Third Time’s The Charm

By Jensen McRae

Jensen McRae

No one offers better insight into the experiences of USC Thornton students than the students themselves. Since her sophomore year as a Popular Music major, Jensen McRae has shared her life lessons with the Thornton community as part of a regular series.

Now, at the conclusion of her junior year, Jensen offers her fellow Trojans some sage advice, as she looks ahead to life as a USC Thornton senior.

Hello again, it’s been a while.

So my junior year at USC is wrapping up, which means it’s high time I tell you what I’ve learned. This has been a peculiar year for me, a year of things slowing down, a year of watching things happen to and for other people, a transition in which it felt like everything took place only in hindsight. People told me how hard sophomore year would be, so I severely underestimated junior year’s difficulty. I put in more effort than I probably needed to in some of my classes. I put a lot of pressure on myself to attain a perfect GPA, for no reason other than personal pride. I set expectations for other people that they could never meet.

But I also pushed myself, socially and academically and professionally. I learned things about myself. I made new routines and laid groundwork for my future. I did heavy lifting now so next year and the years afterward will hopefully be a little less stressful. I made some great new friends, a feat I thought was impossible this late in the college game. And as always, I learned a few tips and tricks that I hope will help you out—rising juniors, college hopefuls, adults who are overcome with nostalgia just reading this, and everyone in between.

1. Just because someone is good to you, that doesn’t make them a good person.
I’d like to see the good in everyone, and for the most part, I’ve gotten better at doing that. But some people are toxic, or predatory, or abusive, and they don’t need me defending them. Sometimes you have to listen to your gut, to the red flags being posted at every mile marker, to the stories about what that allegedly good person has done to hurt other people.

2. If being somewhere makes you uncomfortable, you are allowed to leave.
Does the party give you bad vibes? Time to call that USC-sponsored free Lyft. Is someone in your session making comments that make you feel unsafe? Maybe don’t write with them again, or at least don’t go alone. Is a first date going south fast? Make up an excuse and hightail it to your best friend’s place. Don’t worry about being polite. Don’t worry about being nice. Get the hell out.

3. Clean your room.
When I get stressed by schoolwork or sessions or any of my other obligations, I tend to let my apartment turn to chaos. After I do my laundry, clean my shower, wash my dishes, put my clothes back in the closet and my books back on the shelf—you get the picture—I feel a lot more calm, and like I can tackle whatever tasks I have ahead of me. Now, if you’ve got two papers and three charts due tomorrow, maybe skip the cleaning for today and get your work done. But if you’re mostly done with your schoolwork and you have a couple hours to spare, clean your room. If you live in a shared space, clean the common areas, too. Your roommates will thank you.

4. Throw your own parties.
I don’t know about my peers the same age or older, but junior year is the year I started feeling like an old lady at parties. I can’t hang out in a sweaty, loud house with a few dozen (or couple hundred) freshman and sophomores and expect to have a good time. Most of my friends feel the same way. Our solution? Apartment parties. Keep the attendance to close friends only. Eat snacks. Play music you know you like at an appropriate volume. Or if you feel like going out, hit a restaurant in downtown. Eat outside so you can laugh as loud as you want. I felt so much pressure to go out my first two years of college, pressure that I mostly put on myself because I didn’t want to “miss anything.” You’ve done enough. You aren’t missing anything.

Jensen McRae performs. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

5. You can change your mind.
After two years in college, you may think you know who you are and what you want. Or you may have no idea. Both are okay, and both are temporary. We still have so much time to become who we choose to be.

6. Stand up for yourself.
It’s hard. I know it is. You don’t want confrontation. You don’t want to be marked as “difficult,” especially if you’re in a small community like Thornton. And you never know if you’re picking your battles right. But kid, you never know if you’re right until it’s over. I’ve said it before in this post, but listen to your gut. Speak out about what you think is right, whether it means sticking up for your friend or getting political or just getting a little bit loud if no one is listening. You’re a grown-up now, even if you don’t always feel it.

7. Enjoy the last year you get turned away from bars.
I’m one of the youngest of my friends, and almost everyone has already turned 21, at least among the people in my class or older. It upsets me sometimes to watch them go out without me, even though I don’t care about drinking or dark rooms or loud music. I mainly just feel bad about not being able to go to people’s gigs. And there’s also the philosophical underpinning of feeling “left behind,” however irrelevant or false. But here’s the truth: sometimes I get nostalgic for high school. Yeah, that’s right, the years I felt miserable and outcast and stressed out and misunderstood. Because in my memory, it’s blurry and watery like a photo on a disposable camera, warm and soft and not as bad as it seemed. Even though I was powerless, even though I was lost. Eventually, being 20 will be a distant memory, and the feeling of being turned away from bars and clubs will just be something I laugh about. Something I miss. If you’re 20, or 19, or any age that’s too young to drink in the U.S., just enjoy it. Blow bubbles and go to the park and eat cookies and go to sleep early. You can still do all that stuff for the rest of your life, but you get the picture. Be a kid. Soak it up. It doesn’t last.

8. Make time to read.
I was a voracious reader as a child. I’ve fallen in and out of rhythms with reading over the years, not because I didn’t feel like it, but because I didn’t think I had time. This year, I’ve been setting aside a lot more time to read books. Reading makes you wiser, calmer, more observant, more empathetic. And if you’re a writer of anything—songs, poetry, prose, screenplays, anything—reading will make you better at it. Some of my favorites: The Idiot by Elif Batuman, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

9. Text your friends out of the blue to tell them you love them.
Sometimes I just text my good friends or my family telling them everything I love about them. It might be motivated because I know they’re going through a hard time, or it might just be that I haven’t seen them in a while and I feel the need to remind them that I’m here, that I always will be. It always brightens their day, and it always brightens mine. Tell the people in your life that they matter to you, and not just on birthdays or holidays or anniversaries. Let them know on a random Tuesday in March that you heard a song or saw a dog and it made you think of them.

10. Pretty isn’t everything.
Like many people, I can get fixated on my physical appearance. I become consumed with Pretty, an elusive force or beam of light, if only I could harness it, if only I could channel it, if only I could become it, then all my problems would be solved. I wouldn’t be sad because pretty people aren’t sad. I wouldn’t be stressed because pretty people don’t have to be stressed. I would get where I need to be in my career because pretty people get ahead. Right? Right? Wrong. It turns out that beautiful people also have depression and anxiety and self-doubt. It turns out that you are probably more beautiful than you think. Stop chasing pretty (and this is not targeted at a specific gender, either, this goes for everyone). Chase ambition and hard work. Chase honing your craft, chase being kind, chase being strong and badass. I swear to God if you do you’ll start glowing. You’ll be that beam of light. You will become that force.

11. You have time.
The toxic combination of a rise in youth culture and the ubiquity of the Internet can make millennials and Gen Z feel like you have to be rich and hot and famous and brilliant and an activist by the time you’re 18 or you’re a failure. Like being in your 20s and still working on yourself means you’re all washed up. It’s not true. I promise. I’m 20 and I forget it sometimes myself, but I know in my heart that it’s a lie. Across every single field, with the exception of maybe professional athletes and Olympians (and even then there are people who break the mold), you’re not supposed to be at the top of your game until at least your mid-30s, and probably even later than that. Doctors have years of med school and residencies, lawyers need several years as associates before they make partner, professors don’t get tenure until lots of publishing, most chefs work for years as line cooks before they open their own restaurants—you get the picture. If you’re 20 or 25 or even 30 and you’re still not where you want to be, relax. You still have time. Life’s not even half over. You’ll get there.

12. You are not alone.
If you’re young like me, I’m sure you experience days where you feel like you’re the first person in the world to go through your particular brand of trauma. That everything you are feeling is happening for the first time in the hurricane laboratory of your heart. But it’s happened before. I’m not saying you’re not special (although special is overrated). I’m just saying that someone else has been through it. Someone else is probably going through it now. If you were looking for a reason to go on living or some sign from the universe that tells you it’s gonna be all right, this is your sign.

So that’s all I’ve got for you this time. In a year, I’ll be preparing to graduate, and hopefully I’ll have learned a few more things about myself in the world. Until next time, friends. To the graduating seniors: bon voyage. To the classes coming up behind me: buckle up. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Want to hear more from Jensen? Read her sophomore year open letters to the Popular Music class of 2020: Part I and Part II.

TAGS: Contemporary Music, Popular Music,

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