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Victoria Noble: For others

By Victoria Noble, Columnist
Published September 1, 2014

My mom and I sat up in the stands with dozens of other proud family members as Marquette University’s faculty gave speech after speech welcoming the new freshman class. For these new students, this was the beginning of what someone has undoubtedly told them will be the best four years of their lives. But not everyone on campus was celebrating. Recently, Marquette alum James Foley had been brutally killed by Islamic State militants. The video of his beheading had been made public worldwide, and people from every corner of the earth watched as a life was taken.

Yet, arising from this tragedy was one of the most powerful arguments for higher education that I’ve ever heard, anywhere. One of the speakers at the freshman convocation centered some of his remarks on Foley’s death. Yet his focus was markedly different from the media refrain of (justified) disgust and outrage. Instead, his speech centered on the work Foley was doing before his kidnapping. Foley’s murder was a horrifying tragedy, but he died using his position and skills to inform others of the conditions in the Middle East. He lived his life for others.

Sitting in that crowded gym, full of my little brother’s new peers and their parents teeming with pride, I began to understand what education — something that I’ve now spent about 16 years on — is all about. And it isn’t about me; it’s about everyone else.

In our competitive academic world of cutthroat classes, demanding assignments and intense pressure to prepare for the so-called real world, it’s difficult to think about anyone but ourselves. After all, only so many people can ace that curved class, get into a top-tier grad school or get hired by Goldman Sachs as a summer intern. Helping others? That just might allow someone else to steal away that cool internship you’ve been coveting.

But here’s the thing — we can’t be selfish with our education. As students at the University, we constitute an incredibly prestigious minority — not because we go to college here, but because we go anywhere at all. In our microcosm of pressure and success, glamour and money, it may seem like just about everyone except Bill Gates goes to college nowadays. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Last year in the United States, only 33.5 percent of 25-29 year olds held a bachelor degree. Furthermore, in a global context, the attainment of a college education is even less widely dispersed. As of 2010, about 6.7 percent of the world’s population held a college degree, an improvement since 2000.

We are some of the most privileged people in the world. We have the opportunity to learn. We are generally safe. We have clean water, ample amenities, a variety of affordable food options and plenty of consumer goods.

And yet, with all of these incredible resources, there is something missing. Our education is totally useless unless it becomes a tool to improve the lives of others. We have the ability to learn the necessary information to create solutions to the world’s problems. And none of us can do it alone. To move forward, we need each other.

And I guess that’s the point of all that reading, studying, paper writing, problem set solving and model building. By maximizing our opportunities to learn here, we are giving ourselves the ability to really improve the lives of others later on. We’ll be equipped to go out and address, expose, solve or otherwise improve serious problems and situations in our world.

But more importantly, we’re required to care. Whether it be about a targeted people halfway around the world or a little brother going off to college, there is someone, somewhere, who can benefit from you, from me, from whoever. And whether we care about our families, a geopolitical issue or anything else, it is our passion, interest and sensitivity that make the real difference.

I probably won’t be flying to Syria as a professional photojournalist to help educate others on the struggle of a people — mostly because I’m not a photographer. But I do have other skills that I can use to build toward a life serving others. We all have skills, and we’re learning them here, at the University. When we leave Ann Arbor, we’ll get to decide what kind of life we want to lead. For me, the choice is very clear: a life for others.

Victoria Noble can be reached at vjnoble@umich.edu