By Pranav Ambwani
A lot of previous blogs have shared great advice about experience in research labs or plans for jobs after graduation. That is not the advice I’m here to give students. You see, by the time I had finished my first semester as a Freshman at USC I had lost weight. A lot of weight. A dangerous amount of weight. The reason was obvious, although it would take me some time to admit it: Depression. While moving across the globe and enrolling in college made my struggle with depression more difficult, ultimately, it was my community here that helped me come out on top. That’s part of what I’d like to share.
This is the first time I’m talking about my experience publicly, but as a senior getting ready to graduate in the spring, I feel a responsibility to share a little more. There are two really important points that I want to make clear. First, my sickness was not the result of something bad or challenging happening in my life – it just came about, like any other disease. Second, there were challenging things going on my life that definitely made dealing with it harder.
Our department chair, Sandeep Gupta, met with me one-on-one. He was the one who encouraged me to write this blog! I consider myself so lucky to be in a department that is so full of heart.
College can be challenging, emotionally and academically. That’s no secret. I arrived at USC from India, with all my friends and family thousands of miles away. I spoke perfect English and had done well in high school, but I still struggled to connect with people and felt totally alone. On top of that, I had failed to get into my first-choice school, Stanford, and saw USC as a “defeat” that had been imposed on me. These feelings of loneliness and anger didn’t cause my depression, but they made it much worse. Not only did I struggle in class, I failed to appreciate USC for what it was – one of the most amazing, prestigious, and supportive institutions in the country.
Halfway through my first semester, I was missing lectures, struggling to get out of bed, and having some very dangerous thoughts about hurting myself. Everything that was going wrong in my life, I blamed on USC or my parents. Although I considered myself an atheist, I actually started believing in God just so I could blame Him for everything wrong in my life!
Then, two changes happened that helped me start turning things around. The first was a change in studies. After my first year, I changed from a Computer Science major to an Electrical Engineering major. Of course, CS is a great major – but I came to realize that the discipline wasn’t for me. I was exposed to Electrical Engineering in my EE 109 course with Dr. Allan Weber. I loved thinking like an electrical engineer, which to me meant solving hard problems, putting myself in other people’s shoes, being flexible, and getting stuff done!
The second change was a change in mindset. When I was home over the summer, my parents knew I wasn’t happy. My father told me two things: First, he said that I shouldn’t worry so much about things I couldn’t control and to simply enjoy my subjects. Second, he told me that as a student, I should consider it my full-time job to study. That is what I was there to do. This sounds really obvious but it’s not. Us undergrads are always told about how great our institution is and how many opportunities to experience the city and make friends there are. We often think it will be easier than it is.
As students, especially engineering students, we aren’t always told to be in that work-first mindset. College is so fun and eye-opening but accepting that I was here to work hard and that it would be difficult, made dealing with my challenges so much easier. I was able to eliminate my crisis in part by reinforcing the fact that I am my only competition. Although I struggled at first, since switching my major and mindset, I’ve maintained a 4.0 GPA over these past years.
I’m still solving my problems like an electrical engineer – by embracing hard problems, being flexible, and getting stuff done.
I’ve learned a lot about depression over the past three years. Like I said above, knowing that it’s a real sickness that a lot of people deal with – and not my fault – helped a lot. Having a support system was another thing I came to value. For me, my biggest supporters were my parents and my community here in the electrical engineering department. When I first joined EE, my advisor, Jaimie Zelada, made me feel like I was joining a family. He made me feel welcomed and encouraged me to contribute more. Our department chair, Sandeep Gupta, met with me one-on-one after I reached out to him. He was the one that actually encouraged me to write this blog! I consider myself so lucky to be in a department that is so full of heart.
So Now Here is My Advice
Talk to other students and talk to your professors - they were students once and can relate more than you think. The USC network is one of the strongest in the world. I took it for granted until I actually started utilizing it to achieve my goals. Don’t be afraid to fail, that’s what breeds success. Don’t just aim to get good grades, aim to learn and enjoy your subjects. First learn to work hard, then learn to work smart, otherwise, you're setting yourself up for failure in the long run. If you're embarrassed about who you were just a few years or months ago, good job. You are becoming wiser!
Finally, my most important advice is to listen to and talk with your parents! I might get laughed at for saying so, but that’s okay. We need to grow up and not act like the kids we were in high school. There is a general tendency for children to ignore what their parents tell them. But think about it like this: parents have experienced the world much longer than we have. And they love us.
I am still battling depression, although it is less severe than during my Freshman year. For me, the first step is sharing what I’m going through. I have my highs and lows, but the lows definitely make the highs worth it. I’m still solving my problems like an electrical engineer – by embracing hard problems, being flexible, and getting stuff done. With this mindset, I believe that I am on my way. That will be a story for another day.
Pranav Ambwani is a Senior in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering, graduating this Spring. He is dedicated to helping other students learn from his experiences. If you’re a USC student experiencing challenges like these, please seek help at any one of these institutions. USC Student Counseling Services, other university resources.