Four Years at Brown

On Independence

The month after spring break has always been packed with midterms, projects, and activities. This year, I am hosting an incoming freshman of Brown Class of 2020 for the ADOCH, so I took my pre-frosh to her 7AM and started revising this post drafted during my Seattle Trip.


Independence is overrated.

Growing up, I was proud to be the older sibling who went to summer schools and traveled for international conferences. I enjoyed meeting people of different backgrounds and relished each new cultural experience, so I thought college would just be the same kind of surprise on steroids. My high school self was a bit anxious about all the unknowns abroad, but I pushed forward, convinced that a independent lifestyle would be perfect, despite living with my family in our comfortable Taiwan home all my life.

The most important lesson I learned in my freshman year is definitely independence. In class, we are taught to think critically and conduct rigorous research. Outside of class, we are expected to be responsible for the (poor) decisions we made and live up to own our actions. I was set to pursue more independence, and I rarely called home as I was dizzy with excitement, satisfied with my new lifestyle in my naivete.

When Homesickness Kicks In

If you are also an international student, you were probably seen as one of the cool kids who decided to venture a different path from the rest of your peers. More often than not, people fail to understand the challenges of acclimating to a new culture (molding into a new life, being far away from your family, and identify new circles of friends, etc.). Aside from the noted challenges, the hardest pill to swallow was the realization that I could suffer from homesickness.

I once thought I was mature enough to study abroad 7,739 miles from home, take care of my finances, and stay on top of work and my personal life — I could take this on; I’ve experienced so much, why wouldn’t I succeed here? However, at the beginning of my sophomore spring semester, right after I returned to attend the TA camp for cs132, I experienced this horrible feeling in my gut, which I can now identify as homesickness.

Jet lag ensued, I started missing my family, and the home-cooked meals — the food I grew up with. I missed all the things I took for granted so much that it started hindering my productivity. I went back to my dorm straight after the TA camp and slept until midnight. (Perhaps oversleeping somehow made my jet lag worse, but sleeping makes me happy so I would do it anyway). After waking up, I felt a bit better but was soon struck with that searing pain, remembering that I was no longer living with my family, and I no longer had access to the food I love. I attempted to remedy this — I’d make the best of this situation, I thought. I turned on Google Flights notifications, hoping to hop on some miraculously cheap flights and visit home. I shopped on Yami to gather a stock of Asian snacks. I called my parents nonstop and ended up face-timing them 3 hours a day.

I felt that deep-seated urge to return home and driven by this urge, I scoured my schedule, looking for any available time when I could fly back. I was desperate to find a long break, so I made several phone calls, sent out a batch of emails, and finally booked the ticket to fly back in May and attend GISTaiwan in the summer.

Meanwhile, I did some research and found that homesickness actually occurs two years after moving to a new location. That clash between the comforting Old and the strange New drives me into limbo — a state of the unknown. As everything seems to settle down in college, I felt as though my old home has stopped embracing me with warm, home-cooked dinners, my new home failed to replicate the love from my family — I was stranded in limbo — the in between.

Then, I experimented and consolidated some tips to combat homesickness:

  1. Be present at the moment. Study, sleep, eat, whatever.
  2. Be honest with friends. They are here for you.
  3. Create new memories at new places. New coffee shops, restaurants, travel!
  4. Don’t call home too often even though you really miss them. (Twice per day is fine, three hours is probably not.)

Ultimately, I came to realize that this, like all else, will pass. I was in midst of a transition. Emerging from this transition stage, and reinvigorated by my epiphany, I drank up new knowledge, excited for the prospects, filled up my schedule with friends, and established new connections with a new understanding of self. I now call my parents on a daily basis (though mostly during my walks) and am happy to report feeling new sense of belonging to my original family. I know that I am blessed and have to move on with my life. I am also extremely lucky to have an extended family in Boston, so dim sum is never too far away.

Confronting homesickness has powered me through many nights, endless projects, and challenging periods. By admitting homesickness, calling my family, and reconnecting with my new self, I was able to identify my vulnerability and found a new peace with my inner soul.

My 13 Worldviews in 2019

As I conduct my semi-annual review, I took some time to review my worldview from 2019. While my belief system has been updated with new knowledge and experiences, I still see some shared values that may help others.

1) If I want to succeed, I have to work as hard as possible.

As my first worldview, I really believed in this statement when I started out in college. I strive for overperformance at work and over-delivery at my product experience because all the top performers around me were the same way.

While a part of me still believes in the value of hard work, I no longer subscribe to the culture of super hard work. The “work hard, get more done” is came from the factory model and no longer applies to the work I am most passionate about. Thanks to my coaches, I renewed my definition of success and began to strategically carve my own path. While I still work relatively hard, this new approach has saved me tons of work and enabled me to unlock a lot of opportunities I couldn’t have imagined a year ago.

2) Everyone has to find their own voice.

I still deeply believe in the power of finding my voice. In this age of information overflow, POV is essential to stand out from the crowd.

While I have experienced the power of my voice in high school Model United Nations conferences, my discovery of my voice really took off when I began to surround myself with peers, mentors, and experiences that I knew would bring the best out of me. Through my daily meditation, writing, and coaching, I learned to be in sync with my dream, wanting, and who I am.

3) The sky is my limit.

My mom instilled this belief in me when I was little. As I overcame each challenge in life, this belief reinforces itself.

4) Hackers can create products that will change the world.

Compared to the previous three statements, this one is much less extreme. As a hackathon enthusiast, I was really into building products that could have a great impact. However, “hacker” sounds a bit limiting. A better name may be coding artist, which Chris reserves for himself.

5) There are always two sides: glorious or terrifying. Take your pick.

This belief came from my experiences in startups. This is essentially talking about how every limiting belief can be reframed into an empowering one.

6) Form your Board of Supervisors.

In addition to my personal board of supervisors, I now have an online community too. Really love it.

7) Always ask for what you want.

A better name may be: What would I do if I were a dude?

8) Find the underlying mental models of the world.

I no longer believe it is about “finding,” which assumes there is some absolute mental model in the world. Since these mental models are all human constructs derived from personal experiences and wisdom, a better way is to construct them.

9) Liberal arts education should be a core requirement.

100%.

10) Learn to invest because that could go a long way.

1000%.

11) Deliberate rest and reflection sustain life.

I am so glad that I have realized the value of rest last year. I’m still working on it, but this is absolutely a game-changer on my performance.

12) I am proud of being different.

It takes a lot of courage to be different, and I am glad that I was raised this way. I think the best thing I can do for this world is to be myself and help more people be more of themselves. Reach out if you want some help!

13) Think about the end game.

I am a big advocate for beginning with the end in mind. This has fundamentally changed the way I work, invest, and manage relationships. Once you get clear on the ultimate life values, you can breeze through the noises with a lot of conviction.


Overall, I have changed a bit, but I still share many core values.

My Academic Experience at Brown

It’s hard to review my college life without going through my Notion* Dashboard.

*I started using Notion in Spring 2018 and imported all my notes from OneNote, Evernote, and Google Drive.

As you can see from the dashboard below, I spent a lot of time experimenting, learning, and thinking about 🍀 career and 🌳 investing.

First Year is the year of trying everything.

During my first semester, I even made a back-up plan in case I couldn’t get any internship. Fortunately, my Plan A worked out for both winter and summer.

Second Year is the year of sinking in projects.

Even though I went to a liberal arts college, I didn’t appreciate the value of liberal arts education until my junior year. As a result, my first two years of college were packed with courses that are either difficult (theory of computation, machine learning) or practical (scientific writing, UI/UX). Outside of classes, I traveled to hackathons on weekends, prepared for software engineering interviews, and built my own startups.

As I previously noted, I was quite obsessed with achieving one thing after another. I managed to keep myself busy, yet I didn’t ground myself with the values that truly reflected who I was. Even though I was productive, I barely understood the full experience of personal growth. I was stuck in the illusion of more equaling better.

This dark age ate my notes.

Third Year is the year of academic enlightenment.

This year I fell in love with college (finally!)

At this age, I had finished most of my course requirements already. Therefore, I had been able to take awesome classes like City Politics (and its advanced seminar) and Shaping The World Views. While they both came with a lot of readings (a book per week), I was so energized by the paradigm shift from each class. At the end of the semester, I was trained to see the world through political and philosophical lenses.

some highlights from the class

Senior Year is the year of putting everything in perspective.

I was so inspired by the academic enlightenment that I took the time to shop many classes. In addition to Barbara’s amazing Persuasive Communication, I also got to check out Computer Utopia, Understanding the Middle East, and Scandinavian Literature.

Am I doing Open Curriculum right?

In addition to these college classes, I also took a few online classes during reading periods and study breaks. Even though there was so much to learn at college, I found that the most important life lessons were learned outside of school.

Advice To My Younger Self

Today I’m going to answer a question from the readers, “If you can live your college life again, what would you do differently?” Here are some notes I would give my younger self:

Health

Stop eating these yummy guilty snacks

Exercise every day and eat organic food. Go to bed at 11 PM. Track your biometrics data (sleep, diet, bodyweight).

Social

Stop preparing for coding interviews. Go talk to real people.

Spend more time with people different from you. Be helpful to people. Listen to their stories. Be kind to others and yourself.

Love

Go on lots of dates. That’s how you train your intuitions on finding the good ones. Plus, check out all the great restaurants in San Francisco. 😉

First, learn to love yourself. Once you can properly love yourself, you will have the confidence and security to love others too.

Intellectual

The Wing in Boston

Start building a mental model for the world. Connect your experiences with lessons learned from people, books, and classes.

Career

It’s great to work at Google, but startups are awesome too.

Life is too short for you to be someone else. Stop following the conventional path and start experimenting on your own. Pick something you love doing and figure out ways to monetize it. Communicate your vision to others and recruit people to join your team. This is how you can create great value and do good in the world.

Life is a game. Take it easy!

Write down all your challenges and send a letter to your future self. By the time you receive the letter, you have probably overcome the challenges with resilience. Now be the person who you needed the most when you were younger.

Letter to My College Advisor

I am late to the college reflection process, but here I am. Better late than never, right? As I flipped over my notebooks, letters, and random thoughts, I realized that this task is way larger than I originally estimated. It’s a lot!


I created a template to review the past four years. Hopefully, this structure can help me process the growth and transformations in a reasonable fashion.


Before coming to Brown, each student was asked to write a letter to their academic advisor. Since this was my first assignment, I took it seriously. Perhaps too seriously. I saw the following comment to self on top of the advisor letter:

DON’T TAKE THE ADVISOR LETTER SERIOUSLY.

FINISH IT IN 30 MIN.*

*This advice applies to 80% of the applications you’ll write in college.

Here is the actual letter (without any edits) I wrote in Evernote*

*As much as I’d love to edit the letter out, I want to stay true to who I have been. I’d consider it okay for someone with minimal English writing experiences.

Dear Advisor,

I am Charlene from Taiwan and this will be my first time studying abroad. I love to interact with people and am excited for the new adventure at Brown. People often say that I am an extrovert; at the same time, I am introspective and appreciate writing and reading alone. I am an avid learner interested in quantitative subjects and international news; thus, I am really interested in computer science, statistics, economics, and entrepreneurship. My current intended major is computer science-economics.

Inspired by the movie Her, I was fascinated by artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction. I have always dreamed of utilizing machine learning to create tailored online courses for individuals. Digging through many amazing internet resources from Wait But Why to TED talks, I think about the universe and believe that everything is possible in the future scientific progress. This is me — always craving for something more and nurturing a big dream. However, my pursuit of computer science is not an easy path. I started coding at 13 years old. From QBasic, C, C++, to Python, I have explored a wide range of programming languages. Yet my learning curve is steep. I started in the ease of turning simple logic and mathematics into codes. As I began to build larger projects with data structures, I struggled with debugging. To get across the plateau, I read a lot of reference materials, searched on Stack Overflow, and never gave up. I picked up Python again through games, data structure, and database courses on Coursera. Thus, I really look forward to how Brown can inspire me to create new things.

I have dreamed of becoming a product manager at a tech firm. As Deep Nishar (LinkedIn) puts it, a great product manager has the brain of an engineer, the heart of a designer, and the speech of a diplomat. To prepare myself for a better future, I have compiled some specific plans at Brown:

1. Do research every semester.

2. Volunteer in my first winter vacation.

3. Intern/attend coding camps in the summer.

4. Attend hackathons.

I also strive to live out what Aristotle said, “where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.” I am interested in data science, entrepreneurship, MUN, and other networking clubs. I plan to try out as many new things as possible, find my passion, and work toward my dream.

I also want to keep learning French and would like to know if there is any club/study group on campus. I have heard that the consulting and investment banking club provide great training and network. I am also thinking of interning at private equity, venture capital, and investment banking and applying my skills in computer science, applied mathematics, and computer science.

Everything, except for not having closure, was so on point.

  1. In addition to being an extrovert, I came to recognize my introverted self.Just as my dear college roommate said, “I didn’t expect you to be so alone-but-not-lonely: You take control with such confidence that only through living together could I appreciate your introversion.”
  2. I followed through on my initial major (Computer Science-Economics) and added a third one: Applied Math.
  3. I knew my entrepreneurial passion and wide intellectual appetite.
  4. I was not only inspired by Her but also went to intern at a company that productized Her — Fin.
  5. I still love Wait But Why, but now I read less long-form articles and more books instead.
  6. I stopped watching TED talks and turned to comedies instead. Any F.R.I.E.N.D.S lovers here?
  7. My scientific obsession with the universe takes on another layer: spirituality.
  8. I believe that everything is possible.
  9. I have no idea who is Deep Nishar, but I appreciate what he says about product manager.
  10. I did do a lot of research across computer science and neuroscience. Looking back, I’d probably spend less time on research because my passion lies in business.
  11. Instead of volunteering, I ended up interning at a small edTech startup as a software engineer during the first winter vacation.
  12. I interned at Google in the first summer, but I didn’t get into the coding camp I applied to. This is such a blessing in hindsight.
  13. I attended a lot of hackathons. Perhaps too many. At least I made a lot of friends who inspired me to take on a bolder life vision.
  14. I tried VC / PE / Consulting and found my passion for entrepreneurship.
  15. The only thing I didn’t keep up is French.

Overall, I am pretty satisfied with my trajectory. Maybe it’s time to write one for the next five years.


Have you written any letter to your advisor in your freshman year? I’d love to hear from you.

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