddiness, but my own passing comment. Things work out as they should eventually, I’d said. Where did that come from?
Misplaced interest; you are so damn persistent, you anger me.
I don’t know what to do with you, what more how to deal.