University of Melbourne, 2004. It was the Tuesday after orientation, and I was power-walking to my first creative writing lecture. I turned on my phone, and got the message that my grandma in Malaysia had died unexpectedly overnight.
Fast-forward a month, and the funeral had come and gone. I remember one non-eventful evening, very early in the year when everyone on my floor seemed to be out. I sat in my dorm room feeling anchor-less in what was meant to be my new “home” – wasn’t college meant to be the time of my life?
I had never experienced the death of someone close to me before. It single-handedly amplified any negative aspects of new college life: the isolation of being away from home for the first time, being in that middle period between adolescence and adulthood, the fickle anger that can underwrite being a Third Culture Kid (“Why can’t I just be from somewhere, like everybody else, and not have to catch a plane to see my family?”). Looking back, I definitely dipped a toe into emotional hell that first semester.
What brought me back to normality was Tegan, my freshman roommate, who is still a close friend. She brought me toast in bed whenever I overslept and missed breakfast, she wrote notes on our mirror and I could tell her absolutely anything and everything, whether it was 3 p.m. or 3 a.m. Her genuine, amazing positivity made me remember the person I still was underneath that grief. It reminded me that no matter what I was going through, there were still attitudes I could choose to live by. Sadly, they are best summed up by the platitudes you see on notebooks and mugs in gift stores – but still, they worked for me.
1. “Your quality of life is directly correlated to the quality of your relationships.” Freshman year, you will find yourself in a new, non-international-school environment, with parts of your history that most of your new peers may not understand. It’s an opportunity to find out what will connect you with others – whether it’s The Strokes, lentils, basketball or an unshakable affinity for cupcakes. The small beads of shared reactions are what open deeper friendships, and when you look back, it’s those shared moments with others that you’ll remember – not the grades, the tests or any other external measurements.
Adele (top left) with friends at a freshman year party at The University of Melbourne.
2. “Life is not about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself.” Now is the time to try all the things you’ve ever wanted to try. I don’t believe that identity is something that is inherently given to us. As Third Culture Kids, we’re constantly molding who we are in any given situation. During freshman year, you can decide the kind of person you’re going to become through the people you choose to hang out with and the things you choose to do. I always wanted to write and direct a play, and I missed my high school drama class. All the existing campus theatre groups seemed to involve drinking coffee and debating Shakespeare and getting all serious about “thee-ah-ter,” so I started my own. It was awesome – largely because the people I met through that experience were funny, awesome people. You’re a freshman now; no obligations, no history – you have a blank slate in a new place. That is an incredible opportunity.
3. “You can’t control the wind, but you can adjust your sails.” There will be drunken moments and pee-in-your-pants laughter during your freshman year, but also homesickness, heartaches and melancholy. It’s not just for family, but for your international school community, for people who understand the TCK lifestyle, for food and music and streets that seem way too far away. Transition brings grief, I guess, but I’ll always remember a friend who comforted me by saying, “Grieve as long as you need to. When grief starts to subside, and you have an actual sense of control over your emotions going forward, you have to ask yourself: Is my attitude helping me? Or am I getting in my own way when it comes to being happy?”
4. “It’s never too late to become what you might have been.” There’s an interesting concept called Status Anxiety, coined by Alain de Botton. I’d recommend the book — what I took from it is this: an individual tends to believe that others are watching and measuring them much more than others actually are. As TCKs, I think we’re constantly looking for cultural and social cues whenever we’re in a new situation or place, on blending in. The thing is, nobody is watching you as much as you might think they might be. Freshman year is the perfect time to practice the art of doing whatever the hell you want to do, because you can — even if you come to the end of it and feel like you haven’t done everything you wanted to do, there’s always sophomore year — it’s never too late. Then again, it’s never too early, either.
5. “Wherever you go, there you are.” Enough said.
Adele is a graduate of the The University of Melbourne.