I’ve had my fair share of moving. The fact is, I have never stayed in one school for more than three years. I went to four different elementary schools. I spent my first semester of high school in China, but then suddenly decided to finish the rest of my high school career in the United States. I traveled to the U.S. all by myself at 14, starting my first day of school just hours after a 16-hour flight to a foreign place I’d never visited. At 18, I moved to California to attend UCLA. But perhaps the most unexpected move was transferring to Penn at the age of 20.
So far in my life, change has been the only constant I’ve been able to count on in the vicissitudes of life. Throughout this journey, the most difficult —but also immensely valuable — lesson I had to learn was to stop comparing the present to the past and start exploring the unknown.
Moving to a new place can be exciting, but also challenging. As new transfer students, many of you may think the transfer process might be the most difficult part of the transfer experience. While filling out forms, sending letters of recommendation, and reflecting on your existential crisis in order to write your personal statement is certainly not fun, the hardest part of being a transfer student for me was letting go.
When I transferred to a boarding high school in Cleveland from China, I spent my first month crouching in the corner of my dorm room every day after school, missing my family and best friends. I would have given anything during that time to book a flight and go straight home. I was miserable. The language barrier, the culture shock, and the helplessness stemming from the fact that I knew no one and didn’t know where to run for support all contributed to my insecurity and homesickness.
I constantly compared my experiences in the U.S. with my home base — China. The food was dry compared to mom’s stew. Why was there not a shopping mall anywhere near here? Where can I make new friends? The list of questions I had was endless. If there was any skill I excelled at in times of crisis, compare and contrast would rank at the very top.
As transfer students, we are outsiders at first. We have to break through the existing friend groups and informal social circles to fit in. We have to learn many of the invisible social cues that many of our peers have already learnt as first-year students. These barriers made it all the more tempting to not fit in, to not try, and to run away.
What I didn’t realize, however, was that once I stopped comparing my new environment to the old ones and running back to my safety net, I started to appreciate the many new people and opportunities in my high school. After a semester of anxiety and fear, I joined my high school’s drama club. Since then, I have played many characters on stage and made friends who I know I will never forget. I joined the speech and debate team and frequently competed in our school’s district, surmounting my fear of speaking English as my second language. My roommate also became my best friend who I could trust all my secrets with despite our rocky start when we first met.
While being a transfer student can be difficult and confusing, discomfort and uneasiness are also a part of growing up, a part of life that makes it worth living. Transferring from one place to another has been a big part of my life, but every transfer experience has been equally challenging and unimaginably rewarding. Once you’re unafraid to step out of your comfort zone and stop clinging to your past as protection, you are free to venture into a new world that also offers countless possibilities.
Last August, when I stepped on Locust Walk for the first time, I was already a student experienced in and prepared for the challenges of transferring and adjusting to a new environment. However, from time to time, I still miss my closest friends in LA, some of whom I might never meet again. Though it hurts me to leave my friends behind, I have also gained new ones in the process. Some friends I met in classes, and others I met in all the student organizations that I joined. I am grateful for Penn’s transfer student organization, which continues to create a safe and welcoming space for incoming transfer students to get to know each other and bond through fun events. I met some of the most caring and awe-inspiring professors and mentors who helped me grow not just academically, but also personally through sporadic coffee chats and office hours.
Helen Keller, my favorite author, said, “What we once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes a part of us.” Moving to a new environment and losing all the people and things that made you feel loved and comforted is a scary process. But they never really left. They will live on in your heart, cheering you on as you move on to the next adventure.
Brace yourselves, dear transfer students, for the next ride might be tough and challenging. To ease the ride, let your home base become the encouragement to reach out and explore instead of obsessing with reconstructing and comparing it to a new setting wherever you go.
SAM ZOU is a College junior studying political science from Shenzhen, China. His email is email@example.com.