If asked where you see yourself in five years, what do you think of? Does graduate school come to mind, pursuing academic scholarship? Do you see yourself sitting at a desk, writing reports and filing documents, all with the hopeful expectation of growing within the working world? Maybe you’re not even in the United States—maybe you are off in a foreign country exploring, volunteering or a combination of both. But wherever you see yourself, are you happy? Is your college experience leading you to a life of bliss?
“Well, of course I’m happy,” you respond. “I’ve got it all—the supportive family, friends, straight As, five internships and 10 clubs. What more is there?” Of course, having it all is not the same as being happy, but there’s a tendency in college environments to equate them as being the same: more accolades means more happiness. But, as my final thought to you, I’m asking you to challenge that assumption whether you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior by contemplating the reasons why you attend college. Because my parents told me to, because that’s what I’m supposed to do, because it’s the only way I can get a job?
To be fair, I’ll also answer this question to level the playing ground: I attended college because it was what people did to achieve anything for themselves. I did the time, got the grades, but even that wasn’t enough–I wasn’t part of 10 clubs, I didn’t have five internships or more friends than I could count, and I certainly didn’t have a schedule so jam-packed it would be impossible to breathe. I couldn’t avoid the feeling of not doing that meant I wasn’t as smart or ambitious or talented, because that standard is what we students work ourselves into: this mad frenzy of doing that is so opposite of living. I include myself in this, but how students conceptualize the purpose of college as getting straight As, graduating with 50 cords around their necks and obtaining a Fortune 500 career diverges drastically from what the original purpose of attending college was, learning to increase one’s understanding and to expand one’s mind for personal enlightenment and growth. Now, the expectations of and emphasis on practicality prevent leaning for the sake of learning.
Which leads me back to my point of being happy. As a senior, it took me four years to realize that following scripts and doing what others expected of me was no way to lead a happy, fulfilled life—one of meaning and purpose. In some ways, CNU breaks this assumption by maintaining small class sizes and focusing on the individual student, rather than mass producing educational standards. The liberal learning core curriculum provides a great opportunity for students to explore different interests, disciplines, and perspectives. The professors I’ve been privileged to learn from here have fostered thoughtful debate and different points of view that really made me think outside my own ways of thinking. But even so, we can’t change assumptions unless we first change ourselves.
To be happy with what I wanted to do—travel and join an AmeriCorps program—I had to stop buying into the status quo that demanded my intense involvement in every single campus activity and organization. I had to stop pleasing everyone else and only worry about pleasing myself—and being myself. (Still waters run deep, as they say.) And although I still encounter people who would gladly remind me how much they are doing and how much I am not, finding validation in myself and not others’ opinions has been the happiest, most blissful part of attending college. And it can be for you, too!
I’m finding it hard to come up with a conclusion to this post, because it is a never-ending learning process. Sometimes I think it’s better to leave things partially open, never closing the door all the way. So in the spirit of partial-closure, I guess I’ll end by sharing with you an old teacher’s favorite quote by Maya Angelou: “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” Wherever you end up, make sure to savor every single moment and never take anything for granted. And more importantly, make sure that you are happy.
And with that, it’s been real, CNU! See you at commencement!