College Life

Countdown

While little children are busy counting down to the day Santa visits their houses to deliver gifts, I have my own countdown as well. I countdown to the day I can touch my country’s soil, hear the honking jeepneys, listen to the symphony of Filipino words and bask in the familiar tropical ambiance I realized I missed so much. I countdown to the days I can use the words pa, naman, na, kase, kanina, bahala, lang, basta, have dinner with my family, taste my mother’s home cooked adobo and hug my parents like there’s no tomorrow. I countdown to the days I can go to the beach with my best friends, listen to their kwento face-to-face and be my weird self with people who understand my humor. I countdown to the days I don’t have to filter my Taglish tendencies, translate currencies, calculate how much tip to give every time I come out of a restaurant, constantly think about time differences, or be informed about the latest happenings in my country a week late. I countdown to the instant I can once again say that I’m back home. 

But that won’t be for another 65 days. 

I never really got a fair grasp of university life abroad until I actually lived it. For some, it’s easy to adjust. But I happened to be a part of the few that thought otherwise. For my first few weeks, I woke up everyday looking at the unfamiliar ceilings of my dorm room and suddenly felt this indescribable empty sensation. Reality sunk in: I was alone, without my best friends, without my family, facing this overwhelming college experience… all by myself (cue music). And it scared me.

I guess the prime suspect in this mystery of my sadness was probably because I was so clingy with the Philippines. I got homesick often: Skype and Viber were my favorite companions. You could only imagine how happy I was when I found out my campus was full of Wi-Fi. My eyes were glued to the pixels of my laptop or phone, chatting away with my friends and family back home (which was bad because it made me miss them even more.) When things suddenly appeared on my Facebook feed be it pictures or event promotions, it was sad thinking about the many moments I was missing out with my friends. And I guess I was also afraid of the idea that I might drift away from them. If I had stayed, I would have been in that photo, I would have gone to that event and I wouldn’t be missing out. If I had stayed, I might not have to be afraid of being forgotten. 

The culture here didn’t help stop my clinginess either. As an international student, it’s hard relating to people who don’t understand the setting you come from or the things you know of. It’s hard connecting to people who don’t understand a big part of who you are. If I had stayed, it would be easier to relate and form bonds with people who understood my background, my humor, my ideals and my being Filipino. 

I tried focusing my energy to what I initially came here for: my studies. But in the academic realm, I had internal conflicts as well. With the many opinionated, outspoken and audacious leaders, debaters, writers, science enthusiasts, and best students in one of the top liberal arts schools in America, I felt extremely inferior.

That first month in school was tough; I couldn’t believe I was going to have to endure about 31 more! But the good thing was it got better. It might have taken weeks filled with some loneliness, the occasional teary nights, numerous Skype sessions, and lots of feel-good food and I’ll admit that I still am adjusting, but with the numerous extracurriculars, engaging and exciting classes, and new people to come across, it was bound to get so much better!

I’ve experienced my first official football game and, although I didn’t understand the rules, I still had lots of fun cheering my school on with the friends I came with. There are always student-run productions every weekend so I get to support my schoolmates in their endeavors. I took a trip to New York with some of my best friends with the help of regular shuttles that Wesleyan provides. And I’m able to attend the many events be it themed parties, dinners, dances, barbecues, outing trips, concerts, open mic nights and other events every week. The problem isn’t finding out where to go; it’s deciding which one to go to!

The extracurriculars that are available have helped me as well. I’m now a part of the Wesleyan Student Assembly, the Pinoy club, the Fusion Dance Troupe, the Freeman Asian Scholars Association and the Class of 2017 Council. I signed up for a bunch of other clubs as well and I hope to be able to try new things in my stay here. We have about 150 official student groups that range from skiing to hiphop to Harry Potter to belly dancing and so much more!

The education here is amazing as well. Even though I felt inferior at first, I realized that the people surrounding me helped me grow and that’s what’s making the challenge all the more exciting. Because I’m in a liberal arts program, I’m able to try different classes that don’t necessarily have to count towards my major. I’m in a class called Taiko, which is Japanese drumming. I get to learn a little more about Japanese culture as well as have fun drumming it out with my classmates. In my classes, I’m also discovering newfound interests. My psychology class is even making me consider taking a double major! With the support from faculty and their openness with the students, it makes it possible to do. 

I do still miss my family and friends back home but I’m finding ones I can be my weird self with little by little. Cliché as it may sound, my true friends will still be there for me no matter the distance, no matter the loss of proximity, no matter what. The people here may be harder to get to know, but once I got to know them, I was amazingly pleased. I met a Japanese person who has lived in Paris and Houston, a Taiwanese scholar who knows Chinese, French, and Thai, a musician who can play the saxophone, ukulele, guitar, piano and gamelan by ear, a person with two step dads and an autistic brother but still finds happiness in the beauty of photography, a Palestinian math genius, a British philanthropist who spent a part of her gap year working in a farm and a Filipino who knows anything and everything about Japan. These diverse sets of people from all walks of life make things more interesting. My eyes open to the realities of life and the beauty that the world has to offer. 

I’m gaining more friends, learning through different experiences, challenging my limits and understanding more about the world and, of course, myself. I still can’t wait until my countdown reaches zero, but, at least now, I’m discovering happiness in every single day leading up to it. 

Mikaela Reyes graduated from Philippine Science High School in 2013. She now attends Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT as part of the class of 2017.

From the Philippines to Princeton

It’s been about six weeks since I first set foot on the campus of Princeton University as a student, and I can honestly say that I’ve loved every minute of it. Everyone has been really nice, the atmosphere has been great, and it has really left me with a great sense that I definitely made the right choice to come here.

I arrived on campus on the morning of August 28th for the start of the International Orientation, which is essentially what the name suggests – all the international students arrived a few days early to orient themselves on US and Princeton culture in general. This was a fantastic introductory experience for me – I met so many people from different countries (Moldova, Romania and Uganda to name a few), and IO was full of so many great activities like a scavenger hunt around the whole campus, a canoe trip, and party for all the international students. A lot of the people I met during IO are my really good friends now, and I still eat and talk with a lot of them regularly.

A week after IO came the official Opening Exercises, where the president of the university, Christopher Eisgruber, gave his welcoming remarks to the Great Class of 2017. This was followed by a pre-rade, where the Class of ’17 walked through the FitzRandolph Gate for the first time (legend has it we’re not supposed to walk out of that gate for the rest of our stay at Princeton, or else we won’t graduate on time). We also had a step sing, where the entire batch sat on the steps and learned the Princeton cheers and songs, and we also sang some popular hits like Get Lucky and Can’t Hold Us. The whole experience was really great – it’s a unique experience that I think is part of Princeton tradition, and it was so humbling and exciting to know that I was going to be a part of that.

After that, classes started, and I have to say that all my classes have been really, really fun. In Chemistry and Physics lecture we’ve had so many demonstrations like the one below, where we tried to recreate the famous fight scene in the Zorro movie. It’s been really great, and I’ve learned so much from everyone. In fact, a couple of nights ago, my roommates and I stayed up until 2 am just talking about math and the philosophy behind it, and as nerdy as that sounds, I honestly really learned so much. It just goes to show that excellence truly abounds everywhere around here.

There have also been so many great opportunities in terms of extracurriculars – right now I’m working with the Daily Princetonian as a contributor, and I’m also on the Princeton Tiger Magazine and part of the Aquinas Catholic Club. There are so many great clubs and organizations here – there’s one for jugglers, one for magicians, one for aspiring bartenders (which I actually signed up for and will take a class in), and all in all, there are so many ways to do what I love and make new friends.

Speaking of friends, the social scene has been great, too. The eating clubs are open every weekend, and there’s always something going on. There’s a thing at Princeton called lawnparties, where people dress up in their preppiest outfits and party on a Sunday afternoon – this fall, we had a lot of famous performers like Chiddy Bang, T-Pain and Aaron Carter. The whole thing was a great deal of fun, and it was pretty crazy to think that I was literally fifty feet away from Aaron Carter and T-Pain and the whole thing was free.

Also, the sheer amount of giveaways has been absurd – so far I’ve gotten two pairs of shades (and one with “Princeton ’17 on the frame), three T-shirts, one sweater, and a free tumbler. It seems like they give us something new every week, which I don’t mind at all – there’s a running joke that you never need to buy any clothes because of all the free stuff they give.

Finally, I’d just like to talk about the great opportunities I got here – I was able to see the President of Tunisia give a talk here, I’m going to the talk of a key figure in the Palestinian Liberation movement tomorrow, and I’ve gotten to meet Maria Ressa, head of Rappler. There’s always something new and exciting that they plan for us – they’re giving discounted tickets to Broadway plays, operas and ballet recitals, which I definitely plan to take advantage of.

All in all, this first month has been really great, and I totally look forward to the rest of my journey here at Princeton. The whole experience has been so overwhelming, and I am really thankful I made the choice to come here.

Lorenzo Quiogue graduated high school from Ateneo de Manila University in 2013. He now attends Princeton University as part of the class of 2017.

THE WISDOM OF ALONE TOGETHER: On the Fear of Being "Alone" Abroad and the Perks of Residential College Life

We hear horror stories of students going off to college and just losing themselves; stories of students who regret not going to a college where most their friends would be; stories of students who consider college abroad a chore, not an opportunity.  We hear horror stories of how difficult it is to be alone in a different country miles away from home.

The truth is, we never will be. 

When I left Hong Kong, I compared it to a horrible break-up. I had fallen in love with the city, the culture, the people. I was finally feeling like I was beginning to belong when I was offered a scholarship, and my parents and I decided it was best if I moved to Yale-NUS College. I left, still in love with the fast-paced lifestyle, the clacking heels of women walking through the MTR stations, the gorgeous waters that surrounded the university I was in.

It didn’t help that before I moved to Singapore, people would look at me with pity and tell me about how small a place this country is. I began to worry. Would Singapore be the best place for me? Or would I be a fish out of the water, in a strange place with seemingly nothing ever to do? This is why last Sunday, when I landed in the Changi International Airport, I was ready to expect little. I was ready to just make the most out of what I had, figure out how the MRT and other similar systems work, focus on getting the best out of college. I was ready to face Singapore alone.

Until I discovered I didn’t have to.

I didn’t even have to ask. I had newly-found Singaporean friends who willingly brought me around. I had friends who offered to go out of their way and help me settle down. I had a friend who even took me restaurant hopping, driving me around the city, welcoming me to Singapore with a fun night-out.Here I was a foreigner, and I already felt like Singapore could be home. This realization has inspired the foci of this post: the fear of being “alone” and the perks of living in a residential college. We hear horror stories of students going off to college and just losing themselves; stories of students who regret not going to a college where most their friends would be; stories of students who consider college abroad a chore, not an opportunity. We hear horror stories of how difficult it is to be alone in a different country miles away from home.

The truth is, we never will be. I have tried studying briefly in New Haven and Boston, a few months in Hong Kong, and am about to take on Singapore. In all these countries, I found someone to bring me around and introduce me to everything local. The memories I remember the most? Dinner trips with my local roommate. Fireworks with my closest international friends. Nights out, coffee breaks, movie nights with anyone who’s left in the dorm. I’ve only been a few days in Singapore, and I have been sleeping in the early hours of the morning. The simple hanging out in common lounge with friends from all over the world whom I would never have met is enough to let me know I’ll be okay. Dinners with professors make learning seem like a fun meal time conversation. (What I love about Yale-NUS in particular is that the professors are trying to find their way around Singapore too!) Living with deans and rectors has also left us with little kids running all around the place, embracing the students into this extended family. When your stomach hurts and tears start to fall from the laughter; when you’re up late watching your fellow students sing their hearts out in an open mic; when you’re walking under the rain, crossing the road with zooming cars, enjoying every bit of the strange land you’re in; when you’re enjoying a good lunch meal with professors and friends; when you’re arm in arm with people who are as alone, but who make it all feel just right—you realize going abroad to study is not as lonely a task after all.

Because you find you’re all alone together and it is the experience of such that you’ll actually remember most in the end. In the process, you discover more of who you are, free from the shackling definitions of who you should be provided by those who have known you for the past eighteen to twenty years. In the process, you discover more of who you are, together with a bunch of others who are trying to find their way as well. This is what it means to be alone together, to lose yourself and find yourself again, and to be in the company of strangers and still feel like you belong.

Joan Danielle Ongchoco graduated from Immaculate Conception Academy in 2012. She now attends Yale-National University of Singapore (Yale-NUS) as a member of the class of 2017.