Four Years Ago I Didn’t Think I Would Make it to Graduation

Looking back on her freshman year, senior Stephanie Ulan reflects on her past.

Some of you (especially the Class of 2020, sorry guys) have probably already heard parts of this story. I talk about it a lot. It’s part of me coming to the terms with everything that happened my freshman year; no longer being afraid to talk about it. Trying to think less of the people who will hear the story and think “wow, this girl really needs to get her shit together” and focus on the people who will hear it and think “wow, I thought I was the only one”.

Four years ago I didn’t think I would make it to today. I really didn’t. I know it sounds dramatic, especially for the unique group of over-achievers that we’ve gathered here at NYU Shanghai, but yeah, I wasn’t sure if I had in me. I was failing my courses so I thought maybe I wasn’t smart enough. My Chinese was terrible and I failed every single unit test so I thought maybe I just wasn’t talented enough to learn a new language. I struggled making close friendships so I thought maybe I just too different, too loud, too wrong.  I couldn’t figure out how to order food so I would resort to these yellow and white wrapped cheeseburgers at the convenient store, figuring that this was just another point in the long lists of points as to why I am not good enough to be here.

I was suddenly really conscious of where I came from, a “regular” high school in Queens, New York. I thought of what’s considered the best high school in NYC, Stuyvesant. And I had the terrifying realization that I was suddenly going to school with people who all went to their hometown Stuyvesant, the best schools in their cities/states/countries or just in the world. I was proud of my high school, loved every single year I was there. But I wasn’t prepared for this. Yes, I studied in high school, but not the way I needed to study here. I didn’t even know where to begin. I started missing classes, not because I wanted to do other things or didn’t care, but because I couldn’t face my professors anymore. I knew if they asked me questions, I wouldn’t even remotely know the answers. I couldn’t explain to them why I had missed most assignments, why I couldn’t even convince myself out of bed to come to class, why I literally wanted to strangle the next person who used the word “dichotomy” (was this a buzzword in 2013-14 or something? People said it way too often!). I regularly interrupted my homework to double check how expensive a flight home would be.

I write this now, as a second semester senior, two papers and six days away from graduation. I look to the cap and gown sitting in my room and sometimes I’m hit with shock. How the hell did I make it this far? How the hell did that girl make it to today?

Well, a couple of things happened.


I decided that my education was going to be about what I wanted to study.

As a freshman, my current major, Social Science, did not exist. But I knew going into college that I wanted to study international relations and political science, and I thought the Humanities major would be wide enough to let me pursue these interests. Also, admittedly, I had no fucking clue what a major was, so I just figured it would work out. Luckily, Freshman year, I had the pleasure of having a professor named Andrea Jones-Rooy as my academic advisor. I told her how I felt, how I hated my humanities courses (Humanities is great, just not for me), and she told me “You know what? One of my greatest regrets in college was not taking the courses I wanted to take. You’re interested in Policy and International Relations, just take the courses! It’ll work out”. Not the most conventional advice from an academic advisor, but it worked. I finally was taking courses in what I cared about, and wow, what a difference it made. Suddenly I was excelling, and I was actually excited about doing homework. In my case, I got incredibly lucky and my major does exist now (ironically I was farther along in requirements for a major that didn’t exist than my actual declared major), and I am thankful everyday that I had met Professor Jones Rooy. Advice to you too, whoever’s reading this. Make some time for those subjects that really interest you. You’re paying enough in tuition for it, you deserve it.


I met one of my best friends.

I ended up in the unfortunate position of entering into Elementary 2 Chinese with no partner for homework. You know, the person you make the weekly videos with, the person who knows exactly where to hide the paper with pinyin so it looks like you memorized more than you actually did? Yeah, that person. But there was one girl in my class who I was pretty sure didn’t either, and I had also noticed that she was nice to almost everyone. And I knew I needed to pick someone quick before everyone was taken. I saw her walking back to the dorms and I ran to catch up and said, “Hey Maggie, what’s up?” We talked and walked together, and I fit in the question of whether she wanted to be my Chinese buddy. “Yeah, of course!”

When I absolutely failed the Chinese final that semester, it was Maggie who let me nap in her room for six hours because I didn’t want to be alone. It was Maggie who again let me sleep in her room a year later, when I found out my grandma passed away. It was Maggie who did my makeup for Spring Formal two years in a row because I just didn’t know how to, Maggie who introduced me to all of my other best friends because she invites absolutely everyone always, Maggie who taught me how to make cake in a cup even though for the life of me I still can’t remember the recipe or the exact cake to water ratio. And I’m so thankful that my anxiety over a Chinese partner brought us together. I’m not sure I would have made it through all these years if I hadn’t met Maggie.

Advice to you: Be like Maggie, if you can. Say yes to the girl you don’t really know when she asks to be your Chinese partner. Invite her to dinner. Nobody else’s mental health is your responsibility, though, keep that in mind. And I know it isn’t always easy, but being kind to people can go a long way. And if you can’t be Maggie, try to find your Maggie. You’d be surprised at how many there are if you just follow activities you’re interested in and talk to new people.


I went to Health and Wellness (I know, I know, but hear me out)

Admittedly, Health and Wellness has its shortcomings that are very serious and do need to be addressed. But I cannot understate the power of sometimes just talking. Yes, many more steps need to be taken to fully address the needs of the student body, but please do not give up on the power of just being able to express everything that is happening to you. Do not give up on Health and Wellness entirely if you are struggling. Being able to go somewhere once a week and just talk to a counselor and not feel crazy for how terrible I felt and how ashamed I was really made such an impact for me. Having someone just explain what depression and anxiety even is made such an impact for me. Reach out, and when you reach roadblocks, use channels through the school like Student Government to try and help and address them. But don’t forget to put your mental health first.

Also, friendly reminder, there is no requirement for how bad you have to be feeling to go to Health and Wellness. I am the absolute worst at this, I will justify over and over to myself that no, I don’t need it, that I’m taking time away from others, etc etc. Don’t do this!!! Your feelings are valid!! Your mental health is important!! Even if it’s just a bad day, go to Health and Wellness! You are important, too!


I set goals (no, not those annoying ones that Academic Affairs makes you do when you’re on academic warning).

I chose something I wanted in the future. Something only NYU Shanghai could give me, something that I had been wanting to do for a long time. I thought of the semester I wanted to study abroad in Buenos Aires. Every time I had a particularly hard day, I would think to myself “do it for Buenos Aires”. You would not believe how a mantra like this can push you forward, when you really really want something. Granted, things got complicated once I did get to study in BA and I suddenly needed a new goal, but at that point I had a much better handle of this whole college thing so it worked out, no worries.

Advice: Find your goal. Create a mantra. It helps, I swear.


I got involved in ALL the things

I’m that type of person, I’m happier when I’m doing things. So I pushed myself, got involved in creating Model UN, went to conferences, helped create the Volleyball Team, joined the Frisbee team — I was even briefly (briefly) on the flag football team (Girls can join too!!! Join!!!). As a senior, I was an Orientation Ambassador and even got a job at Student Life. I cannot stress it enough — these experiences helped! At least for me. I got involved in things I knew made me happy, and made time for them in my day. Remember to not lose what makes you happy too.


I cut myself a f*cking break.

I still mess up on this one, especially as a senior. School can be really hard.
Just balancing things and trying to stay happy and also living in Shanghai — it’s not always easy. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m human. Humans have bad days, they have good days. Sometimes they imagine how nice it would be to kick that one kid in GPS right in the nuts if he says dichotomy one more effing time and other times they look at their classmates and think of how fortunate they are to be in a place with so many talented people.

I wasn’t perfect. I’m still not perfect. And I also learned along the way that way worse things can happen than a bad grade. I could fail all my classes tomorrow, but I would still have my health. My family. My dog who I love even though she’s so dumb. Professors don’t define me and neither do grades. Yes, they are important, but I can’t let them be the deciders of my happiness.

Even four years later, I still have to remind myself of this sometimes.

Don’t forget to remind yourself, too.


NYU Shanghai can be rough. Really make you question all your life’s decisions type rough. Make your question your importance as a person type rough. Make you wonder why the hell anyone thought college was even a good idea type rough.

But it can also be really great. Getting street food after stumbling out of a bar at 2 AM type great. Traveling to places you never thought you’d ever see like you’re some sort of Kardashian type great. Playing video games with that one guy who brought his PS3 over from the states type great. Ordering McDonalds with the few people still in the library at 3 AM before your capstone is due type great. Singing KTV at the top of your lungs with the entire senior class until some weird things happen and somehow you wake up with a teddy bear you don’t remember buying type great. NYKSH type great.

First semester freshman year, I did have one friend who knew what was going on. He was an East China Normal University study abroad, and I think he was the only one who could really see how much I was hurting, could imagine how often I was thinking of just leaving Shanghai entirely. He was the one who made me promise to him one night in the middle of my first semester, standing outside of the elevator of the dorms, that I would not drop out. That I would at least finish the semester.

I did finish that semester. And the one after that. And then five times after that (fingers are still crossed for this last one).

And you can, too. Don’t forget that.

This article was written by Stephanie Ulan/i>. Please send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit: NYU Shanghai

2 thoughts on “Four Years Ago I Didn’t Think I Would Make it to Graduation

  1. Its been a privilege and an honor knowing you since your very first breath. I hope that doesnt spoil you. Many times in the past i called you a “rotten kid”. I was joking. You are the greatest.
    P.S…and your super-human brother Raphael too. I thank you both for letting me live.

  2. Stephanie,
    Thank you for sharing your story. I first heard about you on NPR (yes!!) and was wondering how it turned out for you. It sounds like you had a fantastic college experience with no regrets! I was apprehensive about my son considering NYUS, but today I will give him my blessing to submit that application!

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