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An Open Letter to Those Saying "I Don't Know"

By Kristen Tan

Dear Me from Four Years Ago,

Hey! It’s me from the future. I can’t believe you’re about to start college. I know you’re excited and nervous right now, but try to focus on being excited. These next four years are going to be awesome.

Freshman year is going to be overwhelming, but let me reassure you that it will be okay. The first few months are going to be challenging. It might feel like everyone around you is making friends instantly and having the time of their lives, but, I promise, everyone is figuring things out one step at a time, just like you are. It’ll be tough. You’ll even feel like you want to transfer for a while, but, do me a favor and try sticking it out. Go to club meetings, school events, review sessions, anywhere and everywhere, even (and especially) when you don’t feel like it. Meet as many people as you can. It will pay off, I promise. By the end of your first semester, you’ll find a sense of community.

Once you’ve hit your stride, there are some other things you’ll probably be worried about, like, you know, school. I know you did well in high school and that you want to do well now, and I encourage you to work hard, but please remember to give yourself room to breathe. A single bad grade will not shut down your college career or even cause you to fail a class. So, when you get that fifty on your second Calc quiz, cry about it for a minute, then put the quiz paper down, go for a run, shake it off, and start studying for the next quiz. You’re not going to get 100s all the time, but that doesn’t mean you’re not doing well. Yes, you probably will stress about every single grade you get, but that doesn’t mean future me can’t give you the good advice not to.

Freshman year is the biggest hurdle you’ll have to overcome. After that, you’ll feel way more comfortable at school. This means that you can turn your attention to other big “college” things, like research and internships. It can be difficult to secure an internship position right after your freshman year, but research is a great opportunity at this time in your life. Let me tell you how this will go, since I have a little insight now looking back. You’ll apply for a research position in a robotics lab on campus, knowing nothing about robotics and not actually knowing the programming languages suggested on the research position description. You’ll get the job in the lab, and show up on the first day, only to be left alone by your advisor in the lab with no instructions. Your research partner will show up, and you’ll be intimidated by him because he is insanely smart. And then you’ll have one of the best summers of your life. You’ll learn Python and ROS and Choregraphe. You’ll play with a Turtlebot 2 and a NAO. You’ll write a paper and even get it published. And your research advisor will become your Senior Design advisor in three years, and your research partner will become your best friend.

When you do start applying for internships, I encourage you to apply early and apply broadly. If a job strikes your interest in any way, go for it! I also encourage you to interview as much as possible. Even if you don’t think you actually want to work at a particular job, interview practice is key to honing your skills. When you’re prepping for your interviews, do your research first. Look into whether you’ll be asked technical questions, or just behavioral ones, and dig into some info on the company before you show up. It’s important to be informed and aware.

Over the course of your college career, you’ll end up completing two internships. During the summer after your sophomore year, you’ll work at CitiGroup as an Application Programmer Analyst. Let me warn you now, you’re not going to love this job. The office will be dead silent, and there will hardly be anyone your age around you. You’ll feel out of your depth and out of place, but, it’s important to look on the bright side. First off, you’re learning! Despite the fact that you don’t like going to work, you’re honing your programming skills, discovering what it’s like to integrate code into existing applications, interfacing with business analysts, and more. These skills are transferable and will definitely help you down the road. And, secondly, even though you might not realize it at the time, it’s just as important to learn what you don’t like as it is to learn what you do like. So, hang in there.

And, guess what, your next internship will be awesome! You’ll work as a Media Tech intern at NBCUniversal in the Cloud Engineering department. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “No one really knows what the cloud is.” True. Yes. But, you will soon. It’s okay that you don’t know what you’re doing going in. Have faith that everyone around you understands that you’re young and that you’re still learning. Don’t be scared to ask questions, and definitely reach out for help if you’re feeling stuck. Your manager and team members want you to succeed, and they are there to provide support to help you do so. I know I haven’t talked about school in a bit, but it’s important to remember that professors are the same way. They are there to help you as best they can, and they can be an important resource in getting jobs or obtaining letters of recommendation, so make sure to maintain good relationships where possible.

If we flash forward all the way to the present, you get to hear a piece of exciting news. You’re going to work for Comcast NBCUniversal full time! How’d you get the job? Well, you put in 100% at your internship and then, when the time came to interview, you practiced like we talked about before. You did your research, spent as much time as possible on HackerRank in the days prior to your interview, looked up possible HR questions and ran through some answers, sent thank you emails afterward (This is important!), and got the offer. And now, as I’m writing this, your (my? haha) job starts next month. So, good luck to you/me!

Now, we’ve covered friends, school, research, internships, jobs- all the good stuff. I guess I should mention, though, to remember to have fun. I know you’re a nerd, and I know it’s hard for you to pull yourself away from your work, but college is a once in a lifetime experience, and you should enjoy it as much as you can because it goes by in a flash. I can say this with particular poignancy, as your senior year will get cut short due to a global pandemic. Woah! A what? It’s okay, me from four years ago. We’ve been stuck inside for about six months now, so you’ll get used to it. But, you will miss the end of your senior year, so please, I beg you, let yourself enjoy the time you do have. Scream your lungs out at that concert when you have an assignment due in the morning, dance at formal all night even though you have three midterms in the next three days, skip that one class to eat frozen yogurt on the pier with your Senior Design group. It’ll all work out!

And I guess I’ll wrap up on that note with one final piece of advice. I know you’re anxious right now and that it’s hard to believe that things will indeed work out. But, let me tell you that, throughout your whole college career, it’s okay to not know. It’s okay to not know answers, to not know what you want to study right away, to not know whether you want to go to grad school or do research or go into industry. Let yourself take each day and even each hour as an opportunity to learn something new about yourself, to figure out something you didn’t know before. It’ll be scary, but if you let yourself become comfortable with being uncomfortable, it can be pretty cool too. So, younger me, get out there and get going. You got this.


Me (Yes, this is an intentional Dear Evan Hansen reference)

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


About the author: My name is Kristen Tan and I am a recent graduate of Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. I majored in Software Engineering and minored in Computer Science and am now about to begin my career in the world of tech! I will be joining Comcast NBCUniversal as a CORE Technology Associate working in Production Infrastructure. Aside from that, I’ve also been volunteering with EWAAB for a little over six months. Finally, outside of school/work, I love reading, running, and playing with my dog (but playing with my dog is definitely the most important of all those things).

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