I moved from high school to college without much thought. In order to ensure a place at university, I completed every task that was placed in front of me by school counselors. I studied for exams, participated in sports and clubs, earned passable grades and applied for scholarships.
All of this was completed without any thought.
I had seen many of my friends take similar paths. Many I saw expressed their belief that entering into a high performing university would be the solution to everything. It would be the solution to problems they hadn’t experienced or considered. If they were pressed, I would be surprised if they could define any one problem that university would fix. I found this strange, and criticized them for their competitive nature, but moved on, still without thought, on my similar path.
Other friends went through school with little interest, but I noticed that they moved with great thought. They would tell me that they saw no point in going to college. Their parents were working class, and they too would be working class. Why delay the unavoidable? They were not born to be doctors or lawyers. More than accepting their place as the as the working class, they found value as future blue-collar workers.
I would often voice my concern for their future, but deeply, I understood their view. I found a bizarre situation when thinking of this group of friends; they were regularly critiqued by teachers and faculty and labeled the “underperforming;” however, the students who had no plan beyond university, were praised with certificates and favoritism from the staff. The students who actually did what students are instructed to do– think critically– received nothing.
My thoughtful friends were kept as a kernel in my brain. What may be labeled as cynicism (but I suppose would be better considered critical through) would interrogate every thoughtless action I took. It questioned every step that was taken only for my own gain. It forced me, to consider what I was doing. I tried ignoring this nagging part of my brain until I finally came to university.
I arrived at the University of Denver with a nice scholarship and experience in academics. I knew how to close read a novel and write an analysis, I could study for a biology exam and I could excel in a foreign language with only superficial understanding. Registering for a first-year student seminar, as is required, I chose that which sounded most interesting: a course on the decline of civilizations. I thought of lectures on the decline of Rome and Edward Gibbon, or the end of the modern era in 1945 or even a look into how our own society will fall. However, when I entered class on the first day, I was met with surprise by the professor’s introduction.
In this first class, our first assignment was given to us: we were to justify our decision to attend university.
When introduced to this topic, I found myself at a loss for any way to respond. How was I to consider something that I had done without thought? I silently listened to students talk of their experiences.
Now, only one student’s response remains in my mind. I recall someone saying that he had given himself two choices: either earning his MBA or taking a year-long break to ski. Clearly he chose the former, but, though I made the same decision I hadn’t even given myself two options. It was university or my life was over.
I moved through the first few weeks of this course with some anxiety. Finding an answer to this question began to overwhelm me. I could either apply thought to creating a response for our first assignment or do as had always done. Of course, humans are creatures of habit. This is to say, I chose not to apply much thought to the essay.
I think, now, of what I could have written. In hindsight, I could have said that I was simply appeasing the ambitions of my father, who was desperate for me not to follow the traditional family line as a tool salesman. I could have spoken of the pressure that is placed on high school students, who are often told that the only way to make anything of oneself in the world is to attend a four-year college and find some lucrative career. Maybe I would have written about all the paths that are laid not by an individual’s ambitions but the ambitions that they have been given. Sometimes I think I may have even said that I chose to attend university because I wasn’t thinking: at least it would have been honest.
Instead, I chose to write that university is an opportunity to find oneself. It’s a chance to discover what our ambitions are. It’s for mind expansion. All hackneyed stuff– common, uninteresting, unimportant, unchallenging, banal. I wrote this first assignment as I had written almost everything in my school life, without thinking and pandering to what I assumed the reader would like to hear. But what does this produce? My essay was marked eight out of ten. Eighty percent. A “B minus:” A deservedly unremarkable score for an essay produced without thought.
I can’t say that an average grade affected me very much, but I was affected by an odd feeling of dissatisfaction. I couldn’t say where this discontent was coming from at the time and I was certainly deficient in any ability for self-analysis. Through the rest of my first semester I tried to force the realization that college was not for me. I thought often about quitting. My working friends from high school would welcome me into their lifestyles and I would become a welder or a mechanic, but I knew this would be a hollow fix.
My solution came suddenly during a conversation with my academic advisor. He asked me, “what interests you?” It seems a likely question, but I had never considered it before. I had been overwhelmed by what I assumed were the ambitions of others when I should have placed my interests first.
This question immediately changed my attitude by forcing me to consider what it was that I wanted to study. The ability to think critically came from studying subjects that made me want to think. When I stopped imposing outside influences on myself, I broke my automatization and found a place at university for myself.
College has never been easy, but when you are learning what you want to learn, it is never work. It is our responsibility as students to find what interests us. When we do, the rewards come naturally.