Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Six Things I've Learned at College

In just twenty-one days, all of us "K" College seniors will become graduates. So, what has it been worth-- beyond the diploma (fingers crossed!)? Despite my frustrations at this un-round number, there are precisely six things that pop up as being the biggest "take-home" messages for me, and I will share them now.

6. Defining Success in Terms of Community. Cliche as it sounds, I came to "K" with a sense of individualism and hopes of "traveling the world." But in only my second term, that idea started to wear away as I read Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life by Robert Bellah et al. for my Intro to Sociology course. The authors conducted an extensive series of interviews concluding that a strong sense of individualism generally leads to the feeling of isolation and a lack of fulfillment. While Americans generally think of freedom as freedom from, we often fail to consider a definition of freedom as emerging from ties to community through which we can discover our true strengths and our roles in a society where we are dependent upon the labor and livelihood of one another. Early American leaders, like John Winthrop, embraced this idea, defining success as: “the creation of community in which a genuinely ethical and spiritual life could be lived.” Duty, he believed, does not make us less free, but is instead the mark of a free person.

5. "If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude. Don't complain." In the past 4 years, I've definitely come to take this piece of advice from Maya Angelou more seriously. It's fairly accurate to say I spent the better part of my four years at "K" complaining because I didn't like it here. I won't bore you with the details since many of you have heard them ad nauseam. I still see 100% where I was coming from with those complaints, but it was absolutely ridiculous for me to stick around and continue to complain about it. As the sort of person who liked to start what I finish, I hesitated to see the idea of transferring as anything more than a cop out or a lack of follow-through. Now, instead, I've started to believe that there is nothing wrong with changing one's mind.

(I should add that I now have Stockholm Syndrome and have actually started to--eek-- like it here.)

4. Truly Free Thought Requires Effort to Distance Oneself from the Peer Group. By the end of my twenty-four interviews on religious belief for my SIP (thesis project), it came to my attention that I could literally predict almost exactly what a person would believe about God and scripture, and how a person would exercise those beliefs based on their parents' beliefs, early religious community, and their social class. This creeped me the hell out. Everyone was able to explain themselves with such conviction, even when, as in the case of upper-middle class liberals, that meant no conviction at all about anything.

As I mentioned in a pervious post, as I did my SIP, the vast majority of "K" College people I mentioned it to would make some sort of disparaging remark about evangelicals (or one could read the equivalent sentiment on their face). At the beginning, I identified with their reactions, but as I really got into dialogue with evangelicals about their beliefs and practices, I was amazed by their willingness to grapple with questions of faith and make serious sacrifices for their beliefs.

Moreover, as my favorite Science Fiction author Robert Heinlein once said: "I never learned from a man who agreed with me." There is immense possibility in being willing to open the mind up to dialogue with people with different political, social and religious convictions from our own. (But by this I don't just mean tolerance, which I often find to be a sort of liberal cover-all cop-out, instead I mean a true interest in the perhaps unacknowledged truths that another's story might have to offer.)

3. When people tell you you have a stupid idea, you may be on to something. During the summer of my freshman year, I delivered flyers en masse to the mailboxes of well-to-do homes in the Twin Cities. Probably hundreds. I advertised my abilities: "Spanish-speaker, can make balloon animals, can comfort the elderly, can mow lawns, etc." I essentially offered to do anything legal for money; I was desperate for a job not working for "The Man" at Snyder's (a Walgreens-like chain drug store), as I had been for so long. The idea was absolutely torn to shreds by those who I proposed it to before executing the plan. After I handed the flyers out, a woman called me, offering to pay me a very high hourly rate to look after her luxurious home (since she is usually out of town) and to occasionally driver her places since she was partially blind. She also offered to help me practice Spanish and French in the process, since she was fluent in both languages. This brought the possibility for, if I may be so bold, one of the most high-paying, cushy and ideal college jobs one could hope for! Unfortunately, I couldn't take it because I would be moving around from Michigan to Minnesota so often and was looking for more of a brief project, but if I had listened to all of the nay-sayers I never would have encountered such an opportunity!

I had a similar experience before I went on Border Studies. I lost count of how many people seemed to show a gag reflex when I told them about going to the border-- "Why would anyone want to go to Juarez!?" Turns out, it was one of the most fun, fulfilling and edifying experiences of my life.

Who knows-- maybe my personalizable food thermometer invention really will be the next big thing!

2. "Without friends, no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods." -Aristotle, Nichomacean Ethics. One of my greatest joys and biggest pains has been my habit of having a few friends who most people don't like. In one of my favorite books, Advice on Dying and Living a Better Life by the current Dalai Lama, he writes: "Even though we all equally want happiness and do not want suffering, you like the faces of some people and think 'these are my friends' and dislike the faces of others and think 'these are my enemies.'" My friendships have been a window into a different way of living and a different way of seeing that keep me sane (while at other times drive me insane). They have offered a wonderful opportunity to feel free of constraints of arbitrary, petty personality preferences.

I will never forget coordinating my 13th birthday party, and after having drafted the guest list, having parents tell me I wasn't allowed to invite someone on the list, simply because of his reputation as an "odd duck" and perhaps "troubled." It broke my heart, not so much because I couldn't invite him, but more because of what this shows about how our society operates, on such an arbitrary system of some people as "in," some as "out." I hope never to sacrifice a single opportunity for friendship for the sake of this societal construct, as each one is an absolute treasure for different reasons.

1. It's a love issue. Oprah has said that her biggest epiphany in her struggle with weight has been realizing it as a love issue-- "Do I love myself enough and do I value my body enough to discipline myself to exercise and to eat foods that love me back?"

While I've always believed that the most moral thing to do is to give until you're blue in the face (and then some), it's come to my attention that ignoring one's own needs and sense of dignity is as bad as ignoring another's. And the people around us pay the price for when we short ourselves. I've seen myself and many friends give and give and forgive and forgive, especially in romantic situations, that end up culminating in no one's benefit. That is to say, as Maya Angelou said: "When people tell you who they are, believe them-- the first time." Giving until one is blue in the face, often never satisfies the "getter" while constantly effacing the dignity of the "giver." Understanding giving to others and understanding my own lifestyle as love issues that require a fine balance will continue to be instrumental in the way I live.

Thanks for reading!


  1. Julie, I honestly feel like a more fulfilled person after reading this. You are so insightful and I'm so glad I still know you after a million years!

  2. Julie Knopp, you're great. Never change.

  3. I love this post. It would make a great commencement address!

  4. Julie.... Hey This is Dreamer. But I'm not going by dreamer anymore.

    anyway, This was a magnificent post. Thanks for sharing

  5. Julie! Stop being so wise and awesome. It makes me feel bad.