What are we meant to do on this campus? Why do we come to the University of Michigan? Why is this part of our lives — our late teens and early 20s — glorified in movies and TV shows like “The Breakfast Club,” “Animal House” and “Blue Mountain State” and considered the “best time of our lives”?
When I imagine my future self assessing the time I have spent and will continue to spend in Ann Arbor, I will use, as a barometer of success, the level to which I experimented, tried new things, branched out. Because never again in our lives will we be at such a place, a place whose very foundation rests on the principle of education. Well, what does that look like? What does an education look like?
I suppose the opposite of using our time here to experiment might be to settle into a situation that feels comfortable, and then to ride that out for our entire tenures at Michigan. But I would argue that settling into such a comfortable situation does not promote or even aid our learning; instead, a comfortable environment inhibits it.
We do not learn in situations that are entirely familiar to us; we do not learn by surrounding ourselves with the same people and inhabiting the same spaces every day of the week. In these situations, we are not testing ourselves. We are not examining who we are, what we prefer, our tendencies, inclinations, fears, etc. Instead, we have settled, we have decided all of these things already, or, more likely, we have deemed them unworthy of further investigation.
Perhaps one reason why our various cultural media has deemed college as the best time of our lives is precisely that: Never again in our lives will a situation promote more readily this kind of free-flowing experimentation. From here, we will be expected to begin our career “paths,” and, in just a few years, perhaps, to settle down with a family, have kids and cease experimenting all together. And while I myself anticipate something like this in my own life — of course, allowing for nuance, personalization, etc. — what a tragedy it would be to have to settle down in this way before fully examining who I am, before having tried all that has been available to me in the years I have been alive.
I do not mean to deride comfort entirely — of course, there are moments for all of us when we want nothing more than to relax, to surround ourselves with our best friends in our most familiar spaces and turn off our minds. I support and see the value in this wholeheartedly. I just do not think this should be the predominant atmosphere that we try to carve out for ourselves.
Comfort is relative — in order for something to be comfortable, there also have to be moments of discomfort, of experimentation. Otherwise, what we deem comfortable eventually becomes overly familiar and normalized. In Charlotte Brontë’s famous novel, after returning to her stagnating routine at home when she had just spontaneously spent a day outside on a long walk, Jane Eyre describes, “an existence whose very privileges of security and ease I was becoming incapable of appreciating.” In order to appreciate moments of comfort and ease, we need to experiment, to challenge ourselves, to fully feel and acknowledge moments of discomfort.
Life on a college campus allows for exploration and experimentation in all of their forms: intellectual, social — as we are surrounded by tens of thousands of bright, engaging minds — or, finally, aesthetic, since we live in one of the most renowned-for-its-beauty states in this country?
Throughout my time here, I have had plenty of conversations with friends where at least one of us is expressing visceral contempt for some aspect of this university. One of us might say, “I hate social life here.” Fortunately, though, this statement is relatively meaningless because there are so many different social lives here, all subject to our investigation.
This, I think, is the biggest lesson to be learned from studying at such a behemoth university as this one: We are meant to constantly dig deeper, to continue investigating, to find out who we are. We are not meant to know who we are just yet — I believe that is impossible this early on in life, since most of us have lived with our families for most of our lives. Without different experiences and experiments, we will never attain a full picture of ourselves. Why is it, do you think, that playwrights, novelists and screenwriters put some of the most iconic characters in literature through such immense challenges (think “Macbeth,” “Madame Bovary” or “Invisible Man”)? It is through fighting and learning from these challenging experiences that these characters learn about themselves?
I have learned more about myself through scrupulously investigating my complex, topsy-turvy relationship with this school during the last year and a half than in my entire life before I got to Ann Arbor. The best moments during this time have been those when I challenged myself: going into a room where I know nobody and striking up a conversation or taking a class about something I have never studied. Through my professors and my peers, I began to understand my mind and to expand it. I do all of this because I believe this is how I will measure and assess my time here. And, furthermore, I do this knowing very well that I have a comfortable place to return to, one where I will be able to anticipate everything, where there will be no disruptions to my routine.
Let us explore all that this place, this time in our lives, has to offer. Let us ask questions of ourselves — even ones that feel challenging — and attempt to answer them through all that this place contains and all the layered multitudes that we, ourselves, contain.
Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.