Competition is an Illusion: My First Year at an Ivy League School

The moral of the story is: Run your own race.

After an incredible last year of high school that surpassed even my own expectations, I was feeling pretty good. With impressive A Level results, the Melbury Cup tennis trophy and an award from the Government of Zimbabwe, I was on top of the world. It felt like nothing could touch me, I was on Cloud Nine, running my own rave, and winning. You can imagine just how much my head inflated after being admitted to one of the most prestigious schools: The University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school and as of 2017, #10 in the world. Another notch added to my winning streak.

In many ways, my first year of school matched my expectations: my workload was heavier, my room was smaller and the food wasn’t exactly Michelin star. In writing this post, I don’t want to embody what every other article tells you about going to a competitive school because no matter where you go you will find kids who are smarter than you, more athletic than you and have more savoir-faire than you. Starting university is a huge transition for anyone, and it took a long time for me to realise that that’s true whether you go to college in the same town you grew up in or if like me, you moved 17,000 km across the globe. You will feel awkward, insecure and unprepared. How on earth do you compete with the kid who has been doing research since he was in diapers, or the kid who started their own successful business at 16? What I’m here to tell you is that you don’t. You compete with previous versions of yourself.

I spent a lot of time in my first year trying to outdo my classmates, teammates and at some point, even my own roommates. If I wasn’t at the top of my own mental leader board then I was letting myself down. This toxic cycle of thinking can easily discourage you as you start to feel as though you’re not as brilliant or capable as you thought you were. This led to a loss of self because it felt like I couldn’t do the things that I enjoyed doing if someone was going to be better than me anyways.

It’s easy to fall into the trap when you spend all your time looking at what other people are doing and weighing it against your own accolades. You panic and start to feel that what you have achieved is insignificant or that you haven’t been working hard enough. You put in hours and hours of hard work trying to follow someone else’s path, chasing something that was never meant for you, pursuing something that you will never attain. Nothing hurts your self-esteem more than putting all your effort into a project and not seeing the results especially when it seems as though other people are more successful than you are. This can apply to studying techniques, sports training or getting a startup off the ground.

We need to remind ourselves that this is not a race. Success doesn’t have a timeline. In comparing yourself to others, you start to believe that everyone is looking at you and judging your actions. You feel as though everyone will be disappointed by the fact that you haven’t managed to produce a spectacular project by age 20 or that you haven’t made Forbes’ 30 under 30 by age 25. The truth is that you don’t need to feel the pressure to be sensational in order to please everyone around you. This pill becomes even harder to swallow when you’ve been a high achiever since preschool.

In the end, it became important to recognise that my own individuality is what makes me unique and is the reason why I shouldn’t strive so hard to compete with someone else. It is your unique brand of characteristics that makes you who you are and makes it impossible for you to compare yourself to someone else. So what if they played lacrosse at a national level and you couldn’t get further than your school team? The fact that they have a superior career shouldn’t invalidate the fact that your school team was the best in the region that year. We should learn to stop being critical of ourselves based on what others are doing and instead start congratulating and appreciating ourselves for our accomplishments, no matter how small. I made it all the way down an expert ski slope without falling! I completed a coding assignment without going to office hours! I didn’t miss my 9 am class today!

As I have discovered, college is extremely forgiving. You have the freedom to join a sports team even if you’ve never played the sport before, and you’re allowed to suck at it, at least you put your pride aside and ventured outside your comfort zone. You’re allowed to change your major every other week, and decide to venture into finance even if you don’t really know how the stock market works, it’s admirable that you are chasing your dreams. You’re allowed to start a business that eventually fails, it’s impressive that you were brave enough to try.

The only person you can truly compete with is yourself. I encourage everyone reading this to go out and be the best versions of themselves today. I believe that true happiness comes from self-fulfilment: you feel overjoyed when you set a new record for your fastest 5k, and that is incomparable to the fleeting tinge of satisfaction you feel when you get a higher grade than the person sitting next to you. You shouldn’t have to ‘be better’ than someone in order to feel accomplished. Run your own race and try to beat yourself each time.

 

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PennQuest, PennQuest The Best!

Sit down because I am about to tell you about the wildest 3 days of my incredibly short lifespan.

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Back in April when I received the email from Penn with information about the different pre-orientation programs, I was instantly sold. A chance to get on campus a week before everyone else sounded like a dream. Browsing the list of the different activities, there was one that stuck out to me- PennGreen. Not what you were expecting me to say, huh?

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I’ve always been interested in sustainability and the preservation of the environment, and a student-run club that puts those policies into practice sounded like perfection. Eager to get in, I promptly began my application, filling out every question effortlessly until I reached the last essay prompt: Write a love letter to your favourite vegetable. Huh? I’ll give them extra points for creativity but at that point, my brain just wasn’t prepared to conjure up a polished exaggeration of my love for spinach. And so, I shelved my application.

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2 months later, I was sitting pretty in Geneva, Switzerland when I received an email from Penn. Just as background knowledge, that was when I used to jump with excitement at every email they sent me, after having arrived at campus, I cower in fear from the 25 emails they send me every hour: This is a reminder that you haven’t submitted your assignment that is due…. Back to the issue at hand, I, an excited Penn pre-frosh eagerly opened my email that contained a reminder that the applications for pre-orientation programs were due in a week’s time. At this point, I had completely banished the thoughts of love letters to spinach from my mind. I decided to refresh myself with the different activities and this time, a different program called my name: PennQuest. 

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PennQuest is an outdoor orientation program…”- the magical words that sold me. I won’t bore you with that application process nor the official description of the program, but I will tell you about PennQuest from my eyes. The night before we departed, there was a pizza night and briefing meeting scheduled to allow us to get to know each other. I remember walking into the Bodek Lounge into an insane party. Nicki Minaj’s ‘Anaconda’ was blasting from the stereo, students were dancing on top of tables and bouncing off the walls tirelessly. The mum in me screamed internally, ‘Be careful! Slow down, you might slip and fall!’. I had no idea what to make of it and was convinced that I had made a mistake by applying to PennQuest.

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I know now that I shared the same thoughts as the other 133 pre-frosh in the room. We were terrified and had no idea what to expect from the 3 days to come. The wonderful Laurie McCall who coordinates the program conducted a presentation in which she assured us that “what makes PennQuest such a successful and popular program is the leaders who go on the trip with you.”. If she means this bunch of lunatics, I thought, this is bound to be an interesting experience.

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134 students were divided into groups of 11 and assigned 2 upperclassmen as leaders. We had Hannah, a sophomore, and Nico, a senior, and as I grew to knew them, they became my new PennParents. Having met my group, we said goodnight and headed to our dorms to pack for a trip that strictly forbade toiletries, electronic devices and watches from the packing list. You heard me, I spent 3 whole days without my phone, without a toilet or shower, in complete ignorance of the time AND even better, I survived it all without the slightest withdrawal symptoms.

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The next morning we boarded the East-Coast-esque yellow school buses on the way to Camp Towanda. Our camp leaders were eager to capitalise on our nervousness by refusing to divulge any information on the trip. Asking how long the bus ride would be would yield the response, “Oh we’ll be there in about 8 hours”.

What time is it?

“I think it must be 2 in the morning now.” 

How far will we have to hike every day?

“So our goal is to hit 30 miles but that’s at the very least, we expect you guys to be able to do 50 miles without breaks.” 

What do we eat on the trail?

“I hope you read the course information that we posted on the Facebook group. It detailed all the proper techniques for spear fishing and laying traps for the deer we’re going to hunt. There’s also a test you have to take when we get to camp about identifying the top 10 most poisonous plants we’ll see on trail! You should also have reviewed the material about the proper squatting position for when you poop in the woods because I promise you that you WILL need to poop sometime over the next 3 days. Aren’t you excited? GET H-Y-P-E!!!!!!!!” 

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We learnt pretty quickly that it was better to not ask questions and to just go with the flow. No camping trip is complete without loud, out-of-tune singing on the bus ride and i did not expect any less from PennQuest. WELL YOU CAN’T RIDE ON MY LITTLE RED WAGON, THE FRONT SEAT’S BROKEN AND THE AXLE’S DRAGGIN’, CHUGGA, CHUGGA, CHUGGA, CHUGGA, CHUGGA! SECOND VERSE, SAME AS THE FIRST, A LITTLE BIT LOUDER AND A WHOLE LOT WORSE! Other bus activities include: musical chairs which is played to the death, mooning any other PennQuest bus that passes you- if you’re lucky, you’ll even score an unsuspecting traveller in the lane next to you, and jamming out to white girl classics such as “Mr Brightside”.

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After spending what I believe to have been 4 hours on the bus, we arrived at Camp Towanda, rushed through lunch before being split into groups (different from our hiking groups) and heading off to complete different activities.

  • Scavenger Hunt: items included finding the most disgusting thing on the camp and having a member of our team lick it (Spoiler alert: it was Michelle’s foot), having 2 members of your team switch clothes (underwear is completely up to you), assigning every leader a celebrity lookalike and finding the funniest bathroom drawing on the campsite (the one below is my personal favourite).

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  • Capture The Flag: my team failed miserably at this game. We were all captured within minutes, making our flag easy game for the enemy team.
  • Tackle: this game means exactly what the name implies. My brother plays rugby for the school team so I am a total expert at delivering crippling tackles. Especially when the players are twice as heavy as me. Why haven’t the Blue Bulls signed me yet?
  • Meditation: I am convinced that I fell asleep sometime during that (30 minute???) session but all I know is that I felt so zen at the end. I wasn’t daring enough to attempt the eye contact meditation, which involves as you probably guessed, staring into a stranger’s eyes for some 15 minutes without breaking eye contact. It leaves you vulnerable to the other person and we have a running bet that one of the pairs is definitely going to get married. You read it here first, folks.
  • Bonfire + S’mores= YAAAAAAAAAAAAS.

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  • Astronomy night hike: every camper had to close their eyes and hold the shoulders of the person to the right of them. We walked blindly, only following the person in front of us. This is how I met Robbie, who I still hang out with now, our friendship cemented by the one time I almost suffocated him because I was terrified and held a death grip on his shoulders. That night was made memorable, not only because I had to walk blindly, in the woods, behind Robbie who seemed to be speeding away making it hard for me to keep up, but because when we eventually were told to lie down and open our eyes, I witnessed the most beautiful display of the heavens above. The leaders then read us inspirational poems and proceeded to motivate us by detailing how amazing life at Penn is. I can truthfully say that I have never felt more inspired than in that moment. Lifesaver mints were then passed around, and in the pitch black darkness, we could clearly see the spark produced when our partners bit into them. It only took Robbie 7 tries to get it right.

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The next morning we set off for the Appalachian trails. I will not lie to you, the first 30 minutes were brutal, soul-crushing, steep uphill climbs. Our group was quick to rename the trip QUADQuest in honour of our beautifully toned quad muscles. We stopped to watch the solar eclipse, which is a once-in-a-38-year-chance, but in Pennsylvania, there was only 80% coverage so we didn’t get a total blackout, but that didn’t make it any less spectacular. I can’t answer your questions of how far we hiked or for how long but I can tell you that it was great to interact with all the different members of the group and get to know them better. We set up camp or the evening and dined on the luxurious selection of white rice, red kidney beans and flour tortillas- so gourmet.

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The second day was definitely more eventful. We met up with one of the other hiking groups and trekked to a nearby river. The murky waters of the Delaware River were warmly welcomed after 48 hours without a shower. Did I forget to mention that this is also where we retrieved our drinking water for the remaining leg of the trip? Relax, it was purified with iodine which has the most peculiar aftertaste. Top camping tip: make sure to carry lemons in your pack- not only does drinking lemon water make you look boujee, it also eliminates the gross taste of iodine.

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Highlights include: scaling the top of a lookout tower, spotting a baby blackbear (my first bear!), pooping in the woods for the first time and avoiding the snakes in the muddy marsh we crossed.

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The icing on the cake, the crème de la crème and the top experience of that day was the freak thunderstorm that hit that night. After dining on gourmet pasta and tomato sauce, we were sitting around the fire talking about everything and nothing, dreading the end of the trip. The thunderstorm had been playing out in the background but we hadn’t been paying attention to it. Nico gets a message from the upperclassmen back at base camp: Miranda Cosgrove has passed away in a car accident. (Remember that the leaders had to carry their mobile phones in case we ran out of water or someone got injured). Our initial reaction was shock and sadness which eventually dissolved into silence. iCarly was my childhood! It was then that Nico received a second message from base camp: the storm was heading in our direction.

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Picture this: 13 adults crammed into a tent that sleeps 6 people, savouring the end of what has been a spectacular trip. To add to the ambience, we had lit a candle in what is known as the ‘PennQuest Candlelight Ceremony’. In the background: deafening thunder and torrential rainfall. All of a sudden, we hear the crackle of a tree succumbing to the lightning that struck it. That could only mean one thing: we were dangerously at risk of being struck by lightning.

Calmly yet swiftly, Nico and Hannah urged us to get our raincoats out and our shoes on, and to evacuate the tent. Rushing to get out, we were instructed to spread out about 5 feet from the nearest person and get as close to the ground as possible: as lightning only ever strikes the tallest standing object in the vicinity. My initial response was fear, ‘It’s absolutely freezing out here, we saw a bear earlier and who knows what could be lurking in these woods? I’m drenched in rainwater, there is no way that I won’t be sick tomorrow morning.’ It is only through the reassuring voices of my leaders and groupmates that I managed to calm down and view this as an interesting story to tell in the future as opposed to an annoyance. For what I believe to have been 45 minutes, we shouted our most embarrassing stories to each other, combated pesky frogs and insects, and laughed about the past 3 days.

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When it came time to board the buses the next morning, I was sad to be leaving but content with the people that I had the privilege of spending time with. I can’t think of any better way to have kickstarted my university experience. PennQuest, you truly were the best.

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Just for the record: Miranda Cosgrove is still alive, that was a ploy by the mischievous PQ leaders.

Saying Goodbye

Never thought that this moment would arrive but Father Time will always find a moment to catch up with you.

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To catch you up to speed, I graduated high school last year in Zimbabwe and I am starting college at the University of Pennsylvania this fall. The Southern African school calendar is marginally different from the rest of the world: whilst we graduated in November 2016, my American age mates only graduated in April of 2017 which meant a 10 month holiday until the start of college in late August. So what exactly does one do with themselves during this period? If you’re me, then you backpack across Europe, take up cycling on the weekends and read more books than you ever thought possible. What can I say, I’m not your typical party-going 18 year old.

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You may have noticed that I have neglected to publish any posts over the last 2 weeks and mind you, it’s not out of laziness. I decided to put the blog work away and postpone any distractions so that I could properly bid adieu to the place I was born, and have spent the past 18 years of my life in. It’s not easy when every landmark reminds you of an event; there’s the insurmountable hill that crushed us when we decided to run a 12km race, now we’re driving past my nursery school and look, that’s the restaurant where we hosted my 5th birthday party!

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One thing that several of my parents’ friends have said to me is that when I next return home, I will be looking at it through the eyes of an outsider. Moving away is like uprooting yourself from the comfortable pot you had sprouted in only be transported to an expansive field, where you have more space to grow, flower and really turn yourself into the person you want to be.

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Although it is difficult to say goodbye, everything has to come to an end. There is a time for everything, I’ve had my time to relax and bum around for the past 10 months, but now it is time for me to put my head down and get back to work. Obviously in between getting to know my fellow classmates, exploring the city of Philadelphia and just having fun you know? As I close this chapter of my life, I remember to be grateful for all the experiences I have had, I have only fond childhood memories to look back on. Several photos I take with me, including the ones in this post that were all taken by me. I am eager to make new memories in the US of A!

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Sending warm hugs to wherever you are in the world, let this be a reminder for you to get out there and try something new!

x Andy