Whenever anything noteworthy happens in relation to the University, someone out there is certain to tweet about it and tack on the obligatory #themichigandifference.

As of late, The Michigan Difference’s online presence has been reduced to sophomoric tales such as “fed a squirrel on the Diag” or “chugged four Natty Lights before 8 a.m. on a football Saturday.” Originally started as a marketing and fundraising campaign, the real intention of The Michigan Difference is to highlight the great impact that Michigan’s students, faculty and staff have in the world.

Since the campaign was launched in 2005, these three words have been used (and misused) everywhere to set the bar for achievement and success among everyone on this campus. From the moment freshmen set foot in the Carl Milles Fountain outside the Michigan League during orientation, they are expected to become a part of The Michigan Difference. In fact, just getting in to this University means they already are The Michigan Difference. And every internship or job they get where they beat out the rest of the crowd helps them be The Michigan Difference. And once they graduate, they’ll be a part of the largest alumni network in the world — that is, The Michigan Difference. And one day, they’ll join the ranks of Gerald Ford, Arthur Miller and James Earl Jones as they make a positive impact on society and they’ll have achieved The Michigan Difference.

While in all fairness I feel extremely proud and honored to be a Wolverine whenever I hear such great tales, I have to wonder if we set the bar too high. The Michigan Difference undoubtedly exists, but by focusing so much on achieving that difference, on being of importance to society, on changing the world — are we losing sight of something more important?

I recently landed a really great engineering co-op, and as excited as I initially was, it’s just starting to sink in that I’ll be gone for a while. Doing a co-op means taking a semester off, so I’ll be out of the state for six months. I won’t see everything in this campus that means so much to me until January. It’s OK, though, because I’m furthering my career goals and getting closer to that dream job where I’m providing real value to society. Isn’t that what the College of Engineering wants me to do?

Focus on the goal. Think about the difference you want to make in the world. Work hard enough in your classes so that your GPA doesn’t hold you back. Get involved. Build an impressive resume. Get the perfect internship for the perfect job for the perfect life. Be The Michigan Difference.

Sound familiar?

It’s not just the College of Engineering. Nearly every academic discipline forces down the idea that we need to work hard to become leaders in our field. Even campus organizations that are the livelihoods of so many students often push us to feel the need to leave behind a legacy. I know I’ve fallen into this trap over the years, the trap of expecting the effect before fully executing the cause. This is Michigan fergodsakes and upon graduation we’re supposed to do something great with our lives.

But it takes baby steps. We can’t just leave here and change the world in one fell swoop. We’re taught to believe we must bring value to society, but it might do us all well to consider who really brings us value.

Eight students were arrested last week during a protest on campus organized by the Coalition for Tuition Equality. While their cause is undoubtedly admirable, the fact that I knew three of them personally was what really struck me. The headlines fade, but the impassioned conversations I’ve had with those three won’t. That’s value.

The first professor I ever had at Michigan, Gavin LaRose, is to date still the best one in my opinion. But it wasn’t that I loved calculus that much. It’s the personal touch that Gavin added to his lectures, how he went out of his way to learn all of our names, the fact that three years later, I still remember Stoke’s theorem just because he was so excited to teach it. That’s value.

I went home this past weekend and ran into several members of my community who’ve watched me grow up. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but I do know how excited they all were to see me nearing the end of my college career already, and how much faith they had that I was poised to be successful. That’s value.

Where do you see The Michigan Difference really impacting your life? You have to bring value to those around you before you can even begin to change the world. I have my whole life to keep networking, job-hunting and improving my skills. The University might challenge me to leave a legacy, but today those personal connections are more important. The Michigan Difference trickles out from each of those connections, whether they’re with family and friends at home or peers and teachers on this campus.

College is tough, and “the real world” is tougher, but it isn’t a race. After all, we go to the 12th best university in the world and every day we’re surrounded by diversity, passion and opportunity. There’s nothing wrong with walking through it all slowly, really stopping to get to know people and know yourself. That’s the real Michigan Difference. So stop running and be the best person you can be right now. Your legacy will fill those footprints over time.

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

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