Dear Past Self – Dayana (University of Pennsylvania ’17)

Dayana Mustak reflects on the beginning of her undergraduate journey, overcoming challenges and finding her way.


Dear past self,

At this point, you are petrified but so eager to learn. If what I remember about you is correct, you’re excited to soak up knowledge and run with it, but you’re also just scared that you don’t have what it takes. Well, I have to say that I’m you, three years later, and I’m still incompetent in Excel, still unsure about how to give a good presentation, still unsure of how the stock market works and still clueless about Plato. I’m sorry. But here’s what you will get from Penn…

It will hit you straight away that everyone around you is smart and driven. During orientation, all freshmen will be asked to write about an assigned reading and some people around you will raise their hands and ask for more paper. You will end up awkwardly making stuff up in your best efforts to make up a modest paragraph. That will be the first of many times you feel you fall short. I don’t want to scare you but there will be more. Professors and TAs will ask questions in class and your classmates’ hands will dart up confidently, even though you feel like you didn’t even understand the question. Some people will take six classes and you will be hustling with your four. Trust me though, you will steadily learn that sure, everyone around you is insanely brilliant, hardworking and even accomplished, but each and every one of you took a different road to get there. I know that you’re scared you won’t measure up, but you don’t always have to. You will learn that your starting line is your own and your experiences are incomparable.

The truth is, your finish line might be days, months or years behind someone else’s starting line and so college will be a hustle on most days. You will be assigned six-paged essays and people will tell you, “that’s totally fine” and that you “can definitely do it” and you will stare back, mouth agape in disbelief and confusion. You will be expected to turn in MATLAB codes for classes despite having never used the program before. You will spend days writing your first cover letter and resume. You will sit in bed at night and worry that what is expected of you is always leaps and bounds ahead of what you can do. You will worry that you are an impostor. But somehow, either through copious amounts of caffeine or sheer divine intervention (though, most likely both) you will hand in the paper, the code, the cover letter. You will make it through semester after semester, exhausted but unscathed. There will be so many oh-shit-what-the-hell-have-I-gotten-myself-into situations, and you will learn that you somehow always make your way out of them. You will learn that you always learn to find a way.

Because you have the capacity to learn, you will slowly start taking risks. You don’t have to do everything—6 classes, 5 clubs, go to the gym and fall asleep by midnight—perfectly right away, but eventually you will raise your hand in class and eventually you will manage a board of 7 people, eventually you will raise thousands of dollars for events and charities. If it seems far away from where you are now, well, good. Because you will learn to take pleasure in having a long way to go.

You won’t do it all alone, though. You will inevitably worry your way through the chaos and hurry of New Student Orientation. People will exchange phone numbers with each other and with you absent-mindedly, and people will haphazardly add each other on Facebook for a while… but that will all slow down and if you keep going out there, keep saying “hi, I’m Dayana” then by the end of all that chaos you will find yourself with friendships more rewarding than you’ve ever known. This is a college cliché—as cliché as lying down on green grass doing work on a Macbook—but lucky for you it will be true. It will be difficult to make friends initially, and you will compare it to making friends in school where you were all chucked into the same classroom and so friendships were always more effortless and convenient… but you will learn that your best relationships are ahead of you and they involve ordering pizza at 2 a.m., making snow angels on a snow day, eating burgers on the rooftop of Fresh Grocer, having a shoulder to cry on when you get your first C and feeling endlessly supported and inspired and grateful.

Yeah I guess it kinda sucks that I still have no idea what “VLOOKUP” is on Excel but you can Google that when you have to use it. The things you will learn are skills beyond what a textbook can teach you. The things you will learn are a lifetime’s endeavour. You’re learning how to learn. I know you’re eager to learn things you can use at work, things you can put on your resume, and I also know you’re scared. I’m here to say that your thirst for knowledge, your capacity for information will never be fulfilled and you will find at every corner that there will always be more you could have learned. But you will be better at feeling scared, you will feel more comfortable with not knowing everything and you will be more equipped to figure things out as you go.

I’m so excited for you.

Future Dayana

Why the U.S. – Caroline Lee (New York University ’19)

Caroline Lee is a rising sophomore at New York University, studying Computer Science. We asked her a couple of questions regarding her decision to study in the US and her first year experience.

1) How did you find out about studying in the US? 

I applied to both the UK and the US because I wanted to keep my options open. After researching

extensively about their differences, I found that the U.S education system evaluated its applicants

with more fluidity and flexibility. All UK universities have a minimum requirement for grades, and it

is explicitly stated in UCAS; whereas the U.S., while still taking grades into account as an important

factor, also considers a variety of other aspects of an applicant. This fluidity carries in the education

system itself, allowing you to more or less construct your own course to suit your needs. This means

being able to choose your own classes, which professors to take it with and when you want to take

it. Most times you can even take classes outside of your major. As a person who likes to explore and

try a little bit of everything before making a decision, an American education is perfect for me

simply because of it is flexibility.

2) What made you decide to study in the US? 

The extent of flexibility: You can choose when you want to graduate as long as you fulfil the number

of credits required. You can take time to explore different classes because you do not have to

declare your major right away (you typically have to declare sometime towards the end of your

second year). Some universities even allow their students to design their own interdisciplinary

program (customize their own degree), and even have schools for it – like the Gallatin School of

Individualized Study at NYU.

3) How did your first year in the US go? 

I went to NYU wanting to major in Economics and minor in real-estate, but I took one introductory

Computer Science class and decided to pursue that instead. The pace of NYC is like no other. During

my initial period in university, I was completely taken aback by their work culture as it differed from

anything I had ever experienced in Malaysia. For example, deadlines for assignments are typically 2

days from their start date. I was also surprised how much my professors expected of me even as a

freshman. It is a much busier lifestyle but definitely also a more productive one.

4) What’s the biggest takeaway you got studying there

I am of the opinion that no matter where you go, it depends on how you make use of what you

have around you. My biggest takeaway after studying in the U.S is to try absolutely everything you

can. In classes, engage in discussions as much as you can, you will never know what you could learn

from it. Outside of classes, engage with the city/town/campus that you live in – if you study

engineering, go for engineering conferences, meet other people from other universities, and

network as much as you can. After all, you are not going to travel thousand miles away from home

for nothing!

Why the U.S. – Paggie Tan (New York University ’20)

Paggie Tan is a rising freshman at New York University ’20. Here, she shares why she chose to study in the United States, and how that means she has complete freedom to define her own academic route. 



I remember the exact moment I chose to study in the U.S. over reading law in the UK: I had just turned 16, nestled on my couch, fresh off a shower with a turban wrapped around my head and had about 10 tabs open on different American universities (UCLA, NYU, Boston University etc. you get the idea). I was rambang mata; I found myself so lost in the ‘fascination’ of even being able to study in America. At an embryonic stage of decision making, I thought that the notion seemed like a far-fetched pipe dream as I live in a relatively small town and that going for it would mean that I will be the first in my entire family to head overseas to study, what more to the U.S. Choosing to do so was a very rare instance where I come from but I was determined. Now, this is not going to be a rambling of what I did in the years to come but rather an answer to a question, one that I still owe myself.

Why did I choose to pursue my tertiary education in the States and not anywhere else?

First, it is the flexibility of the curriculum that provides room for academic control – I can choose what I learn in ways I feel prepare myself for the future best. The mantra of ‘I don’t know where I am going, but I am on my way’ is linear to the education system that is earnest in helping me discover what it is that I am passionate about. No longer will I be pedantically retaining facts in my brain (sometimes, not even knowing what they mean) only to routinely regurgitate them out in the examination hall. For the first time in my scholastic life, I have the power to learn instead of study.  

It is also the different opportunities that the U.S. offers, both socially and intellectually. In the U.S., pursuing an education is more than the books you read or the lectures you attend. It’s also about the things you do and the people you meet. As a two-time USAPPS participant, I have had the great pleasure of meeting a lot of people who you can tell have so many colorful experiences. Their stories have motivated me to reinstate my faith in choosing the U.S. For instance, the exciting activities that happen around Yan Jie’s campuses (Case Western Reserve University) such as a zombie-nerf-run fusion, the hands-on applications of what they have learnt in classes (Pang Fei got to inject a worm with Alzheimer’s at Oberlin!) and the places they go (Kah Yee is going to 7 different countries with Minerva. SEVEN). I have learnt how, through the stories, that these moments will change you in ways that cannot be explained and I want that for myself. I chose the U.S. because it is simply an education that cannot be taught – it has to be experienced by yourself.

It was also the honest application process. Throughout the development of my application, I was constantly questioning my identity and reflecting on all the people, places, and things that have shaped me – from choosing which teachers who will be writing my letters of recommendation to the infamous essay-editing. It provided me a tiny window to all the maturing that I will undergo in the States and I liked what I saw (though I did cry once or twice.. and by once or twice, I mean maybe a couple of hundred times). Unprecedentedly, I am more than numerical figures and a bunch of alphabets. Who I am as a person actually matters in my academics. In fact, it is a part of my academics.

Though there are probably a thousand better answers out there as to why one would choose to study in the U.S. but these are mine. I’m starting this September and of course, I am excited and anxious at the same time. Though nobody can guarantee me anything, my decision to study in the U.S. can guarantee me an enriching, eye-opening and fulfilling 4 years of my life.