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Learning life lessons from first-year experience

I CAN SAY that I was on ESPN my first year at the University of Virginia. It was the nationally televised football game between the Cavaliers and perennially-evil Florida State. This game welcomed back wide receiver Peter Warrick from his two-week hiatus - a result of his theft of clothing from a Tallahassee Dillards. In a flash of humor and ingenuity, my hallmates and I painted our bare chests to read "#9 STOLE OUR SHIRTS," and conspicuously lined the South Hill - directly in front of the video cameras. I was the second "O."

I still have the video clip on my computer - 16 "clever" first years celebrating a 10-7 halftime lead that inevitably later deteriorated. But we were celebrating more than just a higher football score - we were celebrating our newly acquired freedom to do something we never thought we'd do. That kind of freedom is a gift from the University to every new first-year student, and one that you should all take advantage of in these next 9 exciting months.

Being a goober on national TV is just one of the many stories I can tell about my first year here. I can say I danced and slid in the mud after the first rainstorm. I can say I joined a fraternity. I can say I streaked the Lawn - twice.

You, too, will be able to describe hundreds of things unique to your first-year experience, but only if you make yourself available and willing to let them happen.

If you keep an open mind, you'll be able to say that you met some of the most fascinating people of your life. It's a big school, crawling with 12,000 other undergraduates just as intelligent and much more interesting than you are. Go meet them, and then you can say that in your first year, you were friends with a farmer from Nebraska, a rock climber from Montana, or someone who saved money for four years so he could pay for the same education you're getting from your parents.

If you lose your fears and go meet everyone in your dorm during your first two weeks, you'll say you made a friend for life, a fraternity brother or sorority sister, or even a girlfriend or boyfriend. You'll never know who will be behind that door up on the third floor. Unless you knock.

If you get involved, you'll be able to say you led to the installation of more emergency phones, implementation of a 24-hour library, or helped change the age-old honor system for the better. Don't be afraid to go to meetings or join endless e-mail lists. But don't spread yourself too thin just to thicken your resume. If you stick to what you love, you may even be able to say that you started a new club here. It happens every year.

If you rush, you'll be able to say that you ignored the stereotypes and found out on your own if Greek life was for you. Something that a third of the school can say they're involved in can't be that bad.

If you listen to those who have come before you, you'll be able to say that you participated in some of the most special traditions of a U.Va. student. Have the guts to streak the Lawn or to refuse the fourth-year fifth. Dress up for the football games. Lie backwards on the Rotunda stairs and gaze up at the river wavering on the trees. You'll be talking about it to others for years to come.

If you take your classes seriously, you can say that you actually learned. Please don't pay tuition just so you can cram the night before finals and barely pass. You could have done that for free in high school. But if you stop worrying about your classes and your grade point average, you can say that you discovered the real purpose of college. Learn about the world. Learn about people. You won't receive grades on how well you work with others, but you will get paid for it later.

Speaking of the working world, if you do what you want to because it makes you happy - and not because it will get you a good job - you'll be able to say that you took advantage of what college has to offer. The commerce school and pre-med tracks aren't for everybody, but being happy with your choices is.

I hope that when the year is done, when you're a year or two wiser, you won't just say you survived your first year of college. There's so much more to do here than merely survive, if you make the effort. I've had a year to reflect, and I've come to the conclusion that my first year at the University of Virginia honestly was the best year of my life. Never again will I be able to say that I went into something with so much to learn, and took away as much as I did.

And I can say I wish the same for you.

(Brandon Almond is a Cavalier Daily opinion editor. He can be reached at balmond@virginia.edu.)

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