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An Open Letter to the Cautious Optimist

By Danielle Hawa Tarigha

Dear First-Year Danielle, 

Wow! It’s your first year of college! How exciting! 

I’ll start by saying congratulations. You’ve made it past high school and the stress of standardized testing, college applications, and a schedule packed with extracurricular activities. I applaud you for your mental and emotional strength. 

Now, to help you prepare for your new chapter, I am going to share some advice. You’ll be receiving a lot of advice in the next few years, but this advice is incredibly important because I’m you from the future. 

These are things I wish you knew, first-year Danielle, but you know them now:

1. Ask for help as soon as you need it or earlier.

  • Find tutors, smart friends, and reach out to teaching assistants. Do whatever it takes to make your class material clearer. College isn’t like high school. Things won’t always click immediately, and that’s okay. Asking for help, joining study groups, and bringing up questions in class doesn’t make you less intelligent. It makes you a better student. Quit things and focus.            

  • If you think your penchant for joining too many clubs ended in high school, you’re wrong. Your club limit will be seven. You will crash, hard, after trying to balance participation in all of those clubs. You will end up being in only one. Don’t be too disappointed though. Your dedication, enthusiasm, and commitment will lead you to become president of that club. You’ll learn that quality over quantity is important in every element of your life. 

2. Your network is your net worth. 

  • Start networking early. The more you practice, the easier it will become. More often than not, who you know will help you more than what you know. Your mentors will guide you and support you. Experienced upperclassmen will share advice, study materials, and recruitment preparation guides that will be invaluable. Beyond this, your network will enable you to do something you enjoy: connecting and uplifting others. So, don’t hesitate to reach out. 

3. Have an open mind

  • Balancing between being ambitious and focused while also being open to new opportunities is key. Don’t pigeonhole yourself into one particular profession until you are confident that it aligns with both your skills and passions. Even if everyone else is following the same path: stop and reflect. Make sure your path is right for you. Succumbing to peer pressure is rarely positive, even if there are a lot of social and financial perks. 

4. Don’t let striving for perfection stop you from finishing what you start. 

  • Your laptop background will say, “Done is better than perfect” from your third year onward. It’s a quote from Sheryl Sandberg and a daily reminder that finishing tasks leads to more joy, more self-confidence, and more memories (good and bad) than being stifled by fear. Finish what you start, even if the result isn’t exactly how you pictured it. More often than not, the journey to completion teaches you more than the finished product itself. 

In the end, you will accomplish a lot of what you hoped for in college and more. You will travel to six continents. You will work AND study abroad. You will spend more time in airports than is reasonable for a full-time student. You will occasionally finish homework or do your makeup during Uber rides away from said airports for interviews and company programs. However, every trip will build your global network, introduce you to great friends, and lead to unforgettable memories.

Beyond traveling, you will build self-confidence. How? By making mistakes. So, make a lot of mistakes! Be bold. Ask questions during all of those silent info sessions. Go to networking events even if you walk into the room knowing no one. Send cold emails. Write speeches for events even if you aren’t sure of the “right” way to do it. Make mistakes as you act in boldness because making mistakes means that you’re learning and trying. Your experiences will make you a better mentor and friend.

You will also finally learn French and even a bit of Chinese. In your second year of college, you will find yourself singing “Let It Go” in Chinese class for extra credit. You will have only practiced a few times before class, and you will—at the last minute—decide to play your classmate’s acoustic guitar with zero preparation. Your Chinese professor will look both confused and sympathetic as you struggle through playing the chords, singing in tune, and reading Chinese characters simultaneously. Your classmates will applaud. Just go with it. You’ll be embarrassed that morning, but you’ll look back and laugh. 

You will have to balance school with work for most of your college experience. Working during the school year will mean sacrificing both study time and social time. Those internships will help you to meet your professional goals earlier and make financially supporting yourself through college easier. It may not always feel like it, but those bus rides downtown every week are worth it. So, don’t be too hard on yourself when it feels like everyone around you has more free time to have fun. Everyone is facing challenges.

As I mentioned at the start, this is only the tip of the iceberg for the advice that you will receive (and the experiences you will have). When you encounter nuggets of wisdom, take great notes, read those notes, and always be willing to learn. To wrap up, I will share one more tip that you should carry with you and share with your friends as well:

Have fun!

Your college life won’t be anything like those cheesy movies where students are constantly attending wild parties and have questionable amounts of free time to sit on the quad. However, you will have your version of a formative undergraduate experience.

College is a great time to learn more about yourself and the world around you. Study, explore, and seek out what brings you joy. Pursue those subjects and activities. It’s worth it.



P.S. Somehow, you will find time in your fourth year to write a book while finishing your graduation requirements. You will write a lot of the book in Dakar, Senegal, and London, England. (Crazy, right?) Your community of support will never seize to surprise you as you share your writing journey, raise funds to finish, and ultimately publish the summer after you graduate. Never stop writing!

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


About the author: Danielle Hawa Tarigha is a passionate leader in the economics and public policy space looking to grapple with one of the world’s oldest and most widespread issues: poverty. She studied economics at the University of Chicago, and has expanded her reach into the fields of investment banking, public policy, information technology, and asset management on her mission to tackle extreme poverty.

Throughout her work, she has received such honorable distinctions as the first undergraduate Rising Star award in the Trott Business Program and her status as a Kimpton Fellow. When she is not addressing extreme poverty, you may find her updating her fun fashion-focused Instagram account.

If you would like to learn more about extreme poverty and poverty alleviation strategies, you can order a copy of Uplift and Empower at this link:

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