This semester I’m taking a strategy class in the Business school called “The Corporation in Society.” The course debates the purpose of the modern-day corporation and ponders if it has an obligation to fulfill a social purpose. But, on the first day of class we started thinking about the purpose of a university education and whether that purpose is being served to its maximum. And that’s a discussion that isn’t had enough.

In 1907, psychologist William James delivered an address at Radcliffe College titled “The Social Value of the College-Bred.” It’s amazing to see that central themes and questions posed in this address are still relevant. James draws a distinction between a technical school education and liberal-arts universities. He points out that a university education is a way to gain a broader understanding of the world and a place to exercise your thinking in a way that’s different than perfecting a specific skill.

Yet, university education is increasingly becoming specialized and skill-oriented. From the start there’s pressure to focus on a particular area and excel at building tangible workplace skill sets in a particular department. With pre-professional tracks and combined masters/bachelors programs, sometimes incoming freshman already have the next four years mapped out. But looking back at my university experience, it’s the uncertainty and ability to experiment that has contributed to my growth the most.

I remember when I started college three years ago: I came in with a clear idea of how I thought it would be. I knew what organizations I wanted to join and what I wanted to study. I was going to be best friends with my roommate. Everyone I talked to told me college was going to be the best four years of my life, and coming in I thought I knew exactly what to do to make sure that was the case.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

College has still been the best years of my life, but in a completely unexpected way. From organizations I’m a part of, to the major I’ve chosen, I’m learning about things that I didn’t even know existed four years ago, much less was interested in. My passions, interests and goals have all evolved, and I know they will continue to. And each step of the way has been a huge learning experience — even things that I thought were completely irrelevant at the time have played a central role in getting me to the point I’m at now.

In fact, I only wish I had come in with less of a plan, and had allowed myself even more freedom to explore. This past summer, I watched one of Educational Theatre Company’s productions at freshman orientation. Watching that performance as a rising senior gave me a different perspective. There is a part in the play that mentions that, inevitably, at some point everyone coming into college will find themselves “stuck” — stuck to old habits, friends, comfortable things. And to fully appreciate one’s college experience one has to become “unstuck.”

It took me until senior year to realize how stuck I had been. And I only wish I had seen that sooner.

One of my favorite quotes says: “Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.” I knew this, and coming into college I fully planned to embody this, and, yet, soon found myself unconsciously slipping back into my comfort zone.

The thing is, sometimes even once you realize that you’re stuck, becoming unstuck is the hard part. It’s hard because it’s so much easier to stay in your comfort zone. It’s natural. So often you find yourself falling into it even when you didn’t know you were. But slowly venturing out beyond that comfort has led to some of the most formative experiences I’ve had. And when I look back, I can pinpoint the way in which losing focus every now and then has broadened my educational outlook.

Harsha Nahata can be reached at hnahata@umich.edu.

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