College education is a mixture of choice, effort, perception and circumstance. Academically speaking, you can only choose from the classes offered: this is our circumstance. We choose our courses, decide the level of time and effort we will invest in class and rate the course based on our subjective perceptions of what education should look like.

A student can choose to pursue paths of knowledge acquisition or skill honing — academic “excellence” or a focus on experience-based learning. But often, for me, the question is, “How much will you remember when you leave?” Will you remember the historical events you learned, or the social justice concepts you dialogued about? Have you learned to write more effectively, or code with precision? What are you taking away from the classes you attended and sweated over as you panicked before a final presentation that you started only the night before?

Will the academic habit you hang on to the longest be your new coffee addiction?

I wasn’t sure what I came to the University for, to be honest. I thought maybe it was to hone my writing skills or to learn about how and why the earth was being destroyed (along with how to prevent destruction). Alongside the “liberal arts education” came the idea that I was going to college to learn how to learn, to grow as a well-rounded human and to become more eligible for the working world.

I did learn many things here. I took a wide array of classes that helped me understand different ways of looking at the world and understanding humanity. I took classes about writing and the earth. I also took classes that taught me more about gender, health, race, socioeconomic status and Afro-Cuban drumming. They taught me more about being perceptive and critical of the changing world around me.

However, the classes that made my experience here uniquely impactful were the classes that existed off the beaten trail. These classes understood the earth and the human mind as concepts that did not fit into textbooks, but rather as entities that flourished from creative environments of freedom and dialogue. They encouraged self-exploration and deep curiosity.

From these classes, I gained an understanding of a different life perspective — one that embraced the earth as a grounding life force. I gained an understanding of meditation and compassion as a type of spirituality. This spirituality deeply resonated with me. Coming into school, I had strong values and convictions, but coming out, I better understand how to nurture this sense of self.

I highly recommend these classes at the University. In Jazz 450 with Martha Travers in School of the Music, Theatre & Dance, students learn mindful meditation, how to connect more deeply with nature and different ways of coping with our daily tedium.

In Psychology of Spirituality with Richard Mann, students become friends as they sit in a circle and learn about the nuances of navigating life as humans.

Environment, Sustainability and Social Change, taught to first-years by James Crowfoot, a professor and dean emeritus in the School of Natural Resources, helps freshmen commune with nature in an incredibly accessible way.

Writing and the Environment with Aric Knuth encourages students to write about their nature-based recollections and share their experience with classmates.

Through these classes, I found meaning, calm and purpose with a new understanding of how I can interact with the earth and of the anchor the earth can provide me. I learned methods of walking and sitting meditation. I learned how to greet the elements and how to take in others’ life stories. These classes spanned beyond the usual limits of the college classroom. These classes based themselves in dialogue and experience. In circles, we talked about our personal journeys.

By learning to practice mindfulness from Travers, I found meaning in just being. I found paths to healing through dark winter months. From Mann, I learned sustainable philosophies for life. From Crowfoot, I learned that even the most reluctant students can learn to tap into their connection with the earth and feel a deeper reverence for calm. From Knuth, I learned how to write about my journeys in nature and how to translate my love to the page. I learned how to think deeply about the metaphors around me.

As a high school student, I perceived societal success as my ultimate goal. These are the goals set for you by the people around you rather than by what you determine makes you happy. I set about achieving the highest grades, playing varsity sports, taking many standardized tests, joining clubs and not sleeping. I was very stressed and very miserable. My most frequent emotion during that time was anger.

I went into university knowing that I did not want to treat my body and spirit like that again. Striving to meet society’s pre-set goals was not my personal path to happiness. This much I knew. What I needed to find out then was what would make me happy.

My professors in these classes didn’t have the same rules as others. Their highest concern was not whether you ended the semester with an A; rather, whether or not you grew as a person.

Learning about my spirituality was my real education. I find life lessons in the path these professors set me on. If you are still continuing your journey at the University, I highly suggest finding classes that speak to you along with the mandatory requirements. It’s possible that it won’t be the classes for your major that are embedded deep in your memory, but the classes you took for you.

Maris Harmon can be reached at marhar@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.