A Letter to the Girl at the Gym, Going Back to CalPoly

Congratulations! You’re going back to Cal Poly!

Oh, I hope you don’t mind. David told me. David is my trainer, and your trainer, and as you’ve been training with him it will come as no surprise that he shared that. The fact that you and I don’t really know each other somehow makes this okay, but I’m still not sure how the social convention of talking about others works (when it is and isn’t okay), so just understand he is proud of you and that’s why.

He said you came back because you didn’t make friends and no one was particularly nice to you your first quarter.

Well, first, let me congratulate you again, and point out that you are making a financial decision that will last the rest of your life, and that we need more women in STEM, and that since the American schooling system is trained to either drop you out or send you to college (no trades-person training, which really should happen), you picked the best route, really. I’ll do you the credit to assume you knew that.

That said, a word about the friends thing: You’re not in college to make friends, and the deck was stacked against you.

To my first point: college is widely touted as this friendship-making, bonding experience that late teens/early twenty-somethings will have, filled with parties, alcohol, clear skin, walking to class in your pj’s, Ramen dinners, learning the physics of beer pong, etc. Every college brochure has the following 3 pictures among others: one pic of a beautiful college campus with architectural or landscaping feature, one pic of what a graduate of this college will look like (cap, gown, diploma, smile), and one pic — and usually several more — of groups of diverse young people with big smiles doing varying things in and out of class.

Take it from me: friends are what happen in between cramming for tests, running to class, and sleep deprivation. Friends *can* happen in college, but they are not part of the curriculum or contract  you (and/or your parents) are making with the university. Speaking as someone who attended classes where some of the constituents CRIED because they got a 95% (that’s crying with shame, mind you) — and the class was graded on a curve — college classes, and particularly STEM classes, are competitive. While it is possible to be friends and competitors, it’s a difficult trick and usually requires more experience than the school system arms you with. (Remember, from Kindergarten to 12th grade, we are all Special.)

Friends do not instantly appear as part of your dorm room provision, and in fact most people I know who did stay in the dorms avoided their dorm mates. Not that they were bad people, or anything, just not their type. Also, since college is a different psychological playing field than high school was, the criteria by which people group themselves together and socially signal is subtly altered. Wearing the right clothes or doing your hair the right way will not automatically identify you with some particular group that you can meld in to. You will find, I think, that this is a good thing.

Which leads me to my second point: you were going to have a hard time making friends. Everyone does, but you in particular will. First, I agree that it is unfair. Second, I will explain: you are a tall, athletic blonde, with fine features, and clear skin. You have the brains to get into CalPoly. You are, therefore, the subject of envy on two fronts.

Most of us who could get into CalPoly (and I say us because I didn’t apply myself — in both senses of the word — but had I –again, in both senses of the word — I would have got in) were the ugly ducklings of our high school. We had thick glasses and our skin wasn’t clear and we “geeked out” on things before being a geek became cool. (Wait, does that make us hipster geeks?) We spent our high school — and some of us, junior high — lives being either envious of your looks, your social sphere, and your choices; or being mistreated by you or people who look like you. (Example: it was one of “your” group in junior high who did the “finger test” down my spine to see if I was wearing a bra, and then announced it to the entire lunchroom.)  There’s an entire subsection of high schools everywhere of folks who were like me, who pretty much cried every day they had to go to school for a given period (in my case, about a year) because being a teenager is awkward enough but the additional unfairness that is heaped upon everyone in those times just makes it more so.

Imagine our distaste, then, when we find out you had brains, too.

Even if you weren’t one of the locker-room bullies, even if you were super-nice popular girl (and we had a bunch of those, too — and those are the ones I can be Facebook friends with now, actually, because they’re the same and I’ve grown up), we still were going to Go To College and Everything Would Be Better. We wouldn’t be judged on our looks and would only compete with our brains, and especially, especially at a technical college, our brains would be the thing most appreciated.

And now we saw you had them, too.

There’s going to be reticence. There’s going to be envy, and comparison, and competition, and it’s going to feel a lot like that first part of Legally Blonde where the two characters — the blonde one and the brunette one, I don’t remember their names but the brunette is considered more smart and less pretty, naturally — are in the thick of it and the smart, less-pretty brunette (I think the quote was “not entirely unfortunate looking”) is picking on the blonde. The real and perceived inequities of high school coming back and asserting themselves on someone who looks like, but isn’t, the person they had to deal with.

Totally, completely, and utterly unfair. In retrospect I agree. (Did I do this? No. I slacked off. It wasn’t a better solution.)

So I want to give you this advice, because it was hard to make friends for me as well — in junior high and high school. And, as I have the clarity of some years, this is the advice I wish I had gotten, and/or followed:

1. Remember where you are, and why you are there. It’s 3.67 more years to go, which is a comparatively small part of your life: treat it like a job. Learn as much as you can, get a decent GPA. Come home to the friends you’ve made here, but don’t be surprised if they change — or if you do. It happens.

2. Make friends outside of college. Join the gym there, or a club, get a part-time job at a place whose products you enjoy. Keep your college life, and your personal life, separate, at least at the start. You will find them slowly merging, and it may take a couple of quarters or a year, but if you don’t require it as an instant presentment you will be fine.

3. Get an internship somewhere. This will help you when you graduate to show practical work experience. It also shows you that most of the world operates differently from high school and college, and while it is not the utopia most of us thought college would be, it is far better than college was. You’ll learn about the difference in expectations of the corporate world and the academic world, you’ll learn the value of a well-timed coffee break or how to multitask in a meeting. Possibly more importantly you’ll learn if that is what you want to do when you get out of college, or if you want to pursue a more academic life.

As you left I heard you tell David you’ll be back in November, to visit for Thanksgiving. I’m looking forward to the update. 🙂

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