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  • Writer's picturet.seguritan.abalos

Some pointers for my college-freshman-self

Yesterday was the first day of school — for many of my friends, former classmates, professors, & mentors. It’s also the first time I don’t have a first day of school. 

To celebrate, here’s a list of advice I would have given my freshman-self, four years ago:

Photo by my dad in Montgomery Park in San Jose, CA. After high school graduation.

1. Growth takes longer than you think. You might not see results in one, two, or even four years.

After my third flute lesson at Carnegie Mellon, I burst into tears — the heavy, ugly, hours-long kind. I believed I hadn’t improved enough & therefore didn’t deserve to be in the flute studio.

But my flute professor told me, I didn’t have to prove myself.

All I had to do was commit to the work & trust it would pay off. 

2. There are so many ways to be a musician. 

Strewn across my high school yearbook, hand-written notes declare I was a “flute prodigy” destined to perform at Carnegie Hall and play in a great orchestra. 

While I cherish these relics of how my high school friends believed in me, I’ve learned that being a classical flutist, or a musician in general, is not one-size-fits-all.

3. Studying culture is perilous.

Put lightly, the humanities tend to be subjective. After too many classes left me with more questions than answers, I longed to take any sort of STEM class, simply to know that a thing could be true. Unquestionably. Scientifically.

Attempting to probe the soul of humanity, its history & culture — no one told me, this mirrors grasping in the dark. There is endless possibility for nuance & exploration, but you have to be okay with rarely (or never) landing on anything concrete.

One of my proudest moments, both as a student & a fan of Leslie Odom Jr. You can find the feature here.

4. Music doesn't need to be activism.

The more I learned about the world, the more guilty I felt about being privileged enough to study music — flute performance, of all things — when it did nothing tangible & measurable to improve the lives of others.

So I kept searching to bridge art and activism. While I'm still curious about this intersection, I’ve learned to respect when the divide exists; to revel in the places & moments where music simply is. 

Theresa Abalos, flutist
From freshman year. Performing the Sancan Sonatine, in a dress made by my mom. While I was proud of how hard I worked for that performance, that semester I discovered I could get away with barely sleeping or eating, believing it was "worth it."

5. You don’t have to do everything.

I believed I had to do it all: pour hours into the practice room, read hundreds of pages a week for my humanities classes, write the most complex & insightful papers, while juggling part-time jobs, going to Daily Mass, being involved in my faith community, eating cheap & healthy but also looking “thin enough,” volunteering to support refugees resettled to Pittsburgh, volunteering to play flute at senior homes, donating blood, having a social life, being there for my friends when they needed it, assistant-teaching, & being an officer in a student organization.

Every semester, I drained & overstretched myself. And everyone around me was doing the same. 

I didn't realize it was an option to do college in a way that was healthy & sustainable. 

I didn’t follow my flute professor's advice — to trust I'd have time after college to pursue other interests.

Every fall semester, what brought me so much joy was receiving persimmons my mom shipped to me from my grandparents' tree in California.

6. Respect the time you spend doing what nourishes you. 

For me, it was journaling, writing creatively, listening to & making music for fun, prayer, spontaneous adventures with friends, & my faith community. Yet I would feel guilty for making time for these, as if every minute I spent resting & enjoying life was a minute I could have spent — should have spent — practicing. 

I felt guilty for the times I spent processing something difficult.

I needed to hear that while college is a place for intellectual & artistic growth, we also need time & space to develop socially and personally. 

Photo from Jesuit Block in Córdoba, Argentina. From studying abroad in 2018.

7. What you hope to gain through Global Studies (to “expand your horizons” & “cultivate a global awareness”), is not something words can satisfy. 

Global Studies gave me words to describe what shapes transnational events & the lives of people far away from me.

But what I really desired was to be where they are, to breathe the air they breathe, to speak their language, & to listen the way they listen. 

I desired to be where I could not. To be “There.” Which is essentially anthropology’s “Other.” 

Words can be incredibly illuminating, expansive, & evocative — but not a literal passageway across space and time. 

From studying abroad in 2018. A Pachamama ceremony in Córdoba, Argentina. Studying abroad partly satisfied my desire to be "There." But then I encountered "Otherness," which convinced me that even if I was "There," I would never belong or understand.

8. The success of your peers doesn’t take anything away from you.

As classical music is so competitive, I would feel discouraged by my peers' successes — allowing their brilliance, hard work, & talents to make me feel smaller. But I've slowly encountered how freeing it is to abandon comparison, to genuinely admire what others do & who they are.

From senior year. With one of my dearest friends, Michelle. We cooked sinigang (a Filipino dish) & drank champagne. Photo by another one of my dearest friends & roommate, Gauri.

9. To quote Dr. Kristen Guillory, “Being single is a blessing if you let it be!” 

I didn’t date any guys at CMU. However my freshman-self would have reacted upon hearing this, being single allowed me to invest deeply in my friendships.

Reflecting on how precious, affirming, & enriching these friendships were, I don’t regret having less "drama" & love stories than my peers. I simply learned & grew in a different way. 

10. You won't graduate with all the answers. 

College taught me to trust my work and my voice.

Even now, without a "real" job, I hold so much hope and joy for my future. I’ve learned to trust that when I invest my energy into work I believe in, something meaningful & beautiful will emerge — regardless of how much “success” it garners, financially or socially. 

This fall, as many of my former classmates begin to work at impressive jobs, I'm tempted to think, “That’s what makes college worth it. They succeeded and I failed — not because I wasn’t as smart as them, but because I chose the wrong path.”

Yet when I look at everything I've done over the past four years, the word “wrong” does not begin to suffice.

At the same time, I know better than to ride the wave of past achievements. That it’s good to think ahead & have a plan, to be strategic about how I’ll sustain myself long-term. 

But after feeling crushed by this unrelenting pressure to learn everything & be everything — throughout college & before — I'm willing to take some time to experience life without hurtling towards whatever society calls "success." I'm willing to embrace the ways I am bounded, yet to approach them curiously.


Hello there! Thank you for taking the time to read and/or listen!

If you find the content on my blog meaningful, please consider supporting my work on Patreon.

That way, I can continue to create all of this for free, while balancing part-time jobs to pay rent & student loans :)

Thank you for considering! Take care. ~ Theresa

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