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Hema Karunakaram: ‘Extra,’ or essential?

By Hema Karunakaram, Opinion Columnist
Published November 14, 2012

I’ve spent a significant portion of my Julys, Augusts, Septembers, Octobers and Novembers over the past two years immersed in dancing. Not only dancing, but choreographing, teaching and helping to produce the Indian American Student Association’s annual cultural show. The IASA show is the largest student-run production in North America, selling out Hill Auditorium and raising thousands of dollars for charity each year. Until last week, I was committing the equivalent of eight to 10 credit hours per week to the show, and it turned out to be a great success. But still, I continue to encounter the voices that ask, “Isn’t that such a waste of time?”

I’m committing more time to a student organization than I am to some of my classes, swapping exam reviews for practices, writing e-mails instead of finishing homework. Sound familiar? On my resume, it seems I’m dancing away several hours of my school year, which appears to be directly correlated with my less-than-stellar academics.

And I know I’m not alone. Many of us discover our passions in college — and they’re not in our schoolwork, but in our extracurriculars.

This inevitably takes a toll on our academic performance, but that doesn’t stop us from putting in countless hours toward activities that will never be graded. Just because something doesn’t contribute to your GPA, however, doesn’t make it a waste.

My position as a choreographer is only one of many student organization experiences from which I’ve learned immense amounts throughout college. Even though many of these activities have little to do with my classes, they represent a wide and important range of interests that definitely contribute to my skill set. But how much of this passion can be justified within the scope of college, where we’re told that our duties as a student come first and foremost?

Perhaps our definition of “student” is wrong. Sure, we’re repeatedly told that college is about much more than our GPAs. That’s why such a large percentage of us are involved with student organizations. But for those of us who commit so much time to these organizations that we sometimes compromise coursework for them, we shouldn’t have to feel that we are inferior “students.” In fact, organizational experiences really do teach us things we would never learn in class, and provide a release for academic or personal stress.

Choreographing for IASA has taught me people skills, logistics, time management and so much more. This is the stuff that fuels not only my personal conversations but also my interviews. I’ve seen these extracurricular skills regularly translate into my academic life.

No, I’m not teaching my lab partners how to dance. But I’m organizing and leading group meetings, motivating others to get things done and dealing delicately with difficult people or situations.

Yes, “Go get involved!” people say. Have new experiences, meet diverse groups of people, broaden your horizons! Until it starts messing with your grades. That’s when you should take a step back, they say. Grades are more important, and you’re wasting your time. Skipping one or two lectures for a student organization is fine. Per semester. But one or two in a month? A week? Are you out of your mind?

I suppose that’s where we start to wonder where to draw the line. How much time spent on extracurriculars is too much? It’s important to have a full, vibrant résumé, but not at the cost of academic success. For me, I’m willing to make that compromise. I’m passing my classes — and not necessarily by painfully small margins — and learning to balance my time well as a result of all my other commitments. Academics are important, but letter grades mean little after our first job or graduate experience. Extracurricular experiences stay with us much longer and affect us in much greater ways. These are the things from college that will really stick.

Has my GPA taken a hit as a result of all the time and effort I spend on my student organizations? I’ll be honest — absolutely. But I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything. I’m convinced that they’re worth something. Something big, something more than what my B.S.E. degree alone will stand for when I graduate. And certainly something more than a waste of time.

Hema Karunakaram can be reached at khema@umich.edu.