Friday, May 21, 2010

B.A. in Life: My 3rd College Degree

As I reflect back on my semester in DC and the reality sinks in that I’m about to enter my last year in college, I come to the following conclusion…

College really is one of the greatest times in your life.

Even when it’s the worst time, it’s still the greatest. Short of killing someone, all of the mistakes you make can be chalked up to lessons learned. From the sleepless nights spent cramming information into your brain that you’ll never retain, to the sleepless nights spent drinking alcohol you’ll wish your body won’t retain in the morning, you’ll never feel more alive than the four (or for some five) years you have in college.

Though we all choose a major, or two majors in my case, I’ve begun to realize that what you study doesn’t necessarily dictate what your career will be.  Everyone who jumps through enough hoops, some more successfully than others, will march to Pomp and Circumstance and leave with a shiny piece of paper declaring them fit for an entry-level position in the work field of their choice. But perhaps the most important thing you’ll learn in college is what the diploma doesn’t say.

While no one declares a major in ‘Life’, life inevitably declares itself the most important lesson in your college course plan. 

Like any other college degree, the B.A. in Life has several stages of knowledge to impart upon you. At the most fundamental level is the basic life skill set. These essential tools for survival are the academic equivalent of the general education requirements. And like mandatory general education requirements, the earlier you get these lessons under your belt and out of the way, the better off you are. These lessons include but are not limited to: how to make macaroni and cheese with beer, and when do those leftovers really go bad; how to get coffee stains out of a shirt, and how to wash your clothes so they don’t all come out a mild shade of blue; what to do when you get the virus that’s been going around your frat house, and what medicines mixed with alcohol might actually kill you; how to sneak into class when you’re late, and how to set enough alarms on your phone so you occasionally show up on time; how to ask for an extension on an assignment, and how to get the assignment done on time in the first place so you don’t have to ask for an extension; and how to pack up your life and move to another state (or country), and then pack it back up several months later and do it all over again.

These basic life skills turn us into self-sufficient human beings capable of surviving at the simplest level of existence on our own. Most of these lessons are things our parents have been trying to teach us since Kindergarten, but like learning how to drive with a permit, you don’t actually pay attention to what you have to do until your parent is no longer in the car telling you what to do. As a result, we learn through mistakes.

In one of my first solo-driving experiences after getting my license, I found myself driving down the wrong side of the road, head-on into traffic, parting the red sea of cars crossing the intersection. Through some act of God or supernatural force I didn’t die and wasn’t arrested, and you can bet I’ve never made that mistake twice.  This is how most of the basic lessons are learned in the lower division classes for the B.A. in Life: trial and error.

This is the only major where not only are books not required for learning, they also don’t exist. As college students, we have all the tools for learning these lessons ourselves stored somewhere upstairs in the brain filed under “Useless information my parents told me that I might need to know one day”. It’s unfortunate that in order to activate some of these dormant lessons, we must associate a near-death experience with them to have a light-bulb moment of understanding. It’s like touching a hot stove when you were a kid, mom probably told you not to do it, but you just had to check it out for yourself to be sure. So yes, mom might have mentioned something about mixing beer with coconut rum and tequila, but the hangover that made you feel like you were going to die the next morning sure drove the point home.

Once you start to pass your general education requirements, you begin to distinguish yourself as an adult and scoff at the younger generations of children who come after you. But the learning has only just begun. Next you excel on to the B.A. equivalent of lower division classes in the major of Life, geared toward growing your social and mental skills.

These classes require you to find the right answers to questions like: what’s the best way to confront my roommate about her obnoxious snoring habits and wretched body odor; how often is too often to communicate with my family and when is it advantageous to tell a white lie about what I’ve been doing; how do I impress my boss without looking like a suck up; how do I write an essay for a professor who’s views are diametrically opposed to my own; what’s the appropriate amount of time to wait before texting the boy from the bar last night and how do I figure out his name if he’s just stored in my phone as ‘boy from bar’; is it wise to give that jerk in my discussion a piece of my mind or could he potentially be crazy and bring a weapon to the next group session; and how do I tell my best friend she needs to dump her boyfriend because I saw him hooking up with someone else last night.

The frustrating thing about these lower division classes is that there is never a right answer. Unlike the general education classes, there’s no multiple choice questions with clear answer selections such as do you wash your white clothes in A) hot water or B) cold water. These classes require you to think critically and write well-thought out essays. Like any college paper, a well-developed and supported thesis will earn a good grade, no matter what the thesis may be. In other words, you will never know the right answer because right answers to these life questions don’t exist. The trick is to see the situation from all perspectives, stick to your instincts, make a decision, don’t look back, and hope like hell that your professor (or boss, friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, parent, colleague, sibling, etc.) understands why you did what you did. Managing the relationships (personal, professional, and otherwise) in your life is one of the core concepts in the B.A. of Life, and arguably one of the harder skills you will learn to develop in college, in any of your majors.

Finally, the B.A. in Life really puts you to the test with its equivalent of upper division major classes that develop your emotional skills and maturity. This is done gradually over time, and tested continuously in stressful, challenging, and potentially dangerous situations. These upper divisions tests happen at those “fork in the road” moments; the ones where you realize you could be making a decision that impacts your future. Sometimes tears, verbal confrontations, and/or physical altercations occur during these tests. If you come out a stronger person, you pass. The key is to minimize regrets in these moments where crisis mode takes over your brain and causes your body to want to act on impulse. If you find yourself yearning for a simpler day when the toughest things you had to face were on the playground and in time-out, you are most likely facing an upper division challenge of your emotional endurance and maturity.

The best part of the B.A. in Life is that everyone who graduates with a degree in another major, also passes through the major in life. It is physically impossible to go through the four years that make up your college experience, and not come out a different person. College changes you, for the better and for the worse, but hopefully more of the former. And that’s the B.A. in Life. It’s your complimentary degree from the university of your choice. Graduating from this phase in your life is always bittersweet. Bitter because you’ll never get another chance to go-back and be in those moments again, sweet because they have all become a part of who you are.

If you let it, the B.A. in Life will teach you everything you need to know to jump in the ocean of life and stay afloat; and certainly as you continue living you’ll learn how to doggy paddle, swim, and maybe even back stroke. Soon enough I, like every other college graduate that’s come before me, will have to take off the water wings, dive in, and see where the current takes me. It’s a scary thing, but we’re more ready than we know.