Career Power-UpStudents & YPs

Letter to a Freshman Tech Major

By Paige Kassalen

You spent the past few years taking college admission tests, building up your resume of extracurricular activities, and touring universities around the country. Now it is time for your freshman year as a tech major.

I loved this time of my life because I can completely attest to the fact that my undergraduate experience made me who I am today. Of course, that experience came with its ups and downs, so I want to share a few pieces of advice that helped me really excel through my undergraduate years:

Avoid surrounding yourself with people who create a “stress culture”                     

Stress culture is an atmosphere created by the false belief that the more stressed you are, the harder you are working.

There were times in school when classmates would ask “how are you doing?” and I would shock them by responding, “I’m great! How are you?”

It doesn’t really seem like a shocking response, but the shock was due to the idea that everyone should be in a constant state of stress.

Surrounding yourself with people who create a “stress culture” should be avoided because you will fall into a mindset that you do not have time for anything outside of your coursework. A lot of high-value college experiences come from pushing yourself to join a design project or taking on a leadership role in a student organization.

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If you pass up on these opportunities, you will miss out on chances to grow and really see what you are capable of accomplishing. I recommend surrounding yourself with an educationally diverse group of students who empower you to push yourself and do not let you live in a constant state of stress.

Master the basics

I was in some difficult classes during my first and second semester of freshman year, and would always keep my eye on the light at the end of the tunnel (i.e., winter break or summer break). This is something I ended up regretting because most classes in your first two years are prerequisites for more advanced classes in your major.

Instead of just “making it through” a freshman class, make sure to excel at it! There are a lot of resources available to you through professor or teacher’s assistant (TA) office hours, free or paid tutoring, or even videos on YouTube.

Just like a strong foundation is needed when you build a house, you need the same thing with your education. If you invest the time during your freshman year, you’ll be able to push yourself to take more complex courses and save yourself from relearning the information later.

Don’t be just another face in the crowd

When searching for a university, people will ask about the professor-to-student ratio. The catch is that no matter if that ratio is one professor to every 30 students or one to 300, the responsibility falls on the student whether they will be just another face in the crowd.

Take the time at the beginning of the semester to go to each of your professors’ office hours to ask them a question and introduce yourself — and do this with your advisors, too! The faculty and staff want to help you succeed, but to accomplish this goal, they need to know who you are.

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There was a time in college when I made a massive mistake on a midterm, and it caused me to lose more than 50% of my score. I had a strong relationship with that professor, and he called me into his office to discuss what happened. He cleared up my confusion, helped me find a tutor, and offered to review the study guide with me before the next test. In the end, I passed the class easily.

Ideally, professors would do this for every student, but they do not have the bandwidth with research and other university responsibilities. Whether it is helping a student turn their grade trajectory around, pointing them towards the right internship, or helping them get into a class that is already at capacity, the faculty and staff will go the extra mile for those students who take the time to not just be another face in the crowd. Plus, you will end up building lifelong friendships!


Freshman year is an exciting time where you see all your hard work from high school come to fruition. Four years seems like a long time, but the foundation you build during your freshman year will end up serving you throughout your college career.

Creating a strong support system that does not let you fall into a “stress culture,” investing the time to learn the basics, and remembering to not just be another face in the crowd will help you maximize your college experience and grow into the best version of yourself.

Paige Kassalen

Paige Kassalen loves to put her creativity to use by solving problems in emerging technical fields, and has been an IEEE member since 2012. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech in 2015, Kassalen began her career with Covestro LLC. in 2015, and soon became the only American engineer working with Solar Impulse 2, the first solar-powered airplane to circumnavigate the globe. This role landed Kassalen a spot on the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list along with feature articles in Glamour, Fast Company and the Huffington Post. After Solar Impulse, Kassalen has helped Covestro and JPMorgan Chase develop and implement strategies to embrace a range of emerging technology trends from autonomous vehicles to machine learning. In 2020, Kassalen received a Master of Information Systems Management degree from Carnegie Mellon University and now uses her problem-solving skills at an artificial intelligence startup, CrowdAI, where she leads the implementation of computer vision solutions for existing commercial customers.

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