A Letter to My Freshman Self: Try New Things

Author: Grace Meikle '14

Editor’s note: Published in June 2016, A Letter to My Freshman Self is an anthology of 65 personal letters that Notre Dame alumni spanning 60 graduating years up to the Class of 2016 addressed to themselves as freshmen. Edited by Lily Kang ’16 and Ian Tembe ’17, the letters reflect on often complex undergraduate experiences and offer wisdom to help undergraduates make the most of these transformative years of their lives.

Dear Freshwoman Grace,

Let me introduce myself: I was the first person in my family to go to Notre Dame. I majored in physics, Notre Dame class of ’14. I worked in Professor Kamat’s lab researching solar cells during the school year and I did three international research internships in India, Japan, and China during my undergraduate summers. I also completed a second major in Chinese. Since graduating I’ve been working on rigs in the oil sands in Alberta, Canada. I am an alumna of Breen-Phillips Hall.

You are about to begin a big adventure. Here is some advice I’d give to you if I could go back to my freshman year at Notre Dame:

Take advantage of being a student. When you’re a student, everyone wants to help you and assumes your intentions are innocent. You can literally cold call (or email) a company, say you’re working on a class project, ask them questions about what they do — and nine times out of ten, they will help you. Good luck trying that after you’ve graduated! I did exactly that for a project in my Entrepreneurship class. I connected with an employee at the company who told his boss about my project. The company later ended up offering me a job. Who knew?!

Don’t take your romantic relationships too seriously. As a freshman I spent a lot of time being distracted by my relationships. I even pictured myself getting married in a couple of years. In retrospect, I was holding myself back. That’s not to say you shouldn’t date. But as a Notre Dame student, you have a huge opportunity to better YOURSELF. Trust me, 18-22 is way too young to settle down, mentally or otherwise. You will (and should) change during college and even more so after graduating! If there really is that special someone in your life . . . well, for the time being, it’s more valuable to keep that person as a trusted friend than an estranged ex.

Get experience. Then expand on every experience as far as you can. Take advantage of Notre Dame $$$. Get work or research experience over spring break, summer — whatever you can get your hands on. Then, even if it doesn’t go as wonderfully as it could have, write a paper on what you did and apply to get it published in Scientia (or an equivalent campus journal). Also apply to present your work at a conference, and don’t be afraid to think nationwide. I presented at NCUR (National Conference for Undergraduate Research) and the University of Nebraska’s Women in Physics Conference. In both cases I applied for and received funding from CUSE (Center for Undergraduate Scholarly Engagement). At Notre Dame, you have a wealth of funding programs at your disposal. If you treat your funding application as seriously as you treated your college application, you will likely get results.

It’s okay if your freshman year is tough academically. There’s nothing wrong with changing your major, but don’t give up right away. In the first semester of my freshman year, I enrolled in Honors Calculus even though I had never taken calculus before (I would not advise this). I also had a world of trouble in Gen Chem, since I’d never taken chemistry before either. In those classes I felt stupid all the time and had no idea what was going on (note: if you experience this, you are NOT the only one). Looking back, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of going to office hours! It took me way too long to catch on to that. Thanks to the encouragement of my parents and professors (and my awesome First Year Advisor, Dr. Ken DeBoer), I stuck with my major. Around the end of sophomore year a funny thing happened: my classes got a lot harder for everyone, not just me, and I actually had an advantage because I was already used to being challenged.

Break outside of your comfort zone. For one, invest yourself in South Bend. You are going to spend four years here and you need to make the effort to leave the bubbly comforts of campus at some point during your undergraduate career. There are lots of ND programs that will get you into town even if you don’t have a car — whether volunteering to teach English to South Bend residents through Catholic Charities, helping with the annual “Science Alive” event at the public library, or taking a class at the local prison (my roommate did this). You don’t have to be an international student to go to ISSA events; and you don’t have to consider yourself LGBTQ to go to PrismND meetings. Go to “Show Some Skin” even if you have never experienced racism yourself. If, like me, you aren’t Catholic, go to your dorm Mass once in a while anyway; get involved in your dorm; and consider applying to become an RA senior year. If you do, you might even get in a fight with a nun (I hope Sister Mary forgives me because I still feel bad for yelling at her). Remember, the more you broaden your perspective, the more you have to contribute to the Notre Dame community and the world. I truly believe this.

I hope this helps you! Good luck. Feel free to contact me any time for advice. Go Irish!

Grace Meikle

Grace Meikle grew up between the U.S., Japan and Taiwan and studied physics and Chinese at Notre Dame, where she researched solar cells in Dr. Prashant Kamat’s lab, interned at an off-grid solar company and participated in two NSF fellowships in Japan and China. She is a product engineer for Micron Technology, a semiconductor manufacturer based in Boise, Idaho.