How to be a good freshman

As my baby sister moves into her dorm for her freshman year, and as I skim social media, I’m thrilled to see so many bright and eager freshman starting their college journey. I’ve tried to throw bits and pieces of senior wisdom around, little tips and tricks I wish someone had told me as a new student, but there’s too much to say at once. But to start:

You can never be overdressed or overeducated

Wear a suit to job interviews. Take yourself and your employer seriously enough to dress respectfully. Doesn’t matter if you’re interviewing for a coveted internship, food service job, or lab-rat-poop-scooper position. Just wear the suit.

Forever21 cotton/spandex blend pencil skirts are not business wear

Yes, they make suits for women. Yes, you can wear a skirt suit. Spent 10 minutes looking up professional attire and hit the clearance rack at Target or Marshals. Wear a damn suit, people.

Sleep. Eat. Bathe.

There will be students who brag about how little sleep they get, or how they “haven’t had time to eat or shower since Thursday.” Don’t listen to their noise. Neglecting your health and personal care is not a badge of honor or courage – it’s a sign of poor time management skills, procrastination, and disordered priorities. You’re not a machine, so take time to take care of yourself.

Buy textbooks with discretion

Buy them for your first semester, and then readjust (unless you like blowing up to $1000 on paper, in which case, go for it). If you can handle reading off computers, go for the cheaper ebook. For many courses, the textbook will be available at campus libraries or learning centers, so don’t bother buying those. Ask around and learn if the textbook is even necessary or helpful for the class (just because the professor listed it as “required” doesn’t mean you’ll ever use it)Compare prices and buy online. Better yet, forget buying and just rent.

Wear your university gear with pride

I once lived with a girl who made fun of students for wearing Michigan apparel because they “looked like lame freshman.” Let me tell you, kids: being proud of your school isn’t lame. Take it from a jaded senior. The excitement you’re feeling comes once in a lifetime, so enjoy it. Live it to the extreme. Wear that blue hair extension to football games and your Michigan crewneck home for fall break. Remember that “ohmygodididit” feeling when you got your acceptance email? You worked damn hard to be here, so be proud.

…but don’t wear a lanyard

You have pockets for a reason. Just don’t.

If/when you drink, don’t be stupid

I’m not your mom, so I’m not going to give you a “no underage drinking” speech. And I’m not a cop, so I won’t give you another “roar roar MIP” lecture. You own your body and your decisions, so if you’re drinking:

Watch your cup. Watch your drink being made. Don’t accept drinks from strangers. DO NOT PULL FROM THE HANDLE (do you really want mono that badly?). If you’re new, don’t get drunk at your first party. Instead, start somewhere safe with people you trust so you can learn your limits and what it all feels like. Don’t leave alone. Don’t let strangers walk you home (take an Uber instead). Keep your phone, keys, and cash with you. Keep track of your friends. Stay safe, and don’t be stupid.

Don’t eat alone for the first few weeks

Easiest way to meet people is to hit the dining hall in groups. You’re all new and lost and awkward and scared and confused, so roll with it.

After that, don’t be afraid of eating alone

I did all my studying for Bio 173 during meals in the dining hall. Use it as quick study time or down time.

Use a planner

You have no idea how busy you’re about to get. Start writing things down. Assignments, due dates, meetings, appointments, your grocery list.

Learn and use proper email etiquette

Use appropriate salutations, farewells, and signatures. Include your course number and section in the subject line and body of the email. Write appropriate and informative subjects. Reply to emails within 24 hours, and check several times a day. Always be the last to speak in correspondence with a superior – if you email a professor or GSI for something, always acknowledge their email and thank them for their time and help.

Have an umbrella with you at all times

Unless you want a surprise free shower, be prepared. Most lecture halls don’t have windows, so you won’t know that it went from sunny and 75 to monsoon season.

Write thank you notes

A month or so into your first semester, take time to write a thank you note to people who helped you get to where you are now. Your favorite teachers, coaches, family, friends, etc. Especially those teachers and coaches. So many people shaped you, so thank them for doing a good job.

Know your resources (university and otherwise)

Where do you go when you’re sick? If there’s a weather emergency? Where is the nearest bank, ATM, Secretary of State office, 24 hour convenience store, pharmacy? See if your university offer free tutoring or study groups. Identify who to call to report disturbances, sexual assaults, mental health concerns.

Check your ego

Once upon a time, you were in the top 5% of your high school. But now you’re at a school where every other person was also the best in their class. Work that out statistically, and you’re now hovering around “average.” Sink or swim, kid. Don’t let that break you. Keep your perspective honest and work hard.

Ask for help

Math lab, physics help room, Science Learning Center, free tutoring, university run study groups, office hours. Asking for help doesn’t make you stupid. It means you’re smart enough to know you don’t understand the entire picture, and courageous enough to accept that.

Enjoy

It goes fast.

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Real talk guys. Real talk.

In twelve short days, I’ll be crammed into a car with 15 lb. of makeup, 87 pairs of earrings, enough “dressy casual” attire to last a lifetime (or at least a week… and can someone please define that phrase for me?) on my way to Muskegon to compete for the title of Miss Michigan.

My most honest and truly “Danielle” moments happen at the gym. If you’ve had the immense (dis)pleasure of working out with me before, you know that I explode sass or tears. During a particularly sassy day, after delivering a particularly sassy face to a particularly sassy coach, I was told that “frowning won’t help you win Miss Michigan.” Mid-pull-up, I replied, “I’m not trying to win Miss Michigan.”

“Oh?”

We need to go back further.

The other day at the gym (of course) between squat sets, I confessed to my friend that I had been feeling a lot of pressure leading up to Miss Michigan. Peers and respected adults said to me that lifting and pageants were not compatible, especially on the state level. Those opinions, plus a few statements from others that week, made me feel like my body was no longer pageant appropriate. I am by no means large or muscular, and I’m abolishing the word “fat” from my vocabulary, but it was made clear to me that weightlifting pageant contestants are not the norm. My wonderful friend replied to those fears, as she unracked her bar that weighed more than five full grown bears, “just be true to yourself.”

Be true to yourself. That was always my goal in pageants – as the 18 year old nerdy girl who was “too smart for pageants” or “too mature” to be a teen competitor, or the 20 year old who was “too manly looking” to wear a bikini on a stage – my goal was always to be my own self. But I lost sight of that goal, and forgot where my intentions began.

So to what am I being true? This time around, I am being true to my passions.

I am in love with barbells, with the physical and mental growth they provide. I love the long hours in the gym, the sweat and chalk permanently stained into my clothes, the calloused hands and bruised… well, everything is bruised. I love being free to eat what I need to fuel my body, and I am probably the only contestant who is trying to gain weight leading up to her pageant (this girl needs two kilos worth of quads, asap). I refuse to sacrifice my happiness and health, and if that costs me a crown, that is okay.

I am in love with ballet, and threw away the predictability and safety of a lyrical routine for my talent, instead opting for a classical ballet variation en pointe. I refuse to sacrifice my training and technique for tricks, and if that costs me a crown, that is okay.

I am in love with learning, and put academics and my future career as a physician before almost everything. I’ve turned down dozens of appearances to study for the MCAT, missed glamorous events because I had an exam the next morning, and hid pageant prep in the back of my brain to focus on the MCAT. I refuse to be shamed for putting my education first, and if that costs me a crown, that is okay.

So I am not trying to win. I am trying to be Danielle – the girl who eats Cheetos in her evening gown before modeling it at her send-off party; the girl who came to said send-off party straight from the gym, sweaty hair and chalky hands and all; the girl who acknowledges the absurdity of pageants but loves them for what they taught her, and is always ready to discuss said absurdity (wait, why am I in a bikini and heels onstage?); the girl who has gained twenty pounds since her pageant debut three years ago and could not be happier about it. And if that costs me a crown, that is okay.

Defining Your Philosophy

Last year, while helping me prepare for a national pageant, my friend gave me the following advice:

“For interview, boil down your life philosophy – who you are and what you believe in –  to a few key points, and base all your answers off of them.”

(Side note: This is one of the benefits of pageantry – how often are girls asked to verbalize their core values and beliefs? Their goals and aspirations? Demonstrate their vision for achieving these things? Pageants teach valuable real-world skills, people)

My philosophy boiled nicely down into Danielle’s Three Rules for Life, as follows:

1: Bring yourself closer to your goals every day

I am a firm (no, obsessive) believer in goal setting, short and long term. Goals should be S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound). Once you set out a goal, you have something real to work towards. But almost as important as goal setting is the vision and action plan to achieve them. That’s where “bring yourself closer to your goals” comes into play. As an example of a short term goal, I want to score well on my physical chemistry exam next tomorrow – but it’s not enough to simply say that. My battle plan includes dividing chapters up, making concept maps and notes, and memorizing relevant equations. I can measure my progress as I move through chapters, and the process is time bound since each chapter is assigned a time slot. On the other hand, as a long term goal, I want to be Miss America. I have S.M.A.R.T goals written out for my talent, platform, interview, fitness, etc. to get there.

An important part of the action plan is saying no to things that don’t bring you closer to where you want to be. If I know I need to study, I’m not going to goof around on Facebook all night. Similarly, if I want to be Miss America (or a doctor, or any of my other plans) I can’t allow negative things into my life. In yoga and ballet class, I “set an intention” for the next hour or two – what do I want to accomplish? What do I want to learn or improve on? Setting a daily life intention of getting closer to your goals makes them attainable.

2: Be the person you would have looked up to when you where younger

I was a shy kid growing up. No, really. I was so shy that my elementary school teachers thought I was mute because I didn’t speak to them until the fourth grade. Behind my wall of silence, I’d stare with big brown eyes at the girls who were able to say and do whatever they wanted. I wanted to be brave enough to be honest with people, confident enough to wear red lipstick to the grocery store, and strong enough to fight for what I think is right. So every morning, I try to wake up and make that little girl proud.

3: Do what makes you happy

I’m obviously overscheduled and hyper-organized, and have little sets of obsessive rules for everything. But at the end of the day, the first two guidelines only matter if you’re happy. I literally ate cookies, chips, and guacamole for dinner tonight. Is that bringing me closer to my Miss America dreams? No, but it was fun and I don’t regret it. Would six year old Danielle appreciate the fact that I’ve been wearing the same sweatshirt for three days in a row? Probably not, but this is the comfiest article of clothing on the planet, and I feel like I’m wrapped in a million warm hugs right now. None of these guidelines are worth anything if you’re not smiling.

Life is messy. Short lists are not. I like short lists about life because they make everything easier.

For my readers, what is your philosophy? What are your goals? Writing them down will help you in pageants, extracurriculars, and life in general.

A Workaholic College Student’s Survival Guide

Let’s be real: I wrote this while procrastinating because I don’t want to study for my evolution exam and I don’t listen to my own advice. Oops.

Sometimes, I look like this:

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 3.26.24 PM

…but usually, I look like this:

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 3.26.54 PM

People ask me all the time, “How do you stay on top of everything?” Obviously, with a double major, two jobs, dance, my position as my dance company’s community outreach chair, gym time, Miss Michigan prep, titleholder appearances and commitments, and working on my platform, I’m a bit busy. 6 am alarms, 18 hour days, I-haven’t-had-time-to-eat-food-off-a-plate-instead-of-out-of-a-tupperwear-container-in-days busy. BUT! There are ways to manage it all, and to even maintain a little bit of sanity:

1: Schedule – I live and breathe for Google calendar because it’s incredible (click it). If you don’t have a gmail account or any of the fancy google-whatever accounts, get one. Then, make Google calendar your best friend. Sync it to your phone (ask Google because I have the tech skills of a lettuce leaf). Put in everything. Everything. Classes, meetings, social events, practices, workouts, rehearsals, etc. As soon as you get a date for an event, put it in, even if it’s 32 weeks away. I also suggest color coding and making different sub-calendars (if everything is one color, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Break things up visually so you don’t get panicked before the day even starts).

A typical week in my calendar looks like this:Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 12.46.21 PMClass and meetings related to school or group projects are orange, work is gray, CrossFit is yellow, errands/things I need to do are purple, dance and dance outreach related meetings are green, pageant stuff is blue, and social events/fun things are pink. It works, I promise.

Danielle, why. Whyyy. That’s so much work. Yes, it’s a pain to sit down and put it all in the calendar. But how many times have you:

  1. forgotten to be somewhere
  2. double (or triple…been there) booked  yourself because you forgot about a meeting, or
  3. panicked because you didn’t think there are enough hours in a day?

Planning this all out avoids all of those issues, especially number three. When you feel like there’s too much going on, look at your calendar to see what you can move, and reassure yourself with the few white spaces that remain. For example, this week was scary because I had several due dates and exams approaching. But look at that gloriously open Tuesday afternoon! Seeing that I had time to regroup and refocus made life a little easier. Even better is that you can plan ahead. Three appearances across the state immediately followed by three midterms, all in one week? No problem, because I see my open space this week that I can use to prepare for next week. And after all, Beyonce has the same 24 hours that you do. Make it happen.

2: Sleep – First off, I dislike my generation’s tendency to equate late nights and sleep deprivation with hard work, but that’s another blog completely. In reality, though, no matter how well you schedule, or how efficiently you work, sleep may be hard to come by. When rehearsal ends at 11 pm and you need to wake up at 5 am to make it to the gym, things get crazy. But when you can’t control the quantity of sleep you get, you can control the quality (and research shows that quality is just as important, if not more so, than quality). Five perfect hours is better than seven restless ones, so arm yourself with whatever it takes. If you need earplugs and a lavender scented eye mask to sleep in your noisy college town apartment (*coughcoughME), do it.

3: Minimize distractions – So you come home after a long crazy day and only have two hours to finish all your homework before a meeting. How do you work efficiently? By minimizing things that limit productivity. For most college students, it’s social medial and our phones (continuous interaction with devices actually changes how your brain uses and stores information). So block access. There are tons of apps for your computer or browser that let you block sites for designated lengths of time, so be honest with yourself and limit your go-to traps. And don’t just set your phone down, but put it far away. It’s easy to scroll through Instagram if your phone is next to you, but not if you hid it behind the refrigerator in the other room.

4: Take advantage of breaks and transition time – When you don’t have a ton of free time, use what you can scrape together. For example, I get to the gym 15 minutes before class starts, so I use that time to review notes and flashcards. Waiting for lecture to start? Review last lecture’s notes, or catch up on work emails. Baked sweet potato in the microwave for eight minutes? Just enough time to sort your whites/darks/colors before doing laundry tomorrow.

5: FOOD (written in all caps because food is my favorite) – Your body needs fuel. Good fuel. There is no honor in skipping meals to study, and you don’t get a gold star for being “too busy” to eat. Make time for three solid meals a day. Also, on Sunday nights (or whenever you have a free hour) pack snacks for the week. I fill about a few dozen bags with carrots or almonds, wash and set out a few apples, and stock up on Larabars. On your way out the door, grab a few snacks to carry around all day. Nothing like a burst of sugar to keep you awake during lecture.

6: Write things down – Get in the habit of writing to-do lists. Not only is it super satisfying to cross things off lists, but writing down tasks as they come up keeps you accountable and on top of everything. I have a planner for school and work through the University, and a small notebook where I make grocery lists, pageant to-dos, etc. Write things down as soon as they occur to you, and work them into your schedule.

7: Recharge – Schedule “maintenance” time. Think of your self like a car – the more you use it, the more work it needs to stay in working order. At least once a week, do something fun, or something that you can look forward to. Buy yourself a present after a long week of exams. Catch up with friends who energize you. Take a yoga class, or stretch while listening to music. Start a blog and draft posts when you’re too stressed to study (aka me). Also, long term stress increases cortisol levels, which is all around bad for your health and wellbeing. Find fun ways to relax!

8: Remind yourself why you do this – Have a list of short term and long term goals, and picture yourself achieving them (someone once told me that goals are nothing without vision, and he’s right). I tell myself “all this hard work will be worth it when I get to put on that white coat with M.D. behind my name” at least once a week. I also love volunteering at hospitals and being around health care professionals to remind myself how excited I am about a career as a doctor. Remember the last time you achieved a goal, and how happy it made you? Work for that. And if all else fails, Instagram cheesy inspirational quotes like there’s no tomorrow. I’m serious. My phone lock screen says “Beautiful girl, you can do hard things,” and it keeps me going.

9: MOST IMPORTANTLY: Take care of yourself. Migraine? Exedrin, tea, and a nap. Hurting after your workout? Recovery food, mobility, and probably another nap. Crying in a bathroom stall because you have three exams in one week and a paper due the week after and you haven’t slept in two days? Go home, eat a healthy meal, and go to bed. There are a million more classes, a million more meetings, and a million more tests in life, but you only get one body and one mind.

*I learned how to insert links and kinda went crazy. I’m not sorry.

“Pretty________”

Between my pageant work with my sparkly four-pointed hat, dance, and working at a museum, I’m around young kids a lot. Especially young girls. And every day, I try my hardest not to call any girl “pretty.” I believe in being “pretty ___fill in the blank___,” but not simply pretty.

“But Danielle, people tell you you’re pretty all the time, so that doesn’t make any sense. What’s wrong with pretty?” Okay, call me “beautiful” and you’ll have my heart (female weakness). And nothing is wrong with the word “pretty.” The issue lies in how we use it, how we smother young girls with it. What does “pretty” teach people?

Let’s start from the beginning: my siblings are incredible. My older brother is charismatic, brilliant, athletic, and fun to be around. My younger sister, too, is brilliant, athletic, and a musical genius (with a killer sense of fashion). My not-so-baby-anymore of a baby brother is also great at sports and music, and armed with a maturity and command over words that most adults don’t reach. And I’m… well, I’m the pretty one.

So what kind of space does that give someone? As a child, when your siblings and peers are being praised for their hard work and you’re being praised for your face, how do you see your role? Why push yourself at school when you can be pretty? Why pursue STEM fields when engineering could get your hands dirty, or thinking too hard over a calculus problem might give you wrinkles, when you can just be pretty? Why work hard to get a degree and get into medical school when you’re pretty enough to find a rich husband? You fear change, and you fear the idea of pushing yourself past your prettily defined boundaries. You don’t want to do anything wrong, because wrong isn’t pretty. So how does being “pretty” shape you? You become scared.  You settle. You hold yourself back because all you know how to be is pretty, and you’ve never heard how to be anything else. But your face doesn’t get grades, or degrees, or accomplishments. You can’t put your face on a resume. My face won’t be taking the MCAT or applying to medical schools for me. Does my face do my homework, or lift barbells for me? Nope. That’s all hard work. Telling girls they’re pretty enforces ideas and stereotypes that harm them for the rest of their lives. **

So I stopped being “pretty,” and I decided to be “pretty ____.”

Five days a week, no matter how tired I am, I wake up at 6 am to bike (uphill, often through snow) to my brother’s house in the dark, then drive to a neighboring city where I throw around barbells that weigh more than me for a few hours. It’s not pretty. It’s full of blood, sweat, and tears (especially if wallballs are involved). That’s not pretty. But the sacrifices I make to get to the gym mean that I am pretty disciplined, and I am pretty dedicated. And how many girls do you know who can lift things that weigh twice as much as them? Looks like I am pretty strong.

Gym memberships aren’t cheap, especially on a college student’s budget. So, I work two jobs during the school year. Instead of socializing on Friday nights, I pick up extra shifts at the Museum. Instead of watching Netflix or shopping with my friends after class, I lead study groups through the University. Trust me, workaholicism is anything but pretty (coffee stains and dark circles?), but I am pretty hardworking. 

I also have a habit of falling in love with things I’m bad at. Fun fact: I didn’t have any proper, classical, technique based dance training until I was 12, which is ancient in the dance world. By then, I was a decade behind my peers. But thankfully, I am pretty stubborn, so in addition to taking every single class possible, I spent hours at home and in the library researching dance history and ballet technique. Are bruised knees and toenails, bleeding blisters, and floorburns pretty? No, but thanks to my hard work, I am pretty talented (or at least my mom says I am. Thanks Mom. That’s pretty great).

I’m also terrible at biology, which is hilarious because I’m a biology and evolutionary anthropology double major. Thankfully, I am pretty motivated. I spent my childhood (and my workdays now) in museums, falling in love with science. I spent my high school lunch hours in my biology and math teachers’ classrooms, asking question after question until I understood the material. Even today, when I know it’ll be a miracle if I score above average on my biochemistry exam, I am studying all day long to fight for every single point. Ink stained hands aren’t pretty, but I am pretty driven.

And despite all this hard work, good GPAs and MCAT scores are difficult to come by. And then there’s medical school, which will be exponentially harder than my intro biochemistry course. And then there’s The Real World, where I have to figure out what the heck a mortgage is and how student loans work and when I should get my tires rotated. And then I’ll be in a career where people’s lives are in my hands on a daily basis. Obviously, The Real World is scary, but I think that my excitement to tackle it (and anyone who has the guts to get out of bed and face it every day) is pretty brave.

So I’m pretty sick of using the word “pretty,” and I’m pretty tired of watching another generation of girls fall into the same traps. We didn’t ask for “pretty” faces, but we worked our tails off for everything else, despite knowing it may not be acknowledged because our faces are more interesting. But regardless, we are pretty incredible. Let young girls know that. Recognize and praise how hard they work, and teach them to value their work ethic more than their faces.

 

**Note: for further reading into how the words you use to describe children change their self perceptions, motivation, and work ethics,  I suggest Mueller and Dweck, Kamins and Dweck, and Wood and Bandura.