I’ve always had a hard time stopping and reflecting on everything that has happened. The emotions I felt during my own graduation from the University of Pennsylvania in May could not be put into words — joy, pride, but also a bit of fear of the unknown. Talking about this with one of my friends, she suggested I take the example of the “Dear Penn Freshman” initiative and write a letter to my younger self in order to put my thoughts in order.
So, I finally put my thoughts on paper a couple months ago when I was invited to be the guest speaker for the high school graduation of Avenor students in my hometown of Bucharest, Romania.
Even though I’m not a strong speech writer and I’m still terrified of public speaking, I decided to put those emotions and reflections into a letter to my younger self and took the invitation as an opportunity to share that letter with the graduates at the commencement ceremony.
This letter took time to write and it wasn’t easy to be vulnerable and authentic in front of strangers, but, nevertheless, I found the experience enriching. In order to be able to write another chapter, I first needed to process the one that concluded. So, for every 2021 graduate out there — I encourage you to take the time and write a similar letter to yourself and, if you feel comfortable, pass it along to others that might soon be going on a similar journey. It can help guide others though their experience or at least show them that they aren’t alone in their struggles. For the person writing the letter, it is an exercise of reflection and honesty that will prove helpful as you take another step into the unknown.
Dear 18-year old Cristina,
You made it! There is so much I want to tell you, so much I want to show you, so much I want to warn you about.
First, you will soon learn that you can’t succeed on your own. In your first semester you will take a math class for which the homework will take you 7 hours, twice a week. One day in class, your soon-to-be best friend will ask you if you want to work on the problems together. You will join his study group and from then on you will change your study habits. No problem set will take more than 3 hours and for each course after you will make friends and learn to work together with others. This will happen again in finance, economics and all following classes. Your classroom friends will become your support group and you will learn so much from working with others.
Second, prepare yourself for failure, not just success. You will experience more rejection than you have ever experienced before. You will lose the Wharton Council election twice before you become president and receive an Award for Service from the Dean. Your third year you will apply to 114 internships only to be rejected from all but one. You will come back to Romania in March and fall in love with your summer job. Your supervisor will write you a recommendation letter that will help you apply to your dream masters program. Please don’t forget that if you believe in what you’re doing, you should keep going at it until you succeed. And when you doubt yourself turn towards the people around you and lean on their support. They will be there for you and believe in you even when you don’t believe in yourself.
Third, seek to do things outside your comfort zone. Exposing yourself to your fears (in a safe environment) is a valuable, growth-inducing form of discomfort. Start with small things — such as speaking up in class even though you’re afraid of public speaking. You will wish you talked to more of your professors outside of class and went to their Office Hours. Your second year you will go on a solo journey to the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine and publish a research paper. You will question why you chose to do something so challenging, but it will be transformational to have the chance to step into Transnistria, the frozen conflict zone located between Moldova and Ukraine and interview female entrepreneurs. You will also get the chance to explore Chernobyl, the site of the nuclear accident of 1986. Don’t let fear stop you from seeking and grabbing opportunities that come your way. They will end up being the most important pillars of your education.
Fourth, focus on the people around you. Your friends, in this place far away from where you grew up and spent most of your life, will become family, in ways you can’t even imagine. You won’t remember what grade you got in your accounting class but you will remember the people you met through the extracurricular clubs you joined, senior societies, the birthday parties you hosted at your house, the weekend trips you took with your roommates and the concerts you went to. You will see that even after you graduate and you’re halfway across the world, your friends will come and visit you in Romania. Relationships are the single most important thing in your life and, without doubt, you found your people.
22-year old Cristina
If you have any questions, tips or recommendations feel free to leave them in the comments below or contact me at email@example.com. For more stories and details about my adventures, you can find me on Instagram: @cristinapogo.