On Thursday, June 13, I took my last final exam of spring quarter, signaling the end of the last quarter of my first year as a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: This was one of the most tumultuous, disheartening times of my life. Two people dear to my heart passed away suddenly within a span of 12 hours, making this my first time dealing with loss and grief. My mental health reached an all-time low so severe to the point that I needed to go back on antidepressants and start seeing a therapist and psychiatrist regularly.
Nonetheless, a large phoenix rose from the ashes, if you will. I learned so much about myself this quarter; I would even dare to state that I grew significantly more these past three months than I did my entire four years of high school.
Here are a few lessons I took away from the final quarter of my freshman year, as well as a few anecdotes of times that molded me exponentially into a more resilient person.
- Death is a strange phenomenon that I have yet to learn to cope with and accept.
A few weeks into spring quarter, I discovered one night that a campus supervisor who had helped me go through a really rough time in high school died of cancer. It was sudden and it was brutal. I cried a lot, and I couldn’t accept the fact that he was gone.
As soon as I woke up the subsequent morning, I found out through social media that a guy whom I once had feelings for and vice versa passed away, too. We terminated our relationship on bad terms, and though it has been years since we last reconnected, I couldn’t help but feel instant guilt and regret for not reaching out to him before his passing.
Though I knew it was wrong, I blamed myself for a lot of the guilt I was feeling. Soon I found myself enveloped in my own self-loathing, unable to get out of bed each morning and unwilling to do even the most menial tasks, like walking to class or grabbing a quick bite to eat.
To say I was depressed is an understatement. My clinical depression returned with a ferocity I had never before experienced, and on top of that, I had been cutting myself incessantly behind my friends’ backs. Self-harm helped me cope, even though I knew it was collapsing me further down into a rabbit hole of harrowing grief.
I had reached my breaking point. I told myself it wasn’t normal to want to hurt myself every day, or to contemplate suicide. I didn’t have any motivation to get out of bed, to go to class, to eat, to talk to anyone, to do anything. I slept in all day, curled up in bed from sunrise to sunset. I hit rock bottom.
In the midst of my grief, my boyfriend (more on that later) encouraged me to seek professional help. Unwillingly I obliged, making the call to my parents to ask if I could see a therapist and possibly start going on antidepressants again.
While my parents were supportive of the former request, they immediately declined the latter. I understand my parents were born and raised in a completely different generation, immersed in a culture that deemed “suck it up, buttercup” a viable solution to one’s mental health problems. This, however, did not appease my depression and self-harm; if I was going to get better, I wanted to combine both therapy and antidepressants, not merely settle with one or the other.
I advocated for my health by searching for therapists and psychiatrists off campus. Unfortunately, the on-campus mental health resources were not easily accessible at the time, so I had to resort to making calls and booking appointments with off-campus specialists.
I was lucky enough to find a therapist and psychiatrist who were accepting new clients and were extremely helpful. I got back on Prozac, the antidepressants I once was on during my first year of high school. The side effects during the first week of taking it were not optimal – I had panic attacks, severe insomnia, and drowsiness throughout the day. But once those first seven days were over, I’ve felt significantly better.
Some days are easier to deal with in terms of accepting the two deaths. There are days I cry more than others, and there are days I feel more grateful than miserable. Coping with loss has been a journey – a process that I’m still a “rookie” at – but it’s shaped me into a much stronger young woman and has taught me the value and mortality of life, a concept I had never been forced to confront before.
- A relationship is doable in college.
If you’ve been keeping up with my blog for quite some time, you may recall in my winter quarter reflection post that I did not see myself being in a monogamous, committed, serious relationship for the duration of my first year of college. Boy, was I so wrong!
Not very long into spring quarter, I entered a new relationship with my current boyfriend, David. We met the first week of winter quarter in a statistics class we had together. Though we stated our intentions to remain “study buddies,” we grew increasingly closer as time passed, and eventually, I developed feelings for him. Because our feelings were mutual, we decided to start dating seriously, despite our fears and worries that a relationship wouldn’t be feasible in college.
We got along well and still do to this day; we’ve been in a relationship for two and a half months so far, with the next few months of summer being in a long-distance relationship. It’s been difficult to adjust to long-distance, but I’m happy and grateful I found someone as smart, funny, and selfless as him.
- It’s OK to ask for and take breaks.
While I was grieving the two deaths I mentioned earlier, it was nearly impossible for me to fulfill my academic and occupational obligations. On days when I could gather the mental willpower to get out of bed, I would walk grudgingly to the library, unwilling to concentrate on any material I had to study.
Furthermore, I couldn’t summon the determination to carry out my duties for Mustang News, the student-led news organization of Cal Poly SLO, or for WITH US, my other job on campus. I had to muster the tiny wells of courage I had left and ask for a break from both organizations, as well as request some degree of leniency from my professors for my mental health. Fortunately, my superiors were incredibly understanding, referring me to resources on campus that would be of immense benefit to me and granting me more clemency than I had initially anticipated.
I learned that it’s important to ask for – and to actually take – breaks when you desperately need them. In a world so fast-paced and demanding, it’s so simple to lose track of your own mental, physical, and/or spiritual needs. Take the time you need to heal from trauma, whether it be a week or a month. Your body will thank you for it in the long run.
- My experiences as a first-generation Filipina-American are valid and deserve to be discussed.
Something I’m very open about with other people is that my brother and I were the first in my immediate family to be born in the United States, and I am the first in my family to move out of the house for college. Both my parents received a college degree, but they did not have to deal with the chaos that comes with moving to an entirely different city/county for the sole purpose of obtaining an education.
But when I vocalized these experiences briefly on a recent Instagram post, someone commented, “No one cares what color you are. No one except yourself. It’s college – they’re all trying to get through their classes or get laid. No one’s worried about the least looking Filpino girl on the planet. That’s how we know you really scaped the bottom of the barrel of things to add to your post.”
This just goes to show that being an underrepresented woman of color comes with a lot of emotional and mental resilience. While I am privileged to obtain a college education (and I acknowledge that privilege constantly), it is unfair to claim that my time in college has been all “sunshine and rainbows.” Because it hasn’t. Being a minority at a predominantly white institution is a struggle of acculturation, a struggle of survival. Furthermore, being surrounded by competitive students with more wealth than I could possibly comprehend yielded a yearning for belonging that I knew I could never adequately fulfill. While I felt lucky to continue my education, I felt like I didn’t belong in any of my classes. I was the only Filipina girl in most – if not all – of my classes, and I was the only full Filipina girl in my class of the University Honors Program at Cal Poly.
As a woman of color, you stand out among a sea of your white peers (at least, that’s how I felt). But over time, I’ve learned to adjust to those feelings of isolation and intimidation. I realized during spring quarter that I had to use my voice to its full potential and advocate for those who feel the same lack of privileges as I do. It was a large leap of courage, but I felt victorious in being an outspoken “social justice warrior” in all my social circles.
Though I felt alone, I did not stand alone. I feel incredibly thankful to have supportive friends and faculty members in college who have contributed to my overall growth as a student at Cal Poly. They are the reason I chose to stay, despite my initial desires to transfer out after two years.
College has been a wild ride, abundant with roadblocks and obstacles that have propelled – not hindered – my academic and professional development. I have a much more solid understanding of who I am, deep down, beyond the surface level. Most importantly, I feel as though college has metamorphosed me for the better, transforming me into a more open-minded, assiduous, and confident young adult.