The Ivy League should come with a warning label

What it’s like to enter a school with 6000 geniuses

On my very first day of class at Brown, I ask myself What the fuck am I doing here? over and over again as I maniacally scribble down notes that look like Egyptian hieroglyphs. I’m sitting in CHEM 330, in the back of a lecture hall with at least 200 people, as the professor scrawls the diagrams and equations rapid-fire across an already mostly filled blackboard. While the people around me punctuate each of his statements with a nod, I tell myself I can’t be the only one in the room who hadn’t taken AP Chemistry in high school.

Next, I’m walking into a classroom, the sounds of a hundred simultaneous conversations jamming themselves into my ears. I take a seat as “You took multivariable calculus too, right?” and “Oh my god, I hope we do vectors!” start to make me nauseous. The professor begins to draw random lines on the board, I get déjà vu, and then I curse myself for not having taken a real math class since junior year.

As an engineering concentrator, I realized my classes were going to be tough, but I came in with a lot of confidence. Speaking to my advisor for the first time, I said something along the lines of, “Is the five class per semester limit a real thing?” Instead, I’m more than glad he recommended (firmly) that I take four, because on that first day, the feeling of being totally lost was terrifying—like being suffocated and burned at the same time. To feel like the dumbest kid in the class sucks, especially when you begin to think the class is only representative of the school you go to.

I was lost partially because, in high school, I identified myself as a humanities kid. I was that guy obsessed with languages, that guy who loved AP English and History, that guy who wrote poetry and fiction. I worked at the public library, enjoying hours spent discussing novels and rhetoric with wizened librarians. And during that time, my present engineering counterparts were taking advanced math and science courses, conducting research, or undergoing rigorous engineering programs. This disparity was magnified tenfold by the ambition that students here at Brown embody; of course those science-y kids have delved deeply into their area of interest. It’s incredible to think that everyone here at Brown is so talented, and while I’ve come to appreciate that for the resource it is, it was a huge adjustment at first. In the face of such acumen, what initial reaction can there be other than self-doubt? It’s overwhelming.

Fortunately, after a couple hours reviewing course material, I returned to class the next day feeling a little less trampled on. After a couple more days, I began to realize the classes weren’t that bad and that many of my peers shared similar first-day experiences. I started to remember why I wanted to be an engineer—I loved the critical reasoning, the visualization, the design (all things that would help me on my pre-law track)—and I remembered that I had great friends, classmates, and academic resources to lean on.

College is an enormous transition for everyone, not just those at Ivy League schools, and for many entering, we forget the fact that it’s primarily an academic shift that, albeit beneficial in the long run, is also abrupt and possibly painful at first. However, I want to remind my peers, and those yet to make the transition in the future, that we’re not alone in this gargantuan upheaval. While everyone may look put together, many are feeling similarly disoriented. Further yet, I implore you to remember that all bad things must come to an end. After toughing it out through those first few harrowing days, I’m now loving my classes.

That image we have of the happy-go-lucky college student, the one content to be fulfilling her passions and accomplishing real goal, may not be entirely accurate at first. But no worries—we’ll get there soon enough.

Brown University