Finishing up my math major. Alaskan summer. Four months in South America. My 2023 in review.
For the first time in five years — since 2018, when I graduated high school and entered college at Michigan — I was a full-time student for the entire calendar year. So for me, 2023 was mainly defined by a renewed focus on school (although not entirely in Los Angeles).
I spent most of the first half of the year, from January to mid-June, on campus at UCLA rounding out the core of my math major, finishing the undergraduate analysis and abstract algebra sequences: hard work, but rewarding. The second half of the year, from mid-June onwards, was a bit of a return to old ways: I started the summer in San Francisco working for a blockchain company, then spent three weeks backpacking in Alaska. Nonetheless, I was back in school in early August (albeit in Argentina) where I began a four-month UC study abroad program. I had an amazing time abroad, sojourning all over South America — my first time outside of the United States in at least six years — before finally returning stateside in late December, flying back to Philadelphia to spend the holidays with family.
2023 was a year full of learning: solidifying my understanding of the undergraduate math curriculum and spending over a third of the year immersing myself in another culture abroad. In fact, looking back on it, 2023 might end up being my all-time academic1
(yes, I did actually have to do some work during my study abroad program — my impression is that it’s more so the programs in Europe that are vacations for college credit)× Close
peak, especially as I reorient myself towards more professionally-oriented pursuits in 2024 and beyond. I’m excited to make the most of my last few months as a student (the plan is to graduate in June) while I begin to think more intentionally about what’s next.
As has been my tradition, I spent the winter holidays in my childhood hometown in Pennsylvania before beginning my journey back to California in early January. Along the way, I made a brief stop in Ann Arbor to visit Ishaan, a friend in the class of 20232
Ann Arbor is a wonderful college town and I always enjoy stopping by, but I imagine this might be my last visit for a while — most of the people I knew there have now graduated (and for the most part, have moved to the coasts).× Close
, before landing in Los Angeles in time for the first day of class.
At UCLA, I continued with the undergraduate analysis and algebra sequences, taking the second courses (out of three total) in each sequence. For my third class, I took “Engaging Los Angeles,” a class about social issues in LA, which was a welcome change of pace from math: our first assignment was to take a city bus to the historic core of Los Angeles, Olvera Street (which I’d never been to before), and report on our observations3
If you get the chance to visit Olvera Street, stop by Cielito Lindo! It was cold and rainy when we went and their taquitos and champurrado hit the spot — exactly what we needed to get warmed back up on an LA winter’s day.× Close
I was mainly occupied with school during the quarter, so most of my weekends were spent close to campus. I enjoyed visiting the Joan Didion exhibit at the Hammer Museum — it felt like a uniquely Californian cultural experience — and took a day trip with some friends to San Clemente on Rosa Parks Day in February (since the trains were free4
Our train was hours late in both directions, so it wasn’t exactly the greatest advertisement for Metrolink, but I guess we got what we paid for.× Close
), where we enjoyed the pier and the sunset over the Pacific. The furthest I got from campus was over President’s Day weekend: I took a bus5
The overland route from LA to SF never ceases to amaze me: driving out of the San Fernando Valley through Santa Clarita and watching the water flow out of the Los Angeles Aqueduct; the long ascent up Grapevine Pass over the Tehachapi Mountains; barreling down the 5 for hours through the flat agricultural expanse of the Central Valley; then up and over another mountain pass to descend into Silicon Valley.It gives one a visceral sense of the immense scale of California and the monumental engineering effort that went into making the state a cohesive whole — culturally, socially, economically, etc. — in a way that flying simply cannot. It’s amazing!× Close
After winter quarter ended, I went to Vegas7
After a successful sleepover at LAX last August before an early-morning flight to New York, I figured I could do it again for my 6am flight to Vegas.Unfortunately, unlike the quiet, dark connector hallway between Terminals 6 and 7 recommended by sleepinginairports.com, the Southwest Terminal is fully lit and had announcements going all night. Long story short, I did not get much sleep!× Close
to meet my parents, who’d flown out from Philly for my spring break. We mostly explored the nature around the city — Red Rock Canyon, Death Valley, and the Hoover Dam/Lake Mead area — before heading back to LA together to check out the wonderful California poppy superbloom. Back at UCLA, a friend from high school, Arslan, also stopped by to visit during the first week of spring quarter and we snuck in a weekday8
We left on a Wednesday evening, drove four hours up to Bishop, stayed the night in a Motel 6, then drove another half hour north to Mammoth Lakes early the next morning to rent skis in town before hitting the slopes shortly after opening.After six or so hours on the mountain, we began our drive back in the early afternoon and were back at UCLA by the evening, completely wiped. A Mammoth day trip from LA is definitely doable but a weekend might’ve been less exhausting!× Close
In terms of classes, I enrolled in the last algebra and analysis classes of the undergraduate sequences this quarter: field/Galois theory and complex analysis, respectively. Complex analysis was cool — something I mentioned I was looking forward to in last year’s review — but for me, honestly turned out to be overhyped10
, and I found field and Galois theory to be more interesting. Nonetheless, having gotten through all these classes, it does feel like I’m starting to scratch the surface of something truly interesting — concepts are starting to connect11
very beautifully across my math classes — although at the same time, I get the sense that I still have a long, long way to go to be genuinely doing modern mathematics. In any case, finishing the undergraduate pure math sequences with a relatively solid understanding of everything has definitely shaped my perspective on the world, made me a more rigorous thinker, and I think has also given me the intellectual confidence that I can figure out anything I put my mind to12
It reminds me of a friend’s description of why he lifts — he says it’s not so much that lifting makes him look better, which in turn impresses other people; but more so that it makes him more confident, which is what actually impresses other people.In a similar vein, doing math — while sure, it’s helping me get better at doing math — is also about gaining the confidence to be able to tackle any sort of complex idea.× Close
In spring quarter, I also started doing homework together more regularly with a group of people from my math classes, and we kicked off an informal tradition of meeting on weekends to work for a few hours, then doing a nearby hike. We hit a bunch of spots — the Hollywood Sign, the Backbone Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains, Runyon Canyon, etc. — and it was a fun way to unwind after spending some time working through our problem sets.
Outside of school, I traveled a bit more during spring quarter. I used to have a pretty hard rule to never skip class, but for better or worse I’ve started to become more lenient on it, at least when I can justify it13
. In April, I took a weekend trip to Morro Bay, and in May, I spent a few days in New York City14
I skipped class on Thursday and Friday, and on the way back the next Monday took an early-morning flight which got me to UCLA about 25 minutes late to my 11am complex analysis lecture.It was the first time I ever flew Spirit (I packed everything I needed for the weekend in a backpack), and I was for the most part satisfied, although the plane was a bit shakier than what I was used to.× Close
That feeling of immense relief after having completed all of my exams at the end of spring quarter — I hadn’t felt that in a while. For the first time since my last winter semester at Michigan in 2019, I felt a deep appreciation for the freedom of the summer in a way that I hadn’t really been able to during my time out of school.
The summer was a bit of a return to old ways. I cleaned out my apartment in Los Angeles and headed up to San Francisco, where I worked for a blockchain startup, Caldera. Between wrangling React and TypeScript, I explored more of my favorite city in the world, tried out Cruise’s driverless taxis, and attended various poker nights where I usually lost money but (hopefully) gained some valuable experience15
In late June, I headed to Alaska to visit a friend from high school, David, for a few weeks during his summer block leave; he’d joined ROTC in college and had been stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage after graduating. We did a bunch of backpacking, saw Denali16
(albeit from afar), and I enjoyed his local’s perspective on Anchorage — it felt like I was getting the inside scoop, especially since the high tourist season was exactly when I was there.
After Alaska, I headed back to the Bay for a few more weeks to continue working with Caldera. Then, in late July, I hopped over to the East Coast to visit family before flying down to Argentina for study abroad. Unfortunately, due to the dates of the program, I was unable to attend my high school cross country team’s alumni meet for the first17
(besides the 2020 COVID cancellation)× Close
time since graduating, although I hope to make it up this coming year.
I landed in Buenos Aires on the morning of August 11th. It was overwhelming for sure, at least initially — that feeling of being in an unknown place, not really knowing the culture or language, with no friends nearby. It sort of reminded me of how I felt when I first moved to San Francisco in 201918
Sure, it was just San Francisco, but at the time — as a 19-year-old suburban kid fresh out of his first year of college — it felt foreign to me (especially the Mission District).× Close
. The study abroad coordinators kept reminding us to be vigilant about our cell phones and I wasn’t sure whether it was safe to leave the hotel alone.
In any case, though, like everywhere else, I got used to it. Five years since my last Spanish class, it started coming back in bits and pieces. I learned that my pronunciation was terrible19
A big thank you to all of the native speakers in the program who helped me sort out my Rs (still working on the rolling though).× Close
Most of whom were humanities majors, which was also sort of foreign to me (but we learned how to talk to each other!).× Close
in the program — folks from UCSD, UCLA, UCSB, Berkeley, and Davis — and it felt like freshman year all over again. We visited memorial sites and learned about the history of the country together. I took a weekend trip to Iguazú Falls, got passport stamps from Paraguay and Brazil, and learned that Portuguese is much more different from Spanish than I thought. I went to a local crypto conference, exchanged some USDT for a thick stack of pesos with one of the guys on Calle Florida, and enjoyed the purchasing power of the dollar at various fine dining establishments. Altogether, I slowly but surely settled into life in Argentina.
After two months in Buenos Aires, the second half of the study abroad program was to take place in Santiago, Chile. We were responsible for our own transportation, so I decided to make the trek overland with a few other brave souls from the program. We took a 15-hour overnight bus21
Honestly, it wasn’t bad at all. The bus left Buenos Aires at 10pm and we’d booked the full-recline seats, so I fell asleep pretty quickly and woke up the next morning shortly before arrival in Mendoza.× Close
to Mendoza, a city in the Andean foothills, where we stayed for two nights before taking another bus up and over the Paso Los Libertadores border crossing — 10,400 feet above sea level through beautiful snow-capped mountain landscapes — back down into Chile.
Santiago was a nice change of pace from Buenos Aires. It was exciting to be closer to mountains and local hiking trails, and my homestay was in a quieter residential area, away from the city center. Overall, Santiago was more geographically interesting than Buenos Aires, with various hills interspersed between city blocks and spectacular 360-degree views of the entire cityscape at their summits.
Outside of the city, we22
One of my favorite parts of studying abroad was that people were so open to taking random weekend trips to places.I’m always going to SF solo when I’m in LA, some of y’all should come with next time!× Close
visited Valparaíso, a colorful town on the Pacific Coast23
If you ever find yourself in Valparaíso, make sure to visit Pablo Neruda’s beautiful hillside home. Looking out the windows, down to the sea, it almost feels like San Francisco.× Close
In the last week of the program, at the end of November, my family came down to visit me in Santiago; we traveled back to Buenos Aires together once classes ended. The wide, tree-lined porteño boulevards were magnificent in the late spring sun; blooming jacarandas blanketed the sidewalks with delicate purple confetti. While Buenos Aires had always been beautiful, now, it was stunning.
After a week of taking various walking tours around the city, my parents switched places in the hotel room with a couple of friends from high school — Sam and Alex — who’d come down to visit on the day my parents were flying back to the States. We kicked off our South American adventure with a steak lunch at a nearby parrilla, and over the next four days, we did a whirlwind tour of Buenos Aires: walking Avenida de Mayo, checking out the Obelisco, riding the train to Tigre and taking a boat tour, watching tango at a milonga, running through the Palermo parks and seeing the ducks and geese, shopping at the San Telmo street fair, and touring La Boca, Barrio Chino, and the Recoleta Cemetery25
For the most part, I just attempted to remember and repeat what the tour guides on the walking tours I did with my parents said.Do the tour once and remember it and you never have to pay for it again!× Close
Next, we hopped south to Argentinian Patagonia, to a small city called El Calafate. I successfully convinced Sam and Alex to try to hitchhike to the Perito Moreno Glacier, the area’s main attraction, and it only took us about 20 minutes26
I promised them if we were still waiting after an hour, I’d cough up the $30 for the bus. Thank you Horacio for the ride!× Close
standing with our thumbs out on the main road out of town before we got picked up by a friendly man visiting from Comodoro — the capital of Argentinian petroleum, 600 miles to the northeast — who kindly allowed us to join him on the fifty-mile drive to the glacier. We spent the afternoon with him admiring the amazing wall of ice before hitching a ride with him back to El Calafate as well.
The next morning, we took a bus over the border to Puerto Natales, Chile and then connected with a second bus to Torres del Paine National Park, where we began the W Trek.
The W Trek was spectacular. We got super lucky with the weather and had two days of clear blue skies; the pristine snow on the mountains looked like a layer of vanilla icing, gorgeously complementing the brilliant turquoise waters of the lake.
After finishing the W Trek27
One thing that surprised me was how developed the trek was — at each campsite we stayed at, there was a full restaurant with showers, charging ports, water, etc. — I’d expected it to be more rustic and backcountry. That being said, we were thankful for the warm shower we were able to take every night.× Close
, we returned to Puerto Natales and then flew up to Santiago. Sam went back to Boston while Alex and I continued onto Ecuador28
Flights to Ecuador were actually really expensive and the only nonstop from Santiago to Guayaquil arrived at 2am, so instead, we first flew to Tumbes, Peru, a small town near the Ecuadorean border, with the intention of crossing over to Ecuador on land.I wasn’t exactly sure what the cross-border transportation situation was, though, so I decided to ask our airplane seatmate for tips. Amazingly, he offered to personally guide us across and even took us to a local cevicheria he liked beforehand for lunch. Thank you Juan Jose!Once in Ecuador, in the border town of Huaquillas, we caught a bus to Guayaquil to meet Alberto.× Close
to visit Alberto, a friend from Neo I’d met in San Francisco, who happened to be in Guayaquil spending time with family. We spent a few days at his family’s beach house in Olón, on the Pacific coast, and it was absolutely amazing: the backyard walked right onto the beach, and every day we would eat local mangoes and plantains and fresh seafood from the nearby fish market. The waves crashed, the tide ebbed and flowed, the sun set over the sea, and we watched contentedly from the back patio.
I finally left Ecuador on December 20th, flying out of Guayaquil and ending the adventure with a 20-hour layover in Miami29
A fitting transition city; as I was walking down Biscayne some guy on the street asked me if I spoke English (the implication being that I only spoke Spanish?)× Close
— my last Latin American city after 4.5 months abroad — where I connected with a flight to Philadelphia to meet my family for the holidays.
Before 2023, I’d only ever spent one full academic year in college: 2018–19 at the University of Michigan. After spending two years out of school traveling and working in tech, I made the decision to go back. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for, but I just had a feeling that there was something worthwhile in it — in the “college experience” — that I should find before I got too old for it. In 2023, I think I got a little closer to figuring out what it was.
Part of my decision to go back to school was this sense that I now had more freedom in how I approached college, with less pre-professional intent and more learning for the sake of learning30
(and maybe more fun, too)× Close
. I returned to school with the idea that I could study whatever I wanted, because I didn’t have to worry about looking for a job — I’d already proven that I had the vocational (specifically, coding) skills to be successful in the workforce.
In the first half of the year, this manifested as a deep focus on learning math — I spent six months (nine months if you include Fall Quarter 2022) essentially in monk mode, taking the honors pure math classes, engaging intentionally in the coursework, and (thankfully, luckily?) doing relatively well31
(and being very impressed by some of my extremely smart classmates)× Close
. I had a clear reason to be at UCLA, and as a result I avoided some of the fear-of-missing-out I might’ve faced as a more traditional, non-gap-year student. I didn’t need to be out every night or go to every single event or be friends with everybody because that wasn’t necessarily what I was back in school to do32
(although in a different context, these are all valuable parts of a “college experience,” too)× Close
. In all honesty, doing mathematics at times felt almost religious, like I had a divine mission to complete.
In the second half of the year, I realized this idea in a different sort of way, as a four-month study abroad program on a continent which spoke a language I hadn’t studied in years. To be honest, I originally signed up just because I was mostly done with my major and it sounded interesting and fun, but in retrospect, studying abroad — although I didn’t realize it at first — feels just as crucial to my college experience as learning math does. Perhaps admitting the depth of my ignorance here, I genuinely didn’t know how much more there was to the world outside of the United States33
I always thought it was crazy that people would take international trips to far-off places around the world when in the U.S. we have Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Big Sur, the Rockies, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Denver, Miami, etc. — these amazing natural wonders, economic and intellectual centers, and rich cultural capitals all in our own backyard.To be fair, I still think many people who take these international trips would be well-served by becoming more familiar with our amazing domestic travel destinations, but I admit that I’m increasingly seeing the appeal of international travel.× Close
, and how much there was for me to see and learn by getting out of my home country. It was also an amazing opportunity to meet new people and make genuine connections — an opportunity whose rarity I am beginning to appreciate as I get older and people’s social networks calcify34
. Reflecting upon it now, I think my time in college would’ve been woefully incomplete without having gone to South America. The funny thing, though, is that I had absolutely no idea it would end up being such an important experience.
But I think that’s why I went back to school. And through all this, I’ve realized that perhaps what I was looking for — even if I couldn’t articulate it initially — was simply the opportunity to experience things that would broaden my perspective and get me out of my comfort zone; things that would teach me by surprising me35
Study abroad is a pretty apt example of this, but math fits the bill here too. It’s definitely out of my intellectual comfort zone at times (I wasn’t a very good math student at Michigan), and I sometimes surprise myself with my ability to figure things out that at first seem completely inscrutable (usually I just have to think about it some more).× Close
With that, after a year of mathematics and a semester of study abroad, it’s starting to feel like I’ve mostly gotten what I wanted out of my sojourn back to school36
There’s another question (for another time) of whether it was necessary for me to go back to college to get these experiences; whether things like learning math and studying abroad are even the best way broaden my perspective, get out of my comfort zone, surprise me, etc. I’m not sure, but for what it’s worth, I think school has done a pretty good job of it so far.× Close
. There are a few things left here and there that I hope to get out of my few months as a student in 202437
I’ve joked about tacking on an extra minor I don’t intend to complete or leaving one degree requirement undone so I don’t graduate, because it feels so permanent — once I get that diploma, I’ll never be a college student again (and won’t be eligible for any more education discounts!).On a more serious note, I’ve heard of some essentially all-but-bachelor’s-degree startup founders who purposely did this to stay eligible for stuff like the Thiel Fellowship, etc.× Close
, but I’m also excited to change things up a bit.
This whole discussion reminds me of an idea of Sam Altman’s:
Do new things often. This seems to be really important. Not only does doing new things seem to slow down the perception of time, increase happiness, and keep life interesting, but it seems to prevent people from calcifying in the ways that they think. Aim to do something big, new, and risky every year in your personal and professional life.
To a certain extent, this idea could describe the past five years of my life. In 2019, the “big, new, and risky” thing was leaving college and moving to San Francisco to join a startup as employee #1. In 2020, it was living in Montana for six weeks and leaving that first startup job. In 2021, it was interning in New York City and deciding to go back to school at UCLA. In 2022, it was working full-time in crypto and hiking 1,700 miles through the California wilderness. In 2023, it was doubling down on learning math and studying abroad in South America for four months.
We’ll see what 2024 brings. In terms of post-graduation plans, I’m now thinking much more intentionally about entrepreneurship: ideation, talking with potential cofounders, etc. is all on a secondary thread as I finish up the last few requirements for my degree. I’m also hoping to have more conversations with older and more experienced folks about diving into entrepreneurship vs. working a little bit first. Lots of stuff is up in the air, and I truly have no idea what I’ll be up to in the second half of the year. All I can say is it will be something big, new, and risky.
Updates sent once or twice per year.
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