As Ann Arbor thaws with the coming of spring, most of us feel some combination of giddiness (my face isn’t numb!), anxiety (I still don’t have a summer internship!) and terror (I’m even closer to the homeless, jobless, funless post-graduate reality!)

This year seems to have come and gone even faster than the last, prompting an awareness in me of the transience of my time at college. Essentially, I have two years left to broaden and deepen my understanding of self and the world around me before I have to go out into the world and represent myself as a fully developed person (almost).

Many of us came to the University with the goal of repeating the academic success we knew in high school. I’ve found that to meet my preconceived standard for academic excellence, I’ve had to make big sacrifices in other areas of my life. Ambition and work ethic are exactly the kind of attributes we hope to develop here, but neither should blind us from the importance of life outside our textbooks. Developing meaningful interpersonal connections and gaining introspective insight about the kind of person I should strive to be is also important. Striking a balance among these elements is, for me, the hardest and most important step to achieving a truly successful college experience.

When the intimidating newness of college wears off and we finally start to feel at home with a set of classes, a group of friends and a social routine, it’s easy to lose our initial curiosity. Despite the complacency that comfort invites, I need to self-motivate my exploration.

The posters and chalk advertisements that decorate the Diag and almost every available wall space are a testament to the endless supply of extracurricular educational resources on campus. I couldn’t possibly take advantage of all of them — but if I make a habit of ignoring the activity around me, I’ll miss out on the most accessible pool of potential inspiration I’m likely to ever encounter.

Greek life, the Residential College, sports teams and other extracurricular activities provide a community for their participants but do not have to dictate a lifestyle of one set of experiences. Actively seeking out the unfamiliar should be a habit that extends beyond freshman year.

Gaining self-knowledge is the most serious benefit of exposing myself to the variety of stimulus packed into this college town. Beyond simply allowing the flashing lights to pass before my eyes on my way out of here, I must internalize the relationships, the guest lectures, the concerts and the people watching. I need to allow the energy of Ann Arbor to resonate with me in order to gain an understanding of the kind of energy I want to create for myself when I no longer have it flowing around me, waiting to be tapped.

We’re here to ask ourselves what kind of people we want to be, what kind of lives we want to lead and what kind of impression we want to make on our communities. The only way we’ll be able to answer those questions is by engaging our environment and paying attention to the kind of reaction we have to that engagement.

For example, my involvement in a couple of large philanthropy organizations during my freshman year revealed my natural discomfort with fundraising and my preference for hands-on service projects. About a month ago, I started working with 826Michigan, a tutoring program that focuses on creative writing for 6- to 18-year-olds. I consistently leave their Robot store feeling awe-inspired.

But not all ventures end on such an uplifting note. Two weeks ago, I left a Groove Spoon show at Elmo’s T-shirt shop on a Stevie Wonder high that ended with a face-plant on Main Street. I walked around with a bruise covering half my face, but it was worth it because now I know I want to find funk bands everywhere I go.

Our potential for success — the kind that guarantees a fulfilling life — is at its peak and unless we make a conscious effort to correct our semi-distorted measures of a successful college experience, it will pass by unmet. I hope that as the change of the seasons breathes life back into Ann Arbor, I can revitalize the wide eyes and anxious excitement that I felt during my first September here.

These are not only supposed to be the four best years of our lives, but they can also be the four most transformative years. If we waste them on daily panic attacks in the stacks and nightly beer pong tournaments in the basement, we’ll have lost the opportunity absorb the richness —academic, cultural and interpersonal — that surrounds us.

Libby Ashton can be reached at

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