LAST YEAR, I was given one of the best opportunities of my life. And I almost didn't take it.
It was just after midterms, and I was up to my ears in Sociology and Shakespeare when I got a phone call from one of my editors. The Cavalier Daily was hoping to expand its Election Day coverage, sending reporters and columnists beyond the usual venues of Washington, D.C. and Richmond. My editors wanted to send me to St. Louis, to cover the re-election of Dick Gephardt, House of Representatives Minority Leader, who at the time was seriously considering running for the presidency in 2000.
I had five minutes to decide. If I went on the trip, I would have to write close to 30 pages worth of papers in about three days. In my mind, there was no way I would get all my work done in time to leave for St. Louis with a clear conscience. Besides, I'd miss three full days of classes--and not all my professors would excuse the absences.
So I almost said no. I almost turned down a trip to a city I'd never visited, the chance to do some real on-site reporting and deadline writing, and the opportunity to talk to a man who might be Speaker of the House in just a few years. All because I was worried about my grades.
Thank God I came to my senses.
I wrote furiously for three days, went to St. Louis, and shook hands with Congressman Gephardt. It is an experience I will never forget.
As I racked my brain for advice to give to the incoming Class of 2003, that's the story that came to mind. And the moral is something like this: Don't let your academics get in the way of your education.
As far away as it seems to me now, I still vividly remember some aspects of my senior year in high school. And most of it is numbers--my SAT I scores, my SAT II scores, my AP scores, my GPA, my class rank. Sometimes during that long, arduous application process, I felt like those numbers defined me, quite literally measured my worth. One of the most important lessons I learned in college is that they don't. Of course, I'm still ecstatic when I get back a paper with an A on it, and I'm very proud of my last semester GPA. But I'm equally proud of the work I do with my activities, the friendships I have, and the life I've made for myself here.
If you have worked hard enough to get here, good for you. You should be enormously proud of yourself. And by all means, bring that work ethic to your courses here. You will need it. But don't make the mistake of thinking that that's all you are here for. You will miss out on a lot of opportunities if you do.
When people talk about a college education, they don't just mean your academic education. That is simply one aspect of the learning process you will undergo in the next four years. You also will learn how to live (almost) on your own, without someone looking over your shoulder. You will learn how to find the right balance between work and play, between your major courses and your electives, between two very different but very demanding extracurricular activities. You will learn about strong, lasting relationships and how to make or break them.
All of these lessons are just as important as the ones you will learn in your classes. Just as this may be the last time in your life that you will have the opportunity to learn all you can about art history or astronomy, this is also the last chance to learn valuable lessons about life while still maintaining the protection of your parents. You're not totally independent yet, after all. Mom and Dad will still be there when you need them. (And believe me, you will need them.)
In your four years at this University, you will be given more opportunities than you know what to do with. It will be up to you to decide which ones to take. Try a little of everything. Don't spend all your time in the library, or on Rugby Road, or in the basement of a certain student center, however tempting it may be. It is possible to get good grades, commit to an activity, and still go out occasionally. It may not happen every semester, but if it doesn't, it's not the end of the world.
One last thing to confuse and overwhelm you even further: Amidst all your non-academic pursuits, recognize that your academics are an opportunity in and of themselves. There are many professors at this University who are nationally renowned experts in their fields. There are others whose lectures will be so interesting, you will go to class with a 101-degree fever rather than miss it. There are a few who will change the way you approach a subject or your perspective on the world. And if you're lucky, there will be at least one who will change your life.
You have four years to learn all you possibly can--in and out of the classroom. Open your mind to everything this University has to offer. It's all part of the learning experience, of the education that will prepare you for the rest of your life. Enjoy every second of it, this safe haven from the real world. It's only yours for a little while.
(Katie Dodd is a rising fourth-year College student. She is an opinion editor for The Cavalier Daily.)