Student survival guide: Karen Bretz

Student survival guide: Karen Bretz

Photo Credits: DAVIS WHALEN / AGGIE

From eagerly anticipating graduation to finding pride in extended education

When most students are in the midst of their fourth year in college, it usually signifies the closing of the curtains. All the time and effort put into getting a degree will finally come to fruition, however, is not like most students. The fourth-year biomedical engineering and art history double major has come to grips with the fact that, after Spring Quarter, she will “love Davis for an extra year,” as she put it. The decision was all hers; after a minor setback early in her academic journey, she accepted the reality of having to stay an extra year to accomplish her goals. Bretz shared her story to shine light on the struggles and obstacles that have come to define her growth and ambitions toward building her future.

Bretz began her academic journey by taking independence head-on, doing anything and everything she could to find her footing in an unknown environment.

“I ran with a lot of the things I knew from high school,” Bretz said. “I was involved in leadership in high school, so I did the Tercero leadership council in the dorms area. That was really cool because I knew how to plan events and I wanted to meet people in my housing area, so I got to meet a lot of them, and I still am friends with them now.”

While maneuvering through the various organizations offered on campus, Bretz recalls feeling anxious about joining clubs and being part of something so unfamiliar, but later finding a core group that alleviated the stresses of academics.

“I heard about lots of different clubs, like the hiking club and the astronomy club,” Bretz said. “One of my friends told me about that and I said, ‘That sounds weird, I don’t wanna go to that.’ But they dragged me along and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the coolest thing ever, I need to come here all the time now!’”

Pushing out of a comfort zone may not always be at the top of the agenda, but for Bretz, this was a necessary step to becoming more independent and finding comfort within herself to embrace the changes she would eventually face. Entering her first year, initially as a biomedical engineering major only, her early course loads were dense. But the real wake-up call came when Bretz entered her sophomore year.

“That’s when all the classes started to get a little bit harder,” Bretz said. “Classes my freshman year were familiar because I had taken similar content in high school. Sophomore year was like, ‘Whoa, this stuff is all new.’ In high school, I was so used to getting good grades, but in college, you can’t always do that.”

The challenges led Bretz to question her choice of study and doubt her ability to succeed in her engineering courses in the same way she did her freshman year.

“I started contemplating about switching majors,” Bretz said. “I had taken some art history classes and I thought about minoring in it, but I also thought about majoring in that instead of biomedical engineering. It was a mind exercise for me to get over the hurdle of not necessarily being the best or comparing myself to everyone else and saying, ‘They’re getting it, why am I not getting it?’”

Bretz strongly believes that students should take pride in their own personal abilities and avoid the dangers of constantly comparing yourself to others around you that may have greater experience with material and courses. She had to realize that everyone is in different situations, so a C+ grade in one class may be different from the A+ that can be achieved in another.

“My housemate has a quote on her desk that says ‘comparison is the thief of joy,’” Bretz said. “Everyone has different experiences, but that doesn’t mean you can’t perform well. You’re always going to do the best you can no matter what. You have to be okay with those students giving a perfect answer in class. It just means they have more experience, and that’s not something you can control.”

During the spring of her sophomore year, Bretz took a course specific to biomedical engineering students which serves as a prerequisite for entry into upper-division courses. Bretz described the significance of the class, explaining that if students fail the course, they either switch to a new major or wait another year to take the course again.

“I didn’t pass the course, so that was another obstacle that made me rethink about staying in my major,” Bretz said. “I really had to analyze my whole life, in a way – I felt like I needed to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I had to step back and accept that these things happen to everyone; we’re all going through different stresses, but I needed to figure out what’s best for me. Things got easier after that, and I was happy I had my friends and my family to support me and tell me, ‘We love you still.’”

When initially faced with the idea of taking an extra year to complete her major, Bretz had the mindset of wanting to graduate on time, so having that goal out of reach was a hard reality to accept. She soon began to find comfort knowing that the decision was best for her moving forward, despite some of the circumstances surrounding her decision.

“It’s interesting because, being a fourth-year, a lot of my friends are graduating,” Bretz said. “I feel like it’s going to be interesting trying to figure out where my new community is and who my people will be. One of my friends is also a fifth-year, so I’ve been talking to her a lot and learning how she’s been thriving.”

Bretz remains fearlessly optimistic and views her fifth year as her grand finale at a campus she thoroughly enjoys.

“It’s your victory lap, you want to make it a good thing; you don’t want to be sad about staying,” Bretz said. “I have a lot of people who I still feel comfortable with on campus, and that still makes me feel welcome and like I’m part of the community here. I’m looking forward to it, it’s definitely not something to be upset or sad about.”

Bretz has seen her fair share of setbacks, and she admits that it’s still challenging trying to figure out the best way to handle those situations. Rather than trying to limit these challenges, Bretz finds that taking on more units and having greater responsibilities actually helps her become a stronger individual and put to practice the skills she wants to attain through hard work and staying consistent.

“Freshman year, my roommate had a lot of free time and only took three classes as opposed to the four classes I was taking,” Bretz said. “She wasn’t as diligent, but sophomore year, she realized she wanted to get involved more and was worried about the possible stress, but because she had all those responsibilities, she managed her time much better. I took a page out of her book and realized that, although I have a lot more going on, I can become a lot more organized.”

The natural trade-off that emerges from taking on greater course loads is that free time becomes thinner, forcing students to rethink their priorities and make decisions that are best for their goals. Bretz acknowledged that this was something that became a staple of her journey as she progressed, but she stressed the importance of making time for those important to her and setting out to study with friends or grab food together, any activity that could lend them time to spend with each other.

As Bretz continues along her journey and prepares to take on her fifth year, she is content with the progress she has made and looks ahead to the many opportunities that await her.

“Try not to be freaked out by all the possibilities out there and all the stresses that happen from day-to-day,” Bretz said. “Surround yourself with friends who will tell you you’re awesome and great and will have dance parties with you. Everything will be okay.”

Written by: Vincent Sanchez – features@theaggie.org