Lessons Learned: How to find peace in the unknown

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Noel Lee/The Occidental

College has unsurprisingly been the best experience of my life — but not in the clichéd partying-five-nights-a-week and regret-filled reckless whirlwind many get to experience. Rather, I could have never begun to imagine the woman I would become, the goals I would achieve or the hardships I would face in my four years at Occidental. When I stepped onto campus Aug. 24, 2018, I was wildly insecure about my academic potential and athletic ability, but I remember repeatedly assuring myself that I had gotten in here, just like everyone else.

I thought it was cool to be the stereotypical dumb blonde in high school — never really trying in classes, skating by just enough to keep Advanced Placement and honors status in classes, but not having any large academic distinctions besides my college acceptance. Coming to Occidental, I made a complete 180 degree turn, devoting myself to four hard years of sacrifice but immense joy, because I realized it was far more impressive to be passionate than passive. As I sit in my room in my house on Ridgeview Avenue writing this, I see a 21-year-old, bursting at the seams with excitement for the uncharted months ahead. I also see the beaming reflection of that 18-year-old right behind her, smiling on with each major milestone.

I still remember the feeling of getting my first A on a college essay, feeling so validated that I was able to hang with the big dogs in my classes and, more importantly, that I had something well-articulated and intelligent to contribute. I remember being one of the only underclassmen in professor Robert Sipchen’s narrative non-fiction class, writing my final portfolio piece on a local business owner that turned out so well it now sits in the portfolio that I present to future prospective employers.

I remember signing up to write my first newspaper article at The Occidental, my hands dripping with sweat so badly at Sunday night pitch in the Media Suite that I thought they would never dry. Now, as one of two news editors on staff, I have the opportunity to train and work with writers who follow that same trajectory. And yet, I must still remind myself that I deserve to be in this position, and that I have actual wisdom that I can impart.

I remember how excited first-year me was for my first day of the non-traditional fall season with lacrosse. I was quickly humbled during my first fitness test when our top midfielder at the time lapped me on the timed mile, which was just the first part of five runs of varied length that I had to complete at 6 a.m. I know 18-year-old Haley was ecstatic when, senior year, I started my first game in goal as one of three team captains. However, all of my triumphs have not come without intense pain and heartbreak.

Nothing in the world could have prepared me for the Zoom team meeting we had on May 15, 2021, when I was told that one of my best friends, former roommate and teammate Zoe Nussbaum had passed away. I will never forget falling to my knees and screaming in pure agony, blacking out after I heard the school chaplain inform us of the news. Zoe’s death, coupled with the pandemic, took so much from my experience that it practically threatened to overshadow all the good that had already happened. But instead of focusing on the “could haves,” I have allowed the things that I can control to outweigh the unexplainable, and chosen to work every day to continuously make younger Haley squeal in admiration and self-fulfillment.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I have learned in my time at Occidental is that you can never truly expect to have an idea of the trajectory of your life, as it changes practically every day. What may seem like an obvious lesson to most becomes quite practical when you’re faced with death, failure and indefinitely-extended unknowns. I have no idea where I will be after graduation — Mom and Dad, I promise I will start the job search soon — but I have learned to find peace in the unknown. I cannot control who will come into my life or who will leave it, but I know that I will make the most of every interaction, treating it like it is my last. I would do anything to have another lacrosse season, another sleepover with Zoe in Stewie 127, another chance at my semester abroad in Prague sans a global pandemic. But I have learned that for every loss, there are many more gains to be made. If I had never come to Occidental, I would not have the chance to play lacrosse, be a campus tour guide, serve a year as Greek Council President, write and edit for The Occidental or meet any of the amazingly wonderful people that have made my experience what it is. I have made lifelong friends here, and I could not fathom trading the world for them.

I did a lot of growing up at Occidental — and most of it from events outside of my control. In my last month, as I reflect on my experience, I feel nothing but pride. I know that I participated in everything to my fullest extent, and never lost sight of what I came here knowing was important to me: friendships, self-confidence and the desire to live everyday with pure, unapologetic happiness. I will forever miss the people and places I have come to love here, and hope every other Occidental student is able to have as transformative of an experience as I was able to have. It truly does pass in the blink of an eye.