Letter to the Editor: What is college for?

In many ways, this article is a letter to our fellow students. College-bound students can seem like zombies wandering aimlessly into universities without questioning why. For many students, getting to college is only the first step in a journey of exploration — joining a club, making new friends or finding one’s passion. These years are supposed to be the beginning of the rest of our lives, yet so many of us have no idea what to expect. 

In his book “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life,” Yale professor William Deresiewicz proposes that the modern college student should embark on a pilgrimage through the university, arriving at its shores and seeking educational enlightenment. Deresiewicz described ideas as “instruments of salvation” driven by a need to work things out on one’s own. Education is a method for individuals to discover what truly matters and determine their own sense of success.

The college experience isn’t identical for any student. However, by speaking to professors from various academic disciplines and creating lasting relationships with peers, we increase our chances of finding ourselves in this unique journey. 

Taking risks, posing questions and creating healthy debate is crucial to discovering what is important to you. The best time to take these leaps of faith is in college, where there are relatively low risks for potentially high rewards. 

Finding yourself does not occur instantaneously; it is a tiring process that continues long after our time at this university. For most of us, college is a formal transition to adulthood. Without parental supervision, we are free to make our own choices. We will make bad decisions, learn from them and grow as a result.

Exploration is the most fundamental aspect of college life, and it explains why we all enroll. But in our attempts to answer the question “What is college for?” we have returned again and again to two other topics: making connections and taking risks, both inside and outside of the classroom.

What is the value of creating connections in college? Our unique college experiences are framed by relationships with friends and mentors. By now, many have probably had conversations with roommates that lasted for hours. We may regret these conversations the next morning, realizing that spending the night talking about our aspirations instead of indulging in sleep is not the best idea. In these moments, however, our experiences with friends build foundations of support. We grow and learn from each other, becoming the people we can trust in difficult times, which is an invaluable aspect of the college experience.

Apart from meeting lifelong friends and mentors, college provides the chance to network with professionals through career fairs, guest speakers and connecting with alumni. With over 425,000 alumni worldwide, the unique opportunity to become a part of the Trojan Family allows students to explore global educational and career options. From gaining professional connections to receiving networking advice, students can reap the benefits of the vast Trojan network and get on a path to success.

Another fundamental element of college is getting out of your comfort zone. Many students are scared to take risks because they want to protect their GPA for graduate school or other postgraduate opportunities. They might also feel pressured to stick with their major rather than explore something new. And yet, according to records from the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, students will change their major two to three times during their undergraduate years.

In a university with such a career-oriented culture, perhaps the appropriate risk to take is focusing on life outside of academics. Deresiewicz states that students “need to get a job, but [they] also need to get a life,” referring to the importance of exploring beyond the academic realm of college. Many people think success in the classroom requires getting good grades, yet many cannot comprehend success outside the classroom. 

The biggest benefit of taking a chance outside the classroom is that it makes us happy. Joining clubs that you genuinely enjoy, such as an intramural soccer team or the board games club can positively impact your performance in the classroom. Extracurriculars are not solely for the purpose of moving forward in your academic path; they are also about having time to be selfish and explore activities that yield genuine happiness and personal growth.

It really boils down to finding out how much risk we are comfortable with both inside and outside of the classroom. Going too far out of our comfort zones could lead to more stress and uncertainty, while not pushing ourselves enough could lead to feeling dissatisfied or unfulfilled. The struggle to find a balance between comfort and healthy discomfort is both normal and unique to every person, so we each have to find our own way. 

College is about the journey, not the destination.

Fernando Cienfuegos, Charlie Hall, Alexander Jeong, Ashley Kim, Joshua Lee, William Lee, Graham Peeps, Maya Pruthi, Katie Schindler, Nicole Song, Hannah Woodworth and Dora Yang