July 15, 2012

The Greatest Lesson of All

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In case you’re fretting about your freshman year, here’s a shred of truth to comfort you about college: That sinking fear of being plucked from the comforts of your bedroom and abandoned in the middle of nowhere in a sea of strangers? It’s all kabuki theater.

College, the supposed transition from childhood to adulthood, has become another extension of our childhood. We were told by our teachers and parents that we would soon have to make and live with our own decisions. We were told that we would finally be our own man.

But that metamorphosis won’t happen. From when you first step foot on campus until you walk down that path wearing your cap and gown four years later, you will constantly be advised, directed, asked, designated, mandated, assigned, referred and suggested from everybody and nobody around you.

When you first drive onto campus with your car packed to the brim with your belongings, there will be signs telling you where to park and unload.

After you’ve settled into your dorm, the resident adviser will give you another set of life rules to abide by — when you should go to sleep, how often you should exercise, how to make friends, how to study, how to make the best of your college experience.

And before long will come the flood of advisers, mentors and the counselors, so many you can hardly keep track of their names. You’ll get a student adviser, a faculty adviser and maybe even a big from a sorority or fraternity. They’ll tell you what worked for them and what didn’t and will tell you to follow in their paths.

Soon enough, your four years have been planned out according to the experiences of others before you have even finished your first.

Perhaps it’s from fear of lawsuits or maybe it’s just a fact of growing up in an era overshadowed by September 11. Whatever the cause, our generation is being told what to do and when to do it more than ever. Worst of all, we sheepishly do what others tell us.

And so you’ll find yourself four years later proudly holding an Ivy League degree, yet with still no idea on how to live according to yourself and by your own judgments. Without realizing it, you’re ready to chase a life that has been already been lived by others.

Too often we forget that one of the greatest lessons that you can learn from college is gaining the courage to take risks and live with the consequences. Too bad that lesson is slowly being wiped away from the unwritten curriculum.

Yet it’s important that you freshman learn this lesson on your own. It’s one that will eventually prove to be more important than that introductory organic chemistry class because people will never stop giving you orders and whether you choose to accept or refuse will be a constant decision.

Even after you graduate and move far away, you’ll still be faced by demands from your employers, supervisors, friends, parents and relatives. They will tell you to get a job, to get married or to go to graduate school. Play it safe, they’ll tell you. Be financially secure, live a comfortable life and start saving for your retirement. Once you get to that point, you’re successful — in their eyes at least.

More terrifying, following orders has only become easier. Take a quick glance at the world today and you realize that though technology has eased our lives, it has also numbed it. We have somehow whittled away the need to direct our futures. We don’t make decisions on our own anymore, as if we don’t trust ourselves.

When you’re on your way to work in the morning, you’ll listen to music. But chances are you probably let a program choose the station for you instead.

When you check your email, Google will feature ads telling you to use services or buy products tailored to your liking based on keywords in your inbox.

Even a task as simple as choosing a place to eat has been crowd-sourced to phone applications like Yelp or Groupon. After all, a restaurant isn’t worthwhile unless a machine brands it so.

Somehow without even realizing, we have let ourselves be funneled into little customized worlds by the people and things around us.

Fortunately for us, the solution is college, or at least the college that once was. It was sanctuary where risks were encouraged, not denounced. It was once the four years of your life that were intended to stretch your comfort zone and give you a taste of a world that you would have never otherwise tasted.

So be prepared, freshman. Soon there will be a slew of people who think they know what is best for you and tell you otherwise. But don’t listen to them. Not your professors, not your parents, not your friends, not your computer or your cell phone.

All you need is to just listen to yourself.

Steven Zhang ’12 graduated this May from the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at szhang@cornellsun.com. The Bigger Picture appeared alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Steven Zhang