Introducing ‘The do-over’ series

Published January 05 2017

I wish I hadn’t skipped freshman year of college.

I know I come across as a driven, ambitious woman now, but many don’t realize that I have mellowed a bit over the years. At age 19, I was on fire. I had a plan, and I was going to execute it, come hell or high water (high water in the forms of ice and snow because I was in Canada for college).

As a good number of firstborns will appreciate, I carried a weight on my shoulders to make my parents proud of me. As a woman originally from India, the weight was even heavier, because I felt I had to prove that girls could be as successful as boys. My grand life plan involved getting an education that would allow me to become a financially independent, self-sufficient woman who would achieve great things. (What those great things were going to be was to be determined, but whatever they were, they were going to be dazzling.) Nothing was going slow me down, and that included freshman year of college.

Growing up in the Middle East and India, I attended schools that followed the British system of education. With my four Advanced Levels in physics, chemistry, biology and French, I had enough credits to leapfrog over the requirements for freshman year at McGill University in Montreal, declare a major and get on with earning the remaining 90 credits for a bachelor’s degree.

The adviser for new students who reviewed my school transcripts and exam records said I was eligible to skip freshman year. But as he started to say that doing freshman year still remained an option, I cut him off. I heard what I was waiting to hear. I told him I already had decided to major in biochemistry, so where did I have to go and whom did I have to meet to make that happen?

The man looked at me through his black-rimmed glasses with a mix of amusement and exasperation and gave me directions to the McIntyre building, where the biochemistry department was housed at McGill. As soon as he finished giving me directions, I grabbed my folder of papers and shot out the door. It was the middle of a Friday afternoon. I wanted everything settled by 5 p.m. so that I’d be ready for classes on Monday. I barged into a couple of offices in the McIntyre building until I found the right person who could get me enrolled into the program. By 5 p.m. that Friday, I was a biochemistry major.

Now, I’ll say here that I’m not one to wallow in the past. I can’t change it, so why bother overthinking it? I live more for the future and deal with the present.

But if I do spare a thought for the one time in my life that I could have done differently, freshman year was it. I was not ready to skip that year. In my zeal to reach for the stars, I had not accounted for how unprepared I was for my new life. I knew in my head that things were going to be different, but I wasn’t prepared for the never-ending vortex of confusion.

I was fluent in English and French, which was useful in the bilingual city of Montreal, and, thanks to music, books, TV shows and movies, my cultural references were mostly Western. But coming from the more conservative societies of Kuwait and India, where I watched censored versions of “The Sound of Music” and Disney’s “The Lion King,” I was painfully innocent. I remember being very puzzled at a professor’s reaction when he said he hadn’t gotten around to writing the midterm exam. I responded with, “Oh, you naughty boy! Hope you don’t get punished for that.” The professor immediately left the room. When I recounted the incident in total bewilderment to a fellow student, she laughed so hard that she got the hiccups.

I never had been out and about on my own. I never had been to movie theaters. I never had to do laundry or shop for groceries. I never had seen snow and ice, let alone learned how to walk on them. For the first time, I was far away from my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and parents’ friends and felt unmoored by the lack of eyes of scrutinizing my every move.

In the midst of all these life-changing experiences, I found myself caught in a challenging major. My reason to major in biochemistry was nothing more sophisticated than that I wanted to be a researcher and I had excelled in school in chemistry and biology. Never mind the fact that I hadn’t done a day’s work in a laboratory and had no clue what I was working toward. Even the most fundamental aspect of education, the learning part, threw me for a loop. Instead of being in a classroom of 15 high-school students where I kept correcting the teacher’s spelling of “Escherichia coli,” I found myself anonymous and lost in the back of a lecture hall of 600 students, all jockeying to be ahead of the grading curve for Molecular Biology 101.

I later qualified to do honors in biochemistry. That meant 87 out of the 90 credits I needed for the bachelor’s degree went toward fulfilling the major’s requirements. My days were filled with an endless stream of molecules, numbers and equations in courses such as Organic Chemistry III, Calculus III and Methods in Biophysics. With my last remaining three credits, I splurged on a class about Alfred Hitchcock films offered by the School of Arts. It was the only course I took outside of science. I was so crunched by the demands of my science classes, I didn’t even have time to think what it meant that I loved that Hitchcock class, with the writing I had to do for it, more than all my other classes.

If I had done freshman year, I would have been forced to slow down and take stock instead of being caught in a vortex of cultural and academic chaos from the get-go. I would have had the time to weather more evenly the shocks of being in a new place. I would have had more time to grasp the overwhelming sense of novelty of going out on my own to grab a meal at Nickel’s on St. Catherine Street. I could have focused on learning the life skills I was lacking, such as knowing how to write a check. If I had done freshman year, I would have had time to recognize that I was at a large educational institution with more options than my school back home offered. If I had done freshman year, maybe I would have realized much sooner that I was better suited to be a writer than a researcher. How much heartache would I have saved myself if I had realized that sooner? I will never know.

The personal essay series we’re running this year in ASBMB Today is called “The do-over.” We have invited members of our community to share their reflections on what they would have done differently in their lives. In this issue, Stefan Lukianov describes in his essay how he wrecked an important relationship in the pursuit of science. We have essays coming up in forthcoming issues in which writers wonder how their lives would have turned out if they had picked a different graduate school, part of the world to live in or a career. Each essay, in going into reflection, carries senses of hope, growth and humor. We hope you’ll enjoy them and feel inspired to share an essay of your own (we’ve extended the deadline for the series).

Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay is the managing editor for ASBMB Today. Follow her on Twitter.