Before I left my home in San Diego and started driving up the California coast for San Francisco, I scoured “Things To Know About Your First Year Of College” articles to make sure that I, unlike other unaware freshmen, was ready. I packed my bags with practical clothing and my brain with practical advice: bring shower shoes; don’t obsess over social media; always ask for a student discount; make sure you know how to do laundry.
These were all good things to know, to be fair.
In my first week at Minerva, I taught three people the difference between fabric softener and laundry detergent, and asking for a student discount at Goodwill got me 30 percent off a leather jacket, so yes, generic life hacks apply to Minerva, too.
However, there were no articles advising me how to live without a physical campus, but within a multifaceted international community, as we do at Minerva. I knew academics would be rigorous, but as an International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma student I was accustomed to being told that I was about to experience extreme academic rigor. I had the time management and study skills to handle that challenge. Two other facets of the Minerva experience completely stumped me.
First, I was thrown by the nebulous concept of “city as a campus.” (At Minerva, I’ll live in seven different cities during my four years of undergraduate studies, and am encouraged to immerse myself in each.) OK, cool. I live in San Francisco now, and these 46.87 square miles of land are my home, and, apparently, my campus.
“I know exactly how to handle this situation,” said no one ever.
I made several bad decisions while trying to figure out how to make the most of my time in San Francisco. I spent at least half an hour trying to find the 22 bus stop in the Marina District, while Google Maps repeatedly insisted I was standing on it. I chatted with a street artist about the ornate jewelry that he sold down by the Ferry Building, only to turn him down when he offered to teach me how he made rings because I was insecure about my abilities.
But hey, I was trying. It takes mistakes to learn, and I made many. I was exploring the city on my own terms, but a couple of guidelines would have made life easier:
1. Establish a Sense of Direction
You’ll need Google Maps for a while, but don’t rely on it. Get the city’s layout down as quickly as you can. If you establish landmarks and a sense of direction, you can walk wherever you want and impress your friends by navigating to destinations you’ve never visited. Just remember that Ocean Beach is west, the Golden Gate Bridge is north, Oakland is east, and south is, well, the opposite of north.
2. Talk to Your Uber Drivers
At the beginning of the year, I was mildly terrified of getting in a stranger’s car, but eventually, I realized that Uber conversations can become the highlight of your day. I’ve chatted about why drivers immigrated to the U.S., why the Power Rangers are underrated, and how donut consumption is a symptom of the acclimatization of Americans to sugar. Sometimes, while in San Francisco, I felt trapped inside the “Minerva bubble” of only having connections made through my university program, and these perspectives helped broaden my understanding of the city.
3. Explore Through Food
It took me far too long to figure out that this was a great way to get to know my classmates and my city. Pick a neighborhood or a trademark cuisine, and go out with a few people. This is how I tried foods ranging from pad thai to vegan chai cinnamon rolls, and how I learned that I have a lot in common with people who were born on the other side of the globe.
4. Embrace “Tourist” Moments, But Don’t Let Them Define How You Experience the City
My aforementioned moment under the Golden Gate Bridge nearly broke my leg, but it was a beautiful morning. Locations like the bridge are known and loved for good reason, so appreciate them! However, I found that places I loved most were completely devoid of tourists. My favorite location, for example, is a 33-acre grove tucked away in the south of the city that I happened upon accidentally.
The second attribute of Minerva I was unprepared for was living within an international community. At the beginning of the year, I was unsure of the value of my perspective. I was afraid that what I had learned back home ー a far-from-diverse area of inland San Diego, California, where I lived my entire life ー wasn’t relevant in my new student community. No one told me that even if my insights came from local experiences, they were just as valuable in an international context.
This brings me to my next set of lessons I learned in my first year at Minerva.
5. Don’t Define Your Classmates by Their Accomplishments
Last September, I remember sitting on a couch on the fourth floor of our residence, eavesdropping on a conversation in which one person casually mentioned the time she impulsively decided to move to China and teach children there for several months. I was terrified to realize that I was suddenly living with successful people from countries that I didn’t really know much about. However, the huge mistake I had initially made was viewing people exclusively as the things they had done, instead of as the people they were. Sure, their accomplishments shaped them, but they weren’t the only experiences in their lives, and they certainly didn’t encompass their personalities. You can learn in one sentence about an accomplishment, like teaching children in a foreign language, but it takes conversations and time to recognize a person’s sense of humor or deep compassion.
6. Recognize Your Own Relevance
I arrived at Minerva with modest accomplishments, all of which took place within my local community. However, by virtue of the fact that no two people have identical upbringings, my perspective is meaningful. What I learned from teaching children musical composition, directing film shoots in a remote desert, or training horses is all worth sharing with my classmates. I can, for example, offer advice to someone planning a large-scale project: when planning film shoots, I had to coordinate unruly teenagers and establish strict shooting schedules to complete everything in three days, knowing we only had one opportunity to travel to the desert. Needless to say, I have some experience running projects and organizing people ー my skills are worth sharing.
7. Speak Up
I often find that my most valuable insights come from listening to others’ personal stories and asking questions to fully understand their perspectives, so why should I devalue my own? When I began to contribute to conversations more often, I realized how receptive my classmates were to what I had to say. With this in mind, I consciously worked on participating more consistently, even when I was uncertain. Part of being a global citizen is understanding how individual communities function and adapt, so even if, like me, you had never travelled outside of your home country, your experiences can contribute to a global discussion.
Your first year is going to be an adventure, no matter what. As I explored San Francisco with my classmates, I found myself reevaluating how I viewed my experiences before Minerva. My guess is that many students experience something similar ー consider discussing it with your classmates over bánh mì sandwiches in the Tenderloin.