College Confidence, or a Lack Thereof
It is not always easy to help others. Especially since the decision is not always as simple as, “Do I want to help my fellow human being?” Factors in your environment or state of being can increase the difficulty of the choice tremendously, but often that does not mean your answer should be any different: it just means it is harder to say yes.
When I first took a class at Ventura College, I was thirteen years old and nervous as could be. Walking onto college grounds for the first time, it was completely unlike any other location that I had taken classes in, and seemed unnecessarily large and entirely foreign to me. This did not exactly promote in my mind a prime mental state for learning or put me in the mood for dealing with an unfriendly and almost hostile mathematics professor, the first college instructor I would ever interact with. Of course, Murphy’s Law (whatever can go wrong, will go wrong) dictates that that is exactly what had to happen.
The process for applying to be a special admissions high school student in a Ventura College course was not particularly complicated, but it definitely seemed that way to a young teen operating on their own. It involved crashing the first few classes, hoping the professor would be able to get you an add code. For some professors (most in fact), an unaccounted for student in class was not a hugely difficult situation, and could be accommodated without much trouble. This professor apparently was not one of those educators. One of the highlights of those interactions was refusing to speak to me before class and telling me to sit down in an entirely unnecessary annoyed tone, and then chewing me out at the end of class for taking a seat that should have belonged to an already enrolled student. The injustice in this accusation (I sat because you told me to!) did not rest well with me, and neither did the fact that more than a few students were present and within easy hearing distance. Like I imagine most people, I don’t respond well to public shaming, and so I did not attempt to join that class any further.
The next few years passed by during which time I enrolled in and generally did fairly well in a few courses per semester at the college. Ever since that first event I had not encountered any more professors quite so willing to jump on the opportunity to chastise me, but I still felt the effects of that first introduction. I felt like I was an outsider on the campus and in my classes, a paranoia that I stood out in my youth and that people would consider me immature and incompetent. No new interactions in particular fueled this fear, but at the same time nothing had dispelled the impressions that my first attempt at being a “college student” had given me, so I continued to try to lay low and avoid interacting with my peers.
Spring of 2018, I was taking a chemistry course which ended up being immensely difficult. The first exam absolutely shook the class. I do not remember the exact number, but the class had something like a sixty-five percent average, while I managed to earn a solid B. After that, my fellow students and I put a lot of time into learning the material. The second exam approached quickly, and on the day of its arrival I came to the library three hours early to review and make sure I would do better this time. I sat alone, and ideally in a spot where as few people as possible would be able to see me, so I could be at least slightly reassured that no one would mock me. There, I set to work on reviewing everything that I was least confident on.
Not long into my session, one of my classmates walked into the library, and soon after came over to me. I had spoken with him a few times, and had once happened upon him and a few others in a study group, but for the most part I knew him as “oxygen”, since our professor had assigned him that element on our first day of class (I was helium, a perk of having my last name start with an A). At first, it just seemed like he wanted to chat for a bit, which made sense as he was a very sociable and outgoing sort of person. It was not long before it was apparent to me that that was not the case, and that he had some other reason for speaking with me.
Apparently, he had noticed that I had done above average on the first exam, and was hoping that I would help him out. That would not be an easy task for me, though, because he also informed me that he had: not paid much attention in class; not done any studying; and was still in recovery from a hangover from the previous night. He did seem to recognize that this was a lot to ask from a near stranger, and was in no way pressuring me to help him but he definitely was convinced that this was his best shot at getting even a passing grade on the exam.
Now, there are multiple reasons why someone might argue that I should have said no. I had my own studying to do, and was nowhere near as confident as I would have liked to have been. I did not know him very well, and was at this time not very comfortable with strangers, especially in college settings where I generally felt most self-conscious. Not to mention that it wouldn’t be unfair to say that this guy was not the best student, and so it would probably be a waste of time anyway. Of course, these arguments are pointless because I did agree to help him, and I’m glad I did. I tutored him, and he passed the exam with a B. I then went on to tutor him through the rest of that class, and he passed. We ended up in calculus together, and I tutored him through calculus. Sometimes he jokes to me that he owes me his math education, which is honestly only slightly exaggerated. I don’t exactly like to examine friendships in a transactional method, based on how one friend benefits from their relationship with the other, but it is true that he has done a lot better in his academics because of my help.
I wouldn’t find this story all that noteworthy if that were the extent of the effect that it had on me, because then it would just be a story of a person helping somebody who needed it—it is noteworthy, but not uniquely interesting. The twist that makes this story stand out is how it affected me, and how I had to overcome my worries in order to help my peer. Over the last year and a half that I’ve known my friend, he has helped me to become more confident in myself and my ability to fit in at the college indirectly, by me tutoring him; directly, by him encouraging me and uplifting me. There’s a quote by Gregory Boyle: “In Africa they say ‘a person becomes a person through other people’” (xiv). I would say that perfectly summarizes how “oxygen” affected me, and I him.
My decision to help him despite my worries, driven by an innate kindness and supported by my continuous effort to succeed at VC, was difficult. When I made that choice, though, I could not have imagined how consequential it would be for me or him. I just wanted to help out somebody in need, a perfectly human action. But it’s that scale of deed that has the greatest effect on our lives, and that sort of exceptional effort that allows most positive changes in the world to come to be: by pushing past years of anxiety and shyness to tutor a classmate, for example.
Boyle, Gregory. Tattoos on the Heart. Free Press, 2010.