Reflections about my time at UW-Madison
I only have a semester left to acquire my Bachelors of Science degree in Psychology and Neurobiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I've seen myself change as a person and a member of society in the 3.5 years spent in Madison, Wisconsin, United States of America. I'd to reflect upon my experience in order to condense important lessons and views I have acquired and retained, and to challenge them. I haven't had the time to think critically about myself since a year, and would like to do to now.
When I first showed up to Madison, I was showered with questions like "Where are you from?" and "What language do you speak?" Most international students don't mind these questions, and some that I know love them, because it gives them an opportunity to express their identity, talk about something they know about, and just socialize with people different from them. I agree, that growing up in a certain place definitely has an impact on the person. Then again, literally everything has an impact on a person. Why I'm asked that question, I initially said "India" or "UAE" and "English" or "Telugu", reflecting the locations that I had previously lived in. I didn't want to make a conversation about me, so a quick definitive answer was the way to go. Well, I usually had to tell the person who I was talking to where the UAE was, but that's fine. I definitely don't know where all the countries in the world are located. My answer to that question, however, had always felt dishonest. I still don't think I'm from 'India' or the 'UAE'. That feeling has only amplified with spending more time outside of those countries.
I wish I could tell people that I'm from nowhere. It's still not worth the effort of explaning why that's the answer, so now I just say "it's complicated". I don't follow the traditions or cultural practices of the UAE, India, or the USA. I don't subscribe to their national beliefs and don't think any of them are 'great' countries. I lack patriotism and nationalism, and wish others were the same. I think I am able to see others as just people instead of 'American' or 'Indian' as a result, so I'm grateful of the events in life that shaped this part of my identity. That doesn't mean that I'm not racist while everybody else is though. Confronting societal and personal racist beliefs is a constant process, and I think that I'm still doing as good as a job as the radical teen who enrolled for an undergraduate degree. I was worried that losing the diversity of my high school would develop subconscious racist beliefs in me, but as far as I'm aware, I don't think I hold them. It's possible, and if I realize them or am notified of them, I will do my best to confront myself and embark on a process of self-improvement. I think I have definitely improved on my view of religion and gender roles over the course of these year.
Young Vijay was determined that religion was one of the major reason why the problems of the world existed. Religious people had voted for Trump. Institutions engaged in child sexual abuse and spent large amount of donation money on extravagrant ceremonies, feasts, and buildings. People who were religious were only accelerating the decline of current society. While I still dislike institutional religion now, I don't think so lowly of religious people as I did before. I've realized that most people hold a religion just because their parents do, and haven't really thought about it or care. Religion to them is just a sense of community or a traditional practice that they have to do. So it isn't religion that is causing most of these people to passive and apathetic, they were like that even without religion. People in general, atleast in Wisconsin, appear to not care much about things outside their self-interests and what society expects them to care about. Barely anyone knows about the Yemen famine, Syrian civil war, or the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In fact, it's the religious people that have impressed me during my time here. I think it's because thinking deeply about religion also involves reflection about one's role in life and seeking goals that are altrustic and beyond one's immediate surroundings. That doesn't excuse the LGBTQ hate and abortion opposition. I'm fairly certain that my religious views are set for life, but hey, if I see scientifically provable evidence of miracles with no other reasonable testable hypotheses, then I might believe in cosmic being(s).
I learned a lot about gender identity and roles during the course of the 4 years. While I initially was still a feminist and a fierce advocate of gender equality and representation in all walks of life, I held a certain anger towards transgender people. This was my rationale: Men and women should rise beyond their biological sex and assigned gender and do productive and meaningful task regardless of the task's typical gender association. Having neat handwriting? No problem. Want to talk about emotions? Great. Being transgender to me was considered a cop-out in the fight against society's rigid standards. Instead of being who they are and doing what they want, they were literally changing how they look to do other-gender associated tasks. It looked like a decision that went against gender equality. However, exposure to the scientific literature about gender dysphoria and classes such Child Development (Prof. Karl Rosengren) and Hormones, Brain, and Behavior (Prof. Anthony Auger) have changed my mind. I had a flaw in my old rationale. I wanted people to just be themselves and do whatever they wanted. I now realize that they don't feel like themselves in the biology and society assigned state. That results in mental illness and numerous other risk factors. Would I want a person to feel constantly uncomfortable and suffer from mental illness just to send a message to a society that might not even care or be listening? No. I think being transgender is totally fine now. However I'm not sure what the accepted age of decision that "I'm transgender" should be. I wouldn't want people to make rash decisions when they're too young, but also don't want them to suffer and be held back till the age of 18. This is something I'll defer to experts about.
Although my identity has changed over the past few years, from a different perspective, I think it has been surprisingly stable. I had a tiny fear when I started out at the university that I would lose my radical and strong beliefs and become 'normal' and 'boring'. I don't think I have! I still have the same passion to help those who lack the privilege and believe in perfect equality. I'm still a skeptic (the science friendly version of that work) and still love science. I'm still an existentialist and care deeply about art and philosophy. In fact, I've stopped caring about things that are worthless, such as video games and societal standing, so almost all the changes seem to be positive. Obviously if I've had negative changes, I wouldn't be able to see them as negative because of my personal bias, but I hope people call me out on them.
Changes in outlook and goals
Writing this section makes me realize that the topics that I'm focusing on aren't that different from each other. Changes in outlook and goals can definitely be a part of one's identity, but hey, I get to decide what neat categories I use!
When I was in 9th grade, I set myself a goal to help atleast a billion people on earth directly or indirectly (maybe not butterfly effect amounts of indirectness). Right now that goal is now a guideline, and has been toned done (or up?) to 'help as many people as possible' instead. I realize how hard it is to have a positive impact on the lives of others. The opportunity cost of the intervention should also be considered. I'll also never know the number of people I would have had an impact on and the nature of the effect. For example, the most popular song on YouTube might have made a significant portion of the world's population a little bit happier, but I do not want that to be my goal. I'd like my impact to be a bit more long term and bit more meaningful, like providing the opportunity for children to obtain an (better) education. Maybe I'm making a normative judgement on meaningfulness here, but since there is a real need for a more accessible educational tools and systems, my intended field of work will help people. I'm caring less about the numbers now.
My outlook on the world and humanity in general have become significantly less positive. Not that they were positive in the first place. 3 years ago, I was a serial pessimist. I assumed that everything good happened for mainly evil intentions with good side effects and predicted bad things to happen. And oh boy, did things happen that were even worse than my predictions. Trump is the poster boy for the global shift rightward that happened during my 2nd year in college, and that wave over the world still did not seem to end. Maybe I'm in a 'bubble' or so, but when the right has people saying 'Mexicans are rapists', and the worst the left has to offer might be overreactions to certain social issues, it's pretty obvious which side is wrong for humanity. Yet in the USA, Philippines, Brazil, and a lot of Europe, those people got elected. The world's international order is fraying. I have yet to directly feel those effects, but probably have indirectly felt them. A ridiculously low oil price due to geopolitical games between the USA and the Middle East is keeping prices low for a lot of things. So is a lack of action on climate change. Stuff that's bad for the environment remains cheap and producers face no consequences for their contribution to the tragedy of the commons. Most importantly, people don't seem to care. This outlook has only made me work harder though, increasing the amount I try to donate every month to noble causes such as refugee support, digital rights, and international education. I personally find it difficult to justify a donation to environmental groups because the money will be spent for politics, which has a ridiculously low return of investment (possibly none). It's ridiculous to me that money even has to be spent for politics. Politicians are being paid by the government to make decisions that are best for the people, but even something as obvious as climate change isn't being taken seriously.
One issue that still bothers me is the consumption of news media. I read world news a lot, but it just looks like nobody else is doing so. Even some of my closest friends have no idea what the major themes of issues going on in the world are. This has been bothering me, but I don't want to be patronizing, so more reflection is needed from my part to determine the best solution to remedy this situation.
I had never thought that racism was still such a huge player in society, but it appears to be. While I have personally not experienced any large cases of it, people seem to have a strong tie between country and color to intelligence and personality... I've become more outspoken when it comes to issues of gender and race. Previously, I held the position that I should be supportive of the efforts of women and not speak up too much because it was their movement. However, I can't seem to find male students who believe in equality as strongly as I do, so I'm going to speak up in hopes that others with a similar outlook who are staying silent get represented in discourse.
Thoughts about relationships with people
The person who first joined this university could probably be described as 'clueless' regarding other people. While I did have friends and talked a decent amount in high school, I only had a single genuine connection with a person I knew and a few great penpals. They shared almost all the views I held, and I avoided those who did not. I didn't express my views to them, I just quietly avoided them when evidence of bad views came up. While this kept me from being frustrated, it removed a critical voice from conversations that I think were important for the world views of developing people. My silence probably kept people a bit more bigoted and a bit less aware of the world. Speaking up is something that I am doing, and should have been doing more.
Cultural differences are something that I have become more aware of during my time here. My lack of a cultural identity didn't mean anything in the UAE, because I had my own subgroup of friends who shared my views. They lacked a cultural identity of their own. This is probably because almost everybody in the UAE is a third culture kid. However in Madison, it became quite obvious that people identified strongly with their family traditions and stereotypical interests. Not that there's anything wrong with liking what's right in front of you, I was just disappointed there weren't more people seeking out a new identity independent from factors that were predetermined. Conversations included people discussing common cultural events, and I felt a bit alienated due to 'not getting it'. This isn't solely because I'm an international student from another culture though. I don't have a single Indian student as a friend and I know even less of India's cultural references. Nor the UAEs. It's funny, being the immigrant that I would be considered, that I know more about the political situation in the United States of America that a majority of citizens and understand its culture better than my 'own' countries'. English is what I consider my native language and I dislike speaking others that I know because I cannot articulate my thoughts as clearly. That being said, that doesn't mean that I am perfectly integrated into regular conversations.
I'm a bit different from most people. While that's a saying that might sound like I haven't grown past my teenage years, it was true and still remains true. I don't like what's been popular and don't do most of the things people with the same demographics as me do. I don't play video games, which is a large topic of discussion and point of socialization for male students apparently. I'm fairly academic and like to learn, and haven't really found many people passionate about discussing such concepts outside of educational environments and study times. I don't watch many movies and my music choices can be described as 'eclectic' so there's nobody I can 'jam' with. I don't use any social media for privacy and personal sanity reasons, so even if they were people like me, it's impossible to find them. For my free time, I mostly watch educational videos from Crash Course, SciShow, etc. or continue my education in computer programming. No latest plotlines to discuss with other people.
That's not to say that I have no friends and have found nobody good. I've met some of the best people I've ever seen during my time here. I have friends who don't hold back in challenging my beliefs and empathize with me at the same time. I've had a relationship with a wonderful person, and had to break it off due to my weakness and incapability with dealing with strong emotions. I hold some professors to be the coolest people on earth. My lab PIs have taught me how to be responsible and emphathetic adults. A perfect mix of casualness and professionality that I think currently models my behavior owes itself to these wonderful people. I've never people who cared so much for those who work with them. Just stellar human beings. I've also met lecture professors that made me have second thoughts on my view that online education can be just as good enough as physically being in a classroom.
Overall, I think I've grown from a person who barely talked to anyone because he assumed that "they wouldn't understand" to someone who is more comfortable with sharing who is more comfortable with sharing their opinions, thoughts, and feelings. I'm not a social butterfly just yet though, I've got a lot of improvement to make in this department. I have to learn to be more like myself, and be less of this mysterious cloud nobody knows anything about.
Well obviously I know a lot more about things in general after university. If I not, that would be pretty sad. UW-Madison is a pretty good university, but I don't think there was anything special about it that I would not have had had I gone to Cornell, Minnesota, or UCSD. Maybe the Biocore program (which I loved) is something I would not had. Otherwise I've realized that undergraduate education is what you make of it. You can do the bare minimum, get a degree, and leave with a decent paying job, or seek something more. You can serve the community that hosts you, you can help research science's biggest questions, while being exposed to people so smart and dedicated that it makes your brain spin (and hopefully smarter).
I like to think that I've gone above and beyond the bare minimum. I've joined multiple clubs. I've volunteered. I'm in multiple research labs. I've done an honors program. I've learned something new about science and life from everyone of those experiences. Completing a senior thesis is teaching me independence, time manangement, communication, and a whole bunch of different skills. From handling white research rats to working with EEG scanners and an eye tracker, I am completely satisfied with the education I have received. There wasn't a class I hated (althought PSYCH 454 is pretty badly designed).
While I have a lot of suggestions on how to improve the undergraduate experience for students at UW-Madison, I think I'll make that into a different post if there is ever a call for it. I am leaving Madison with a better understanding of how science is done.
I even got to apply my skills for research and designed online experiments! I cannot possibly express how happy that made me.
Music and other media
I feel like I've changed dramatically when it comes to music. Music still continues to be the medium of art that I connect with the most, but it doesn't occupy the 'life support' status it did back in high school. Music kept me alive back then. Recently, I've been having to go a few days without music in order to concentrate, study, or work and I've been relatively fine. I no longer need it to stop feel overly negative and pessimistic. Maybe this is just me growing as a person more than my relationship with music changing. I could summarize my musical tastes during the my freshman year as electronic and post-rock music. I found find nobody who shared those tastes, but I could atleast tell people what I listened to in a sentence. Now there's no way I can distill the things I listen to in a sentence, or even an essay. My taste has grown wider, more experiemental, yet more accepting of popular music. I no longer 'hate' pop music, but just think most of it is lazy. Music has gained a strong quality of nostalgia, which I assume is due to me getting older. I'm also discovering less new music everyday as I lack the time to do so. Gotta explore more, but it's a lot of effort to add to an already exhausting day.
Additionally, I can't stand rap music now. The lyrics are just nauseating to me and I can't take the sexism and selfish attitudes promoted by the lyrics of some songs. I'm sure there are some great pieces out there, but I'm not going to wade through all the disgusting messages to explore the genre.
My consumption of other forms of media (excluding books) has dropped to almost nothing. I've probably watched 4 movies in the past year and even less before that. I then to get overly emotional during the movies that I do watch, and I think that's probably because of emotional repression, which I will discuss later. It's also possible that I see so few movies that the medium has gained high emotional salience when I do experience it. This is a novel phenomenon that I have yet to fully explore and understand. I've had less time to read books during my time here. I've read about 40, which pales in comparison to the number I've read in high school. Reading 10 books in an year is pathetic. I'm going to have to pick that habit back up.
I had started to realize that I had anorexic tendencies throughout my entire life during my junior year. I quickly remedied that and adapted a healthier diet from then. However a lack of time has severely limited the quality of the food I eat and the exercise I could get, but I did what I could. I'm much healthier now, but I wish I had given myself more time to feel physically better. I experienced a strong correlation between physical health and cognitive performance and my academics improved dramatically as a result.
My mental health has been a rollercoaster ride. From a severe term of depression to feeling amazing and really productive, I've experienced it all. I did not give myself enough time to reflect on things that made me sad, and it constantly built up over the semesters and exploded. Time is gold, and it's important to give myself more of it to do absolutely nothing. I was constantly cognitively overwhelmed with the things going on in life. I managed to complete everything and it never really 'broke' me, but I could have had such a better experience if I spent more time pursuing meditation or doing nothing. The lack of sunlight during Madison's winters still messed me up.
Sunlight + Exercise + Free time doing absolutely nothing + Social life + Productive work + Engaging academics = Happiness
My ability to multitask has taken a nosedive over the past 4 years, and particularly the past 2 years. I used to listen to music all the time while studying and working, but now I can barely seem to concentrate on the task at hand if I do so. I need silence to concentrate now. I guess this is one of the first signs that I'm becoming old. I'm not entirely sure about this, but I feel like I take longer to learn things now. The uncertainty is due to the fact that I am learning more complicated and context sensitive things now, so it's possible that the difficulty explains the effect. While I never needed to (and didn't) study in high school, I had to do so for some difficult classes at the university. Organic Chemistry II (CHEM 345) was one class I performed poorly on, and made me realize that I actually had to put in time to achieve the same grades as I used to. I needed the lesson to improve my productivity and work ethic. I can't just rely on my 'smarts' anymore.
To be honest, this terrifies me. My brain is all I have. I've always based my self-esteem on being able to reason accurately and quickly, and it looks like it's going to take longer and going to involve more mistakes. I'm going to need to work harder. Which is fine. I can do that. I worry that no matter how hard I work, I will never be able to reach the level of insight and cognition that my younger self was able to. In a way, this is a humbling experience. I've never really understood why people took so long to get things. I would blame their personality or work ethic for their cognition. However, this experience will prevent me from making such shallow judgements in the future. Some people are just biologically different and that causes differences in speed of cognition. As an older person, my brain is wired differently. It isn't as focused on learning anymore. Young me would have called me stupid. That's not to say that I'm doing worse off academically. My GPA has been on a steady increasing slope since freshman year and I've been on the Dean's list multiple times. I can actually use a lot of the knowledge that I have now. I'm just... slower. That's scary. I don't want to become that senile old man who doesn't do anything in life and just consumes media endlessly. I'm going to do everything to make sure I cognitively age well.
Reflection on a reflection
It's fascinating how much can stay stable and change over a period of just 4 years. It feels like I'd graduated from high school last year. Time moves much faster now. I remember when 5 minutes felt like an eternity to 5 year old me... This fast passage of time makes me worry about what I'll remember from the past. I barely remember what I did in the last week! My memory is quite awful, so writing things down would help me keep the lessons I have learned and stop repeating the same mistakes in the future.
Why is this post public? Why is this website public? I personally think it's fascinating to read the thoughts of others on life, so I'm publishing mine if someone else is fascinated too. It being public would atleast force me to articulate my thoughts in cohorent prose for future me.
I'm a much better person now. I've learned a lot more about the world around me and served it productively. I've improved my efficiency, picked up new skills, and utilized the most of the resources available to me in my privileged state in order to give back better. I'm caring less about social status and other meaningless metrics I've always rebelled against. I've retained my core beliefs (which I had discovered independently from my parents) and added nuance to them. I feel less negative emotions. I've become more expressive, less shy, and less silent. I've become more me, and I have my relationships with my professors, friends, peers, and special people to thank for that.
Now, let's discuss the privileges I had which allowed me to have such a positive experience. The very first one was money. My parents were able to afford my tuition. I was able to land two very easy jobs, and got promoted very quickly at the one I'm in right now. This disposable income allowed me to go days without cooking food when I lacked the time. I just purchased a meal from a restaurant. I would get things delivered if it was too cold outside and if I needed every second to study something. Those without this privilege would have had to reserve time in their day to cook food and make plans to go to the grocery store every week. They would have to meticulously manage their finances and bear the stress of a large amount of student debt on their shoulders. They would have to pick careers that provided them adequate monetary compensation to pay off those loans, and those careers can be sometimes mind-numbing, evil, and something they never wanted to do. Although I had tried my best to save money (food and rent were my only expenses for a lot of months), donate freely, and work the maximum hours I could at a part time job to alleviate the financial load on my parents, the level of inequality is unacceptable. I had the privilege of choice.
I was surrounded my wonderful people. My closest friend, who I had hurt and ghosted at the end of my high school years, gave me a second chance. We shared everything that we needed to with each other. My lab PIs were amazing, and nurtured my academic journey. One is especially ridiculously nice and almost perfect, and I seek to model my tone and behavior after them. If I didn't have these positive role models, I would not be the person I am today. I cannot emphasize how IMPORTANT this was. Seeing people express their passion about science freely and care about other human beings is quite infectious. I've had wonderful relationships with people at the registered student organizations I was a part of, and a specific person made me love life again. All of this could be the privilege of probability. For that, I'm thankful for entropy.
You that seek what life is in death, Now find it air that once was breath. New names unknown, old names gone: Till time end bodies, but souls none. Reader! then make time, while you be, But steps to your eternity.