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090414f-Harvard-Widener-stepsGreater Boston has more than 100 colleges and universities and Cambridge and Somerville have some of the best, contributing to students making up about 30 percent of Cambridge’s population (a demographic detail harder to pin down in Somerville, but a look at ages making up city population from the most recent census would suggest college and university students make up at least 18 percent of city residents). Included in those totals are a lot of young adults away from home for the first time, handling their own finances and feeding and likely feeling a bit lost amid the sprawl and urban setting of Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Lesley and Tufts universities.

To help ease the panic or at least smooth out the bumps, we talked to three people who survived the undergrad or graduate experience at an Ivy League university to see what wisdom they could pass down. Their responses have been lightly edited for publication and appreciation by the largest number of people, with some references to a specific school or program removed.

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Wanxin Cheng

Wanxin Cheng is a Harvard College history major studying human-computer interaction.

090414i-Wanxin-ChengWhat was your biggest problem in your first semester, year or month? How did you get over it?

As an international student, my biggest challenge in the first semester was to learn how to communicate and make real friends. Getting out of your comfort zone and really trying to understand other people is the key.

What are you proudest of from your college years?

Finding my own values.

Did you experience peer pressure? How do you deal with it? 

Yes, almost all the time. Societal expectations can be dreadful, and constrain your choice. But this also allows one to truly stand still when it is overcome. I think the crucial thing is to really know that you are unique in your talents and passion. Therefore, it is more important to focus on exploring your own interests, passion and gifts than comparing these with those of other people.

Is there anything you regret or could have done better? How would a student avoid similar regrets? 

I wish I could be more socially active and get to know more people. My suggestion is: Don’t get lazy.

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Samantha Pickette

Samantha Pickette graduated with honors from Harvard College last year with a major in the history of science and a minor in English.

090414i-Samantha-PicketteWhat was your biggest problem in your first semester, year or month? How did you get over it?

My biggest problem during my first semester was homesickness. I had never been away from home for any extended period, so it was very difficult for me to adjust to living away from my parents and my hometown. It was also hard to get used to living in such close quarters with a roommate. I went home on weekends a lot during my first year, which helped make my transition smoother. It was just a matter of my getting used to it over time. By the end of my freshman year, I felt much more comfortable living at school.

What are you proudest of from your college years?

One of my proudest moments was the day I passed in my senior thesis. It was the culmination of almost nine months of work, and passing in the final copy – about 100 pages of original research and writing – was absolutely thrilling.

Did you experience peer pressure? How do you deal with it? 

I never experienced any sort of peer pressure. Everyone that I was friendly with was very relaxed and would never have tried to pressure me into doing something I didn’t want to do. A real friend would never purposely put you in an uncomfortable situation. My advice is to know who you are and to follow your own instincts. The people who accept the real version of you are the ones who are worth keeping around.

Is there anything you regret or could have done better? How would a student avoid similar regrets? 

I enjoyed my time a lot, but if there’s one thing I wish I had done better, it would have been choosing roommates. At the end of your freshman year at Harvard, you choose up to seven other people to live with your sophomore year – these people are called your “blocking group” and will live in your house with you for the next three years. I got so anxious about finding people to block with that I ended up joining the first group that asked me, not realizing that we had very little in common. I wish that I had waited and formed a group with closer friends, because I would have ended up in a much better living situation my sophomore and junior years. So my advice to freshmen would be to not jump into anything when it comes to roommates – make sure that you live with people who you not only get along with in the dining hall, but with whom you share actual interests and habits.

What didn’t you expect to get in college? 

I don’t know if I got anything that I didn’t expect – I made some great friends, took classes with brilliant professors and had a lot of fun. My experience was everything that I hoped for. I guess looking back I didn’t expect to miss it as much as I do. I definitely have a lot more nostalgia about my four years at Harvard now than I did at graduation. And, even though I am a grad student at Boston University, my allegiance is, and I suspect always will be, to Harvard. I suppose I never expected that my college would end up meaning as much to me as it does now.

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Sally Xu

Sally Xu attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education to study human development and psychology. She works as an assistant manager in human resources at Country Garden Holding, a property development company based in China.

090414i-Sally-XuWhat was your biggest problem in your first semester, year or month? How did you get over it?

My biggest problem was lack of confidence. Being the youngest student in my graduate school, I didn’t have any full-time working experience, while the average years of work is 4.2 for Harvard students seeking my degree.

Also, English is my second language, and I am not confident speaking it. I was very stressed out at the beginning of the semester, and didn’t dare to speak up in class.

My solutions: Lower expectations for myself. I admitted my weaknesses and tried my best to make up for them. For example, I would pay special attention to some daily expressions, and searched for some tips for speaking up in class.

When I felt everyone was better than me and I got admitted because of luck, my program coordinator told me one thing that was very comforting: “Harvard never make mistakes. We admitted you, so you must have something to contribute to the community.”

After this, I learned to appreciate my strengths and shared my different cultural background with my classmates.

What are you proudest of from your college years?

I started the Harvard China Education WeChat Platform with some other Chinese students. We aimed to bridge the gap between China and the U.S. in the area of education by sharing cutting-edge knowledge with Chinese teachers, students and parents.

Is there anything you regret or could have done better? How would a student avoid similar regrets? 

I felt that I didn’t make the best use of resources. I spent most of the time studying and should have spent more time networking. There are lots of things you can learn from the excellent people at Harvard.

What didn’t you expect to get in college? 

Everyone in HGSE is so helpful and accessible. I was really moved.