As much as we may try to avoid living cliches, the spring semester carries an aura of newness and opportunity. Returning from long winter breaks, whether satisfied with the way we spent our time or not, the promise of longer days and more pleasant weather draws us to resolutions of going out more, working harder, and taking advantage of opportunities we’ve ignored up until now. We all heard the speech. Barnard College, Columbia University, located in the heart of New York City, special student discounts to museums and shows, ease of transportation to anywhere in the tri-state area, top-notch professors, unbeatable career development. Four years (or so!) the opportunity of a lifetime.
With the world at our fingertips, however, the pressure to spend every moment exploring it often becomes overwhelming. A relaxed night in easily turns into a guilt trip as we wonder why we are not out seeing the latest Broadway show or attending a VIP lecture. Our few free hours between classes are spent agonizing over whether the time would be better spent interning at a museum or law firm. We put ourselves at fault for our natural inability to do everything.
It is easy to forget that opportunities are really only opportunities if they open new doors for us and provide us with unique, desirable, and otherwise unattainable experiences. The financial internships for which we all receive hundreds of emails a day are only as valuable to you as your personal interest in the field. The student rush tickets are only as exciting as the thrill—or lack thereof—you get at seeing a Broadway show. Is there anything inherently better about spending your free evening at a concert in Brooklyn, rather than lying in bed drinking hot chocolate and methodically X’ing out the pop-ups from Project Free TV? A lover of music might not hesitate to say yes, but if your interests lie elsewhere, your proximity to the venue might not be a compelling reason for you to make the trip.
We rightfully place importance on expanding our horizons, but when opportunities become obligations, we lose sight of why they exist in the first place.
There is another dimension to the sense of responsibility that comes with such limitless opportunity, beyond the call of free museums and one-of-a-kind internships, the romance of the city and the seductiveness of its networking. It is the duty to appreciate—even if we do not take full advantage—of all our opportunities. The sheer number of choices we have every day, and our inability to successfully take advantage of each one, makes it incredibly difficult to take a step back and be thankful that we have these doors open to us.
I struggled a great deal with coming back to school this semester, having seriously considered taking time off. In part, this stemmed from the guilt I experienced questioning the purpose and value of my education. As I grappled with legitimate doubts about the necessity of an undergraduate degree and the college system itself, I could not shake the feeling that, almost by definition, it was my duty to appreciate my education and all the incredible opportunities open to me at Barnard.
I reached the point where it felt wrong for me to be here. I am presented with the immense privilege of a high-caliber education, access to vast libraries, world-renowned museums, and more networking and career information events than the number of times a Barnard girl says “literally” in a sentence—yet I do not constantly feel a deep appreciation for it all. Significant portions of human history were spent fighting for the opportunity to learn, to work, and to pursue individualistic goals. I oversleep my morning classes and use pretentious words and run-on sentences to cloak the fact that I never actually read the required material—forget about truly learned. What right do I have to sit in Butler Library, its frieze etched with the names of brilliant philosophers and scientists, when my time is spent checking Facebook and deleting the latest Career Development email?
Appreciation for learning and gratitude for the extracurricular opportunities we have may seem like different issues, but they boil down to a singular perspective on the college experience. How do we reconcile our personal goals and abilities with external and internal pressures to take full advantage of everything we are given? How can we rightfully appreciate what we are offered, when we must constantly justify to ourselves why we are not taking up every offer? Regardless of the distinctive life circumstances that may shape our levels of appreciation for these opportunities, as a community, we must grapple with these questions that plague us all in some way or another. While I’m not sure what the ultimate solution will be, a reassessment of the way we look at both our immediate and long-term options seems to be in order. Instead of keeping a running tab of everything we are not doing—the career fairs we’re skipping and the shows we can’t afford and the readings we just never had time to do—we need to pause, take a step back, and accept our decisions as admirable displays of discernment. Rather than beginning the semester with the resolution to do more, perhaps we should approach this semester with a commitment to filter more, to judge more precisely, and to tailor our opportunities to our individual goals.
Ayelet Pearl is a junior in the joint Barnard College and Jewish Theological Seminary program. She is a junior representative to the board of trustees in the Student Government Association. Pearls of Wisdom runs alternate Tuesdays.
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