Smith: Four years to call your own


This is my last year at Case Western Reserve University. It has definitely gone by too fast. As a first-year student, the most common piece of advice that I received was to make sure that I took it all in, to be certain that I lived in every moment and truly embraced the experience of an undergraduate. If I’m going to be honest, I haven’t done any of that.

For me, the past three years have been experienced week-to-week. I was busy making sure that I was prepared for the next exam or checking and then frantically rechecking my belongings to confirm that I hadn’t locked myself out of my room.

Rounding the final turn to graduation, I’ve noticed that though I did not try to seize every single moment, I feel no regret for not getting the “full college experience”—and I’m not convinced that people even do.

We literally live at the same place we study. The campus was designed for community and interaction. Our friends are here. Our administrators live less than an hour away. It seems silly to advise students against the slim prospect of missing some of the college experience. With that logic, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to advise dog owners against the possibility of not knowing their own dog. The experiences that people are worried others might miss are nearly inevitable.

Personally, I’ve always felt the opposite. I have always wanted a bit of space, feeling at times that I was engorged in college life. At times, I wonder what it would be like if I had streamlined my college experience, avoiding the things that didn’t really matter. For me, being an undergraduate hasn’t been short and sweet. It’s been a slow and laborious learning endeavor that has occupied all facets of my life.

In my first year, I know that I adamantly avoided some real issues. School is challenging, expensive and cold, but soon you’ll realize what these sacrifices are for: constructing a better you. It’ll be difficult, but strive to only do the things that will reap happiness in either the short or long term. Preferably, you’ll achieve both, but don’t torture yourself with things that will not make you happy. Most importantly, don’t forfeit your happiness  for what others say is worth doing.

Joy, if appropriately achieved, is a stagnant state of being. Happiness comes in waves. And it can come from doing the same thing or, sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll find happiness in something you never thought you could. That’s when life gets really exciting.

Unfortunately, my happiness was delayed until I realized who my true friends were. They were in front of me the whole time, but their sound advice and impeccable kindness wasn’t what I wanted to hear after my first year. My disinterest allowed for careless blunders, unnecessary pain and uncomfortable circumstances. It took several moments of disappointment and regret for me to be convinced of their foresight.

Back when I rode my bike to class, I once started a conversation with the former Undergraduate Student Government President Chippy Kennedy as we retrieved our bikes from the rack outside Tomlinson Hall.

We introduced ourselves. He asked me what year I was in and I told him I was in my first year. Looking back, I’ve always considered that question to be a huge courtesy. I was conspicuously and glaringly, as they say, “fresh meat.” I was pre-glow up, exhausted, and constantly wearing a face that read: “I sincerely have no idea what I’m doing.” Yet, Kennedy set aside these qualities when we spoke.

We asked each other a few questions and as we were about to ride off, he said, “Do your best and work diligently. It only gets harder from here.” At the time, I didn’t completely grasp what he was saying, but it didn’t take long for me to understand.

Each year of college is designed to get progressively harder. Go to class. Build yourself a GPA cushion so resilient and lead-lined that it could withstand a nuclear blast. Everyone goes through “that” semester. Don’t corner yourself in a grade-point average Hail Mary when it comes time to graduate. You’ll want a bit of room for those numbers to shift. Hopefully, they’ll always go up, but that rarely happens. I believe in you, if that helps.     

At the very least, don’t be afraid of the undergraduate experience slipping away. You will be thrust into several situations and have plenty of stories to tell. I’d say sit back, cool off and really enjoy the ride.