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An Open Letter to Over-Committers

Updated: Jan 14

By Hana Warner

To my younger self,

The beginning of freshman year is terrifying and liberating.  It is a brand-new environment with new people and lots of new experiences.  Orientation is a whirlwind intended to make you immediate best friends with everyone on your hall, but it is okay if that is not what happens.  You are going to find your people elsewhere: in clubs, in class, and around campus.  Putting yourself out there is terrifying, but pays off immensely (and I promise, it gets easier—especially when you have good people at your back).  

The best thing you can do is say yes.  Do the things that seem interesting or exciting (no matter how far out of your comfort zone they are).  Have so much fun in your music classes that your professor sends you to a conference to talk about “Rock and Teenage Angst in Spring Awakening.”  Spend far too much time canoeing in Matoaka, and sometimes jump in so you can figure out what’s new with the pallet of plants floating in the middle of the lake.  Apply to those internships you feel super unqualified for and go spend a summer living in Japan doing research, even though you have never left the country before, then do the same in France.  Then go to China to see what Mandarin you can learn in a couple of weeks.  Speak up and ask questions in class and group meetings.  Become the person who breaks the ice for everyone else while sating your own curiosity.  

The most important thing about saying yes, though, is to make sure you are prioritizing your happiness and wellness.  Get eight hours of sleep.  At some point, finishing the problem set is not worth the lost sleep, social interaction, or exercise. You are going to work hard, but it is important to take breaks and it is not the end of the world if you do not have a 4.0 by the time you reach graduation.  Frankly, you are a lot healthier and happier once you stop focusing on maintaining a perfect grade and instead work hard to learn and understand the material (and stop taking 18 credits while working on two research projects and supervising the makerspace.  Someday you will chill out, my friend.  At least, you drop your courseload to a more reasonable number of credits.)

Also, please, drop your second major.  Math has helped some physics concepts come a little faster, but at the cost of you sometimes resenting math for the sake of math.  If you are dedicating countless hours to a degree, study something you enjoy, not dread. Math was once that, so take math that is new and interesting, not just math you already learned in physics because it satisfies degree requirements!  Give yourself some time to take some humanities classes!  Sure, you can carefully work music classes in with the math and physics, but what about that Egyptology class Quinn keeps raving about?  Or that class on how our interpretations of history influence the present?  Take that trip to the registrar I never managed to.

Most importantly, make time for your friends and make time for yourself. Try things out (like clubs, or natto, or math) but know that it is okay if you decide you do not have time or are not interested.  You do not need to do everything, and you do not need to take on leadership in everything.  It just means that you have more time for other things! Allow yourself to say no and set boundaries so you can say yes to those late night walks in CW, Aroma’s coffee breaks (even when you don’t get any coffee), ice cream runs at strange hours, and game nights that end in dancing and tarot readings. It is okay to say no, and there is no such thing as perfection.  There is such a thing as happiness and work life balance, and those things matter. This is one of your hardest learned, and most valuable lessons.  

You are going to do some really exciting things and go to some really cool places.  When you first turn around and start talking to those girls from the Society of Physics Students meeting, you launch some of the best friendships you could imagine (which also spurs some of the closest relationships you’ll make throughout college with a whole crew of lovely individuals).  Try not to compare yourself to those around you too much: you surround yourself with some pretty incredible people, but you’re pretty incredible yourself.  Push yourself to do the things you feel wholly unqualified for (and listen to Irina when she says, “might as well see what happens!” It is how you end up doing physics research at the University of Maryland, working in Japan, and going to Harvard for your PhD).

I am so excited for you to start your freshman year and undergraduate journey.  The next four years will be amazing, challenging, and allow you to really grow into yourself.  Four years later, you will be starting at a new school, but with a lot more people behind you and confidence in yourself.  I am excited for both of us to start our degrees and see where life takes us.  The anxiety of “saying yes” to things outside of your comfort zone and tendency to over-commit to things never goes away (or at least, hasn’t yet), but you get a lot better at swallowing your fear and acknowledging your own limitations.  May we never stop learning, living, or growing.  

Cheers to the next four (or 5-7) years, Hana

Hana during her freshman year (left) and senior year (right)

About the author: Hana Warner is an applied physics PhD student at Harvard University.  She received her B.S. in Physics and Applied Mathematics at William & Mary where she had the opportunity to study quantum and nonlinear optics, control theory, organic electronics, and microlasers with four research groups on three continents.  She has sent one (busted) small-satellite into space and hopefully will send a functioning one in November 2021 (fingers crossed!).  She is passionate about expanding access to and communities within science and helping people learn (and get excited to learn) new skills.  Outside of science, she likes to spend her time running, making music, learning languages, and creating extremely specific Spotify playlists.

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