Tuesday, June 25, 2013

College: What is It Good For?

Eugene, circa 1999, filming the Blair Witch parody
"The Lerner Hall Project" with the Columbia
University Science Fiction Society.
Let me preface this by saying that I started college as a pre-med student and graduated with a concentration in visual arts (not even a major). I now work as a professional writer (I have a writing day job in addition to my fiction), and that visual arts degree from an Ivy League university really hasn't done me much good in my career. And twelve years out, I'm still paying those student loans...

When I think back on college, I'm grateful I had the opportunity to receive a great liberal arts education (which has definitely made me a better writer), but it isn't my time in the classrooms that most shaped the person I am today. I fondly remember the late night hours editing in the campus TV studio, hanging out with my science fiction club, debating the morals and philosophy of science fiction, and meeting lifelong friends.

I remember the many different work-study jobs I held as an undergraduate in the dining hall, in campus security, providing technical support in the communications office, managing the website for an alumni office. The things that have stuck with me are the diverse skills I picked up in all those different roles and the people I encountered; I learned how to act professionally and interact with individuals with a multitude of different viewpoints, personalities, and backgrounds. And I also learned how to fail, and I realized that giving up on one dream for another didn't mean I was giving up on myself.

For me, college was an exercise in learning what I didn't want to do just as much as what I couldn't do. I was a good student for my entire academic career, but I struggled in science and math at college. I eventually decided that I probably would never do well at them because I wasn't passionate about a career in medicine anymore — I needed to care more to work that hard for it. Instead, I had finally found an outlet for my creativity at college and discovered new interests and talents, and I wanted to develop them. I wanted to make things that would entertain and inspire others.

College is where I became more outgoing and made more of an effort to meet new people and foster stronger friendships and varied interests. I've always been a geek, but through the friends I made, and especially my girlfriend at the time, I discovered a love for foreign cinema, theater, Yiddish short stories, new music, photography, filmmaking, art, and so much more that I probably can't even trace back to those days. It also was in college that I first found out about the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and met published science fiction writers and editors for the first time — and decided that I really wanted to be a part of that community one day.

Your mileage may vary, and I don't want to tell anyone that grades don't matter (however, no one has ever asked about my GPA, and apparently even Google says that they're "worthless"), but I do think it's important to have a social life and be open to new experiences and interests. It's a cliche, but it's a cliche for a reason: College is where you can discover who you are, become someone entirely new (every week, if you like), fall in love (every week, if you like), discover new interests, make mistakes, meet people you may be close to for the rest of your life, decide what's important to your life, and prepare for living in the "real" world. And I don't regret any of it. (Except for the student loans.)

So, if you've already been to college, what do you remember most? If you are planning to go to college, what are you expecting to get from it?

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