When one surveys the student body at Columbia in order to figure out just what exactly is coveted by graduating seniors, it will be hard to find even one or two things in common among the majority of the senior class. I find that friends of mine with good GPAs are looking forward to Latin honors, those who worked tirelessly on practicing their case studies have (hopefully by now) found their dream consulting or finance jobs, and those interested in pursuing a degree in medicine have scored 36 or above on the MCAT. Of course, I’m leaving out all of the other types of students and their respective attitudes since the entire list would easily fill this opinion piece with achievements equally termed “successful.”
All of these distinct recognitions, however, are not really uniquely Columbian. They are a measure of students’ varied success in college, but are by no means restricted to our experiences at this specific university. All of our undergraduate schools have a slew of awards and prizes, based on nominations by students and faculty. These awards more closely represent success at Columbia as distinct from other schools but are once again common to most universities.
Personally, I’ve felt most successful (and uncomfortable) when congratulated on my achievements, particularly those that were not unique to classes or activities here at Columbia. Those achievements were probably more likely to be available to me because I attend a university like Columbia, but are not outside the realm of possibility for students at other universities. Interestingly, I also received more sincere and warm compliments for accomplishments like graduate school acceptances than for those like winning a position on the Hillel Student Executive Board.
At Columbia, students are free to define and design their own parameters for success. Students interested in humor might want to participate in an improv comedy group, while those enamored with science hope to publish original research in scientific journals. When each student sets out his path to success over the next four years, I believe the goals in the path become idolized. One’s path may be shared by a small number of peers, but is not shared by the majority of students. Thus, honest congratulations are harder to give to students who fall outside your path to success, because their accomplishments are not really accomplishments in your eyes. On the other hand, in a competitive environment like Columbia, it also becomes difficult to congratulate and accept the success of students with similar paths to your own. They are more than likely fighting for and receiving positions or awards you want for yourself.
If Columbians are hard-pressed to recognize their fellow students’ success with heartfelt honesty, regardless of their interests, then how do they measure the success of other students? Is it even important to recognize their success at all? In fact, success at Columbia may not be something determined by our peers in any capacity. Rather, success might be the fulfillment of one’s personal path and goals. I believe having and cultivating these goals are central to success at Columbia, whether they be high grades or attending every senior night starting from freshman year (or, as my friend Luke likes to call it, “senior year part I”).
Returning to our question, I believe we should really be asking, “Can we define a way to measure success at Columbia, unique to our university and unique to our individual paths while here?” In practice, I think not. It is impossible to establish a universal system for success when there are such diverse interests, passions, and students, each measuring their own success in different spheres with different lenses. In fact, in most cases it is even difficult to claim that these spheres and lenses predominantly belong to Columbia.
Defining a way to measure success at Columbia in theory, however, is something we can undertake. Every student at Columbia cultivates his own passions in his short four years here. This cultivation of passion, i.e., the practice of being passionate, is what defines the way to measure success at Columbia. These passions—like tutoring, skiing, and public speaking—make your experience here at Columbia unique and worthwhile, and they deserve to be maintained after your time is up. However, I believe one has been successful at Columbia if he can take the practice of being passionate and apply it to new, interesting situations later in life with the same fervor and dedication exercised with those passions while in school.
Almost every student at Columbia knows how easy it is to become overcommitted, especially after signing up for 50 listservs during freshman fall. But the process of narrowing and refining those commitments, activities, and work, digging deeper semester to semester and finally being able to apply these skills to the rest of your life with unrelenting passion is what it means to be successful at Columbia.
Sam Kazer is a Columbia College senior majoring in chemistry.
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