It’s been a long time coming, but I think I’m ready to say this: I’m almost officially a big boy. Come May, I’ll have graduated from the University of Michigan and be on to my next big adventure. In many ways, this is a cause for celebration: I’ll get to subject a whole new group of “friends” (or, ideally if I am accepted into a teach abroad program, an entire country) to my antics! My professors won’t have to deal with that annoying kid in the front of the class always raising his hand like a (insert witty comparison). But also, I feel a sense of sadness.

My time at this institution will soon be over and my learning will slow. Obviously, everyone is a lifelong learner, but without that community surrounding me, I fear it won’t feel the same. My sister is applying to college right now and I’m excited to see her embark on her own journey through four years of moral debasement. Watching her weigh the pros and cons of different colleges has made me wonder: What did I miss by going to school here?

I’ve spent much of my time looking for a community of engaged students on campus — people who care not only about the issues of our day, but also think deeply about literary theory and the value of art. My freshman year, I joined both the Residential College and the Honors Program in pursuit of like-minded people. Orientation boded well for me: Honors had us each read “Whistling Vivaldi,” a brilliant dissection of the psychological effects of racism, while the RC gave me a collection of poems by esteemed poet Pablo Neruda. However, when I arrived on campus freshman year, I was quickly disheartened.  

Rather than using these books as part of an ongoing yearlong conversation, the two communities held poorly mediated, all-too-brief conversations about the two works. Then, vamoose, we were set free to the wind. This brings me to my first major problem with this University: Students cover so little of the same intellectual ground. I accept that this is part of the price of attending a massive public university, but I still wish there was more. One of my close friends has often described the University as 20 schools with one football team. This has rung increasingly true throughout my academic career.

My junior year, I joined the Ford School of Public Policy (and was subsequently dragged out of the RC kicking and screaming). We had two core courses, one on policy-making and one on economics, which my entire cohort was mandated to take. I’ve never been more grateful for required classes. I had the opportunity to understand a wide variety of opinions and considerations about important public policy problems. Like the University as a whole, there is a distinct lack of a conservative presence, but overall I found the classes tremendously helpful to developing both my own thinking about these issues and an understanding of how others came to their own conclusions. I’m not best friends with everyone in Ford, but I can hold a conversation with anyone there thanks to these classes. If I hadn’t been accepted to the program, I would’ve floundered in anonymity in our University’s massive Political Science or English departments.

This isn’t to admonish either of the departments — some of the most important growth I’ve had occurred in courses offered by those departments. I’ve spent a lot of time these past few months thinking about how to develop a personal ethos, one of compassion, one of morality, one of progress. I’ve come to the conclusion that these things aren’t really honed at this University at large. However, I’ve taken a handful of courses which have helped me develop this ethos. In my Art of the Essay course with the wonderful John Rubadeau, we’ve spent the past semester writing essays about our personal hardships.

The topics have run the gamut from divorced parents to career-ending sports injuries to false rape accusations. During our time together, I’m often reminded of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s quote, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” I’ve understood how painful these experiences are in the abstract, but hearing these stories in full and attaching a face to the story has truly made me a more empathetic person. I wish other students could get a similar experience.

Another key skill I’ve reflected upon is how to translate abstract concepts from the classroom to my personal life. For the past year, I’ve studied under Yazier Henry, a professor in the Ford School who specializes in the “political economy of memory, trauma, identity, sustainable peace and Truth Commissions” alongside “how structural and administrative violence comes to be normalized.” Taking courses under him has given me the tools to think about essential questions on what my obligations are to disenfranchised people in the United States and across the world and about how to fix institutions which have so often failed those people.

However, I’ve also learned about how to take the lessons learned and apply them to my everyday life. It’s inevitable that we will all be harmed and harm others. Thinking about how I can mitigate that harm, prevent it in the future and heal when I am subjected to it has all made me a better person. I’m not a perfect person and I still have a long way to go but those classes have been an important stepping stone for me.

No doubt, there have been wonderful parts of my time at the University. I’ve taken classes with world-class professors, made lifelong friends and accidentally discovered I want to be a writer. But I often feel that my growth at this University has been institutionally neglected. At Harvard, there’s a seminar called “Reflecting on Your Life,” which teaches students how to reflect on personal conflicts in their lives and how to get the most out of both their college experience and time afterward. To my knowledge, there’s no such class here. That absence speaks volumes about what this University focuses on.

Roland Davidson can be reached at mhenryda@umich.edu.

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