At about this time every year, people are starting to become fixated on college commencement speeches. There’s a particular fascination for what the famous, successful, or powerful have to say to all of these young people on the cusp of being thrown out into the big, bad world.
I, however, see these speeches as a dramatic waste of opportunity. These are students who are already fairly well formed, having had a myriad of experiences in four years in the American higher education system. There is a whole group of people going unguided, their limitless potential and promise going unrecognized. That group of people is comprised of those just beginning their college experience either about to start, or having just finished their freshman year.
In this vein, I would like to offer my own speech of sorts, one designed provide to my younger brethren with a signpost for what I believe to be a full and happy college experience. It would look a little something like this:
Good morning everyone, and welcome to your orientation. No, I’m not talking about your freshman orientation, but rather what is widely regarded as your orientation to the world at large. The college experience, far from being a simple academic affair, is going to test you in more ways that you thought possible. Indeed, it is going to make you the person that you never knew you could be.
This isn’t to say that we’re going to do all of the work. No, the college experience is only going to help those who know how to help themselves. It may be that you can’t do that yet, and that is part of the learning process. There is so much to do in this world, and it would be a mortal sin to let it all pass you by.
Before I spend too much time waxing philosophical and sentimental about the college experience, let me get right down to it.
Do something that you find yourself invested in and that interests you. There’s this perception that not all majors are created equal, however, the truth of the matter is that a major is only what you make it. It matters what you want to get out of it, and thus what you are able to apply it to. If you can put your heart into it, it’s infinitely better than slogging through a math major simply because you think it might be more “useful”.
Similarly, don’t fret about the grades, good or bad. Life is about more than just numbers, and that final GPA is not an assessment of value. Knowledge is not something that can be numerically quantified, and that 52% you might get on an organic chemistry exam doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t understand organic chemistry. Take the tests, but understand that these tests are checkpoints, and not finish lines.
Try everything that you can. Don’t pigeonhole yourself into one single major or field of study. A holistic understanding of the world doesn’t just come from a study of physics, but from an incorporation of many different fields of study. Take classes in English if they interest you, even if you’re a biochemistry major. Spend time studying a language. Learn all that you can. Be curious, and do something that makes you a little nervous. Don’t worry what people say about you.
Go abroad, and immerse yourself in another culture, even if it’s just “across the pond”. So many people fall into the fallacious notion that they’ll be able to travel once they finish college, but the simple truth is that you won’t be able to replicate the semester that many spend abroad. It’s more than just traveling, it’s starting fresh in a completely different country. It’s adapting when life demands adaptation. It’s throwing yourself on the mercy of the world, and showing it that you won’t be crushed under the pressure.
Don’t be afraid if you have no inkling of what you want to do with your life. Most people come into the college experience knowing exactly what they want to do when they graduate, and for some of them, they’re right. The majority, though end up figuring out that being a lawyer or a doctor isn’t really what they want to do. Maybe they figure out that they want to work in animal conservation, or write, or work in government. Maybe they figure out that a biology major or an English major isn’t representative of what they want from their life. It happens. Just roll with it.
Have fun. It needs no explication, but I’ll provide one anyway. Do that naked lap, go bridge jumping, learn to ski, write a controversial column for The Student, lead an AESOP, and participate in the puddle jump. Do these things at least once. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and just let the worries and cares go every once in a while. Four years of college life will go by at a glacial pace if you can’t find the little things to enjoy to fill in the gaps.
Then, there are the little details. Be nice to everyone. Don’t label yourself, and don’t label others. Read more than just your class textbooks. Learn how to iron, and learn how to cook. Take responsibility for your actions. Do the difficult things in life, because they are the things most worth doing. Discover yourself, because if there is one thing that everyone can get from a Bates College experience, it is a better understanding of what we are individually. What makes us tick, and what makes our lives whole, this is what education is about.
That’s what I wanted to say. This list is by no means exhaustive, but my point is that education is more than just learning what a Grignard reagent is, the meaning behind Northanger Abbey, how DNA replicates, or how gravitational potential energy works. Education is a combination of all of that, plus the experiences that we can’t plan for. The educational experiences that happen when we least expect them, and when we least want them are equally important.
As Mark Twain purportedly said, “Never let formal education get in the way of your learning.” Welcome to Bates College.