Since returning from a senior banquet at my alma mater, there has been a lot on my mind. As a graduate student, my undergraduate days seem so far removed from everyday life that it takes overheard reminiscences from students in my discussion sections to jog memories of my own “glory days.” For most of my graduated friends, college was a four-year window of uninterrupted adventure and self-exploration, complete with sleepless nights and copious alcohol. We reminisce about the 15-page paper we frantically pulled together in less than two hours yet still managed to get a B+ on; the professor who was so enamored with our “pontifications” that he gave us an A in a class for which we never read a single book. Ultimately, though, college was more than these “character-building” experiences; it was life-changing not necessarily because of what we learned in the classroom, what major we pursued or grades we earned, but because of the experiences and people that shaped our time together.
I’ll never forget the characters I met as a freshman, though some I wish I could expunge from my memory completely. Some have become best friends, some turned into extremely important contacts and still others constitute a network of alumni who share common experiences regardless of our age differences. I never quite understood the role of alumni or alma mater until I left college. You may one day become one of those rich alums who hobnobs with undergraduates at the Grand Strategy class reception or at the Yale-Harvard game. And believe it or not, one day you might just find yourself reminiscing about your freshman screw with a student 40 years your junior.
Is that it? Completing your undergraduate years simply to enter a world in which you reminisce about the “glory days”? It takes the humbling realization that not everyone has the privilege of a university education. Particularly for those of us who have benefited from the largess of our university through scholarships or through the hard work of our families, it puts our college experience into a whole new perspective.
When you are living the day-to-day experiences of a college student, rarely does it cross your mind that you are the exception to the rule in a world full of equally talented and smart young adults. For many of us, college was never a choice — it was simply what was next after high school. I’m constantly amazed when I encounter various college entrance systems in my travels overseas. The two countries with which I am most familiar, Turkey and Japan, have a similar system of administering one college entrance exam that singlehandedly determines the fates of would-be students. Those with the top scores can enter the university and department of their choosing, while less fortunate test takers are never given the chance at a university education in their native country or have to accept a less-than-optimal college experience. While SAT scores undoubtedly influence U.S. college admission decisions, other factors are at least taken into consideration.
The U.S. higher education system places a premium on critical thinking and experiential learning, which is why so many of our most successful graduates — be they American or international — have made such a difference in the world. Thus, we each must “be the change that we wish to see in the world.” The wise man who articulated this vision harnessed his own education to help free his nation from British rule and introduced the world to the concept of non-violent protests. While there may never be another Mahatma Gandhi, we each can do our own small part for the grand vision he represented. A university degree and a college experience are but one small piece of our overall life, but they represent the greatest assets we take with us to make a difference in the world. Whether it is a postgraduate job or a graduate education that we pursue, realizing the value and privilege of a college education empowers us to relive the lessons learned and challenges us to reach out to those less fortunate than ourselves.
If you only have a few months before you graduate from Yale, make the most of your remaining time here. Don’t lose sight of just how privileged you are to be here in the midst of your graduate school acceptances or final-round interviews. Those of you lucky enough to have a few more years here, reach out to this graduating class, because they might just provide the most valuable lesson you will ever learn at Yale. Ultimately, college may be the best four years of your life, but if you set a good foundation and make the most of your time as an undergraduate, you can actually pursue your passions and dreams long after your time at Yale is finished.
Joshua Walker is a second-year graduate student in international relations.