Do Your Thing

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This article was published in the Wall Street Journal Classroom Edition in April 2013

College is like being a leader in a circus performance: You must juggle balls, tease lions and eat fire. But if you want to impress the audience, you multitask: juggle balls while making gymnastics moves, swallow a sword while teasing a lion and eat fire while hanging upside down.

That is, assuming you’re interested in doing that much work.

Freshman year has mostly been an experiment at finding out what I really want to pursue, trying many activities at once. Writing for multiple newspapers, learning a third language, taking a shot at comparative literature, and so on. But after much academic degustation, the answer to that colossal question, “what do I want to do with my life?” remained the same, except with greater emphasis.

After writing way too many academic papers in a couple of months, sending way too many internship applications for “real-world jobs” and immersing way too much in my compelling third language, I sat down last Friday and wrote fiction stories. Fiction stories! What I love to do.

The point is: college provides many opportunities to try new things out, change your mind about passions and aspirations. But once you find what you absolutely love to do, stop right there! Don’t let it go; don’t get too caught up in the bureaucracies of life. Find time to indulge in your passion.

I stopped my busy self last Friday, sat down and focused on fiction writing. No worries about the “real world,” no worries about the 827 other activities to engage in. And on that Friday, I felt an unsurpassable degree of certainty and accomplishment that made me want to pursue nothing but what I love most.

How College Can Be a Day at The Beach

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This article was published in the Wall Street Journal Classroom Edition in March 2013.

Waves perpetually ripple in the ocean. Sometimes they are short and fast, sometimes they’re long and slow, but they always reach the sandy surface and crash along the way, dying down at the shore. Wave sounds depend on the waves’ intensity and frequency: sometimes, the sounds are formed steadily and repetitiously, one wave crashing after the other, the tchum reverberating through the beach. But sometimes the sounds are formed intermittently, and a quiet silence of five seconds or less bridges one tchum to the other.

The college rhythm works much like waves in the ocean. Some days are so busy with incessant tasks that there are no pauses or breaks between one event and another. Other days are irregular and you may find some time here and there to breathe. But no matter what type of day you have, one event is always bound to happen: the invariable crash of the waves, whether they’re booming achievements or thunderous setbacks.

My weeks of February flowed much like the wave tides of the sea: one week very harmonious, the next very turbulent. On my first week, I had plenty of reading to do but I read a book for one class, and some short stories and excerpts for two other classes. I kept up with my newspaper deadlines, and attended weekly club meetings. I practiced French and wrote for my Journalism class. During the weekend, I went to a mandatory college retreat up in Santa Barbara, a couple of hours away from USC, and immersed myself in meaningful discussions about class in America, but also in a lot of fun at the beautiful resort. My college week went as ideally expected: work hard, play hard.

However, the following week was nothing but frantic. As soon as I arrived back from the retreat on Sunday afternoon, I wrote an English paper due the next day. Then on Monday, I wrote another Literature paper due on Tuesday, and on Tuesday, another one due on Thursday. Because I spent most of my time writing thirty pages in four days, the rest of my homework got delayed: readings, two midterm reviews (for Thursday!), newspaper articles, and so on. You may think I should have worked on my papers the week before, but unless I ignored all my homework due that week, I could do nothing more than outline them, which I did.

Two more weeks followed in the same fashion: one balanced, the other completely unstable. When I thought I had figured out the best plan to tackle my academics and personal life, circumstances changed and consequently altered the outcome of my plans. The turbulence overwhelmed me at times: I did not know whether I’d be able to get everything done, and I felt as if I had lost control over my time. I was pressured from two sides: my academics stacking over in multitudes of assignments, and my personal life yelling for a break and time to catch up with friends.

The last Tuesday of the month seemed to be my worst day. Nothing went right and my 200-page reading due the next day (not considering other homework) couldn’t be shaken from my mind. Meanwhile, personal preoccupations were banging in my head. But as the day went on, the sky cleared and the sun brightened the events: I got my papers back and my grades were A- and two A’s. I also got A’s on my two midterms. Such an outcome brought me reward and relief like I hadn’t yet felt in February. The hard work was, after all, worth it because I succeeded in what I most love to do: reading and writing. The waves had been crashing hard on me, long and slow, and, because I focused so much on that stage, I forgot the waves would ripple away, but they did. And the five seconds of peace reverberated throughout.

Defying Gravity

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This article was published in the Wall Street Journal Classroom Edition in February 2013.

The spring semester brought me a challenge with picking classes that I didn’t face in the fall. I decided to take physics but had to give it up for the sake of my writing time. Although it did not make sense to dedicate myself to a class completely outside of my major, I justified my decision as an academic challenge and different experience. The lesson I learned following my choice, however, is that there’s a significant difference between challenging oneself and mismanaging one’s time.

 On my first Monday of classes, I attended the physics lecture, excited to dust off my calculus skills and study the behavior of the universe, as I did in high school for three years. The professor seemed helpful and engaging, but after the first day, there was a load of homework to do. By Friday, I realized that taking this class would overtake my time for my writing and major classes. My intuition whispered “Don’t take this class, Georgia” and I decided to follow it.

Physics is extremely interesting to me, but I made a bad choice in enrolling in a class for engineers, where I was the only creative-writing major, for obvious reasons.

Physics is extremely interesting to me, but I made a bad choice in enrolling in a class for engineers, where I was the only creative-writing major, for obvious reasons. The emotional conflict that overtook at the moment of my decision to drop it or not was foreign: last semester, all my classes were perfectly picked and fit in my schedule. But the idea of dropping out of a class that I wanted to succeed in evoked a sense of defeat, although I knew taking it would be more disadvantageous than not.

A couple of days after I dropped it, I got into a comparative-literature class that both challenged and complemented my academic endeavors well. Out of this schedule complication, I’ve learned that, yes, college is about experimentation, but it’s also about learning how to react when plans fail. This complication allowed me to identify whether a decision of mine would hurt me more than benefit me, thus preventing a bad decision from tainting the rest of my semester. My hopes for this semester are up high again!

Time Well Spent

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This article was published in the Wall Street Journal Classroom Edition in January 2013.

It’s hard to believe but it’s true: My first semester in college is over.

It felt long because of all the changes. I moved from the East to the West Coast, started living away from family, read books at a much faster pace and wrote more academic papers than I considered possible. I learned life lessons and acquired a different sense of the world that could have taken years to develop on my own.

Yet, it also felt extremely fast, The semester was, in fact, only three and a half months. Crammed in these months, I learned a new language, made friends, visited different places and cities and broadened my worldview even more. Life really changed, and I can see the differences going back home and reflecting on this turbulent yet delightful college semester.

The first difference I’ve noted is I become a more fast-paced person by the day. Although I’m on break, I cannot relax all day, hang out or chat with relatives and friends. My mind constantly calls to read that Victorian novel that sounded interesting in literature class; write a piece of fiction about the dramatic episode I witnessed yesterday; or read the New Yorker to keep up with American politics.

College has a powerful way in teaching students a lesson that high school never does: the world never stops, and we are always part of it.

In addition, I’ve also developed different desires: to become more financially independent, to keep an eye out for internships and job opportunities. Although I’ve always carefully thought of the future, college has stimulated my focus on future even more, because it has shown me how much farther those who plan can go.

To give an example on a smaller scale, the dedicated students who valued Advance Placement classes and busied themselves with worthwhile extra-curricular activities, started college at a much higher level than anyone else. These students are the ones who spend more time working on what they love and skipping the boring introduction classes. In the same way, I’ve come to think, those who plan ahead while in college will also start ahead in the job market.

Surprising or not, I really look forward to starting a new semester in college. I’ve enjoyed my break with family, eaten the tasty food and rested on the comfortable bed, but I eagerly await the moment to be back on campus. College is not as easy as students fantasize about in high school: finals week is a killer time and earning a high GPA takes much greater effort than showing up to class. But the effort is worth it because college lets you learn about the world without actually being part of it. Students will probably never again have the grace of living on their own without worrying about electricity and water bills, and having the only obligation to learn and become successful.

My first semester of college has flown by because time was well spent. Every second of it was dedicated to academic and personal growth in a way that would have been impossible had I not been in college. After sending my goodbyes to first semester, my only wish is: let the second be even better!

Be Resourceful

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This article was published in the Wall Street Journal Classroom Edition in December 2012.

It is hard to believe the end of my first semester in college is arriving, but there is one reason why time has seemed to fly by: I’ve been so busy and content with college life.

The reason is because USC, like other great universities, provides students with plenty of opportunities and resources that would be otherwise challenging to find in another context. Libraries rich with books, interesting classes, academic and cultural events, internships and research, networking, student jobs and a considerable chance of falling in love with different study areas; all bundled up and delivered as a student’s academic world.

I have immense passion and appreciation for books, so it is no surprise that I find libraries the most inviting places on campus, primarily for their unique ability to open up worlds with different stories, facts, ideas, countries, cultures and dreams.

Having been born and raised in Brazil, Portuguese is my first language, and so one day I decided to search for Brazilian literary books at a major library on campus. Enthusiasm overcame me when I found not only translations but original works by Clarice Lispector and Carlos Drummond de Andrade.

The variety of books available serve as stimulus for a more energetic intellectual community, which should be taken advantage of.

In addition to those, I’ve been able to check out the latest fiction books, sparing myself from spending money on new paperbacks and providing me with the additional thrill of walking around stacks with thousands of books.

Even better than outstanding availability of books is the chance to hear authors read and discuss their works. In early November, USC hosted a reading by T.C. Boyle, and he read a couple of his short stories and answered questions from the audience.

The university also has “Visions and Voices,” a series of events that promote the arts in theater, music, writing, as well as social engagement. I’ve attended operas based on Shakespearian works, talks with social activists and singing workshops, and I am satisfied with my cultural enrichment in college.

Events like these are valuable because students can experience a bit of their desired career fields and become inspired by successful role models.

The beauty of college is being part of a community dedicated to evolving and becoming more knowledgeable, and fortunately there are plenty of ways to explore academic passions differently. As classes come to an end and finals week approaches, I look forward to what’s coming next spring.

Let Me Choose

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This article was published in the Wall Street Journal Classroom Edition in November 2012.

The one thing I could not wait for, upon leaving high school, was to experience the freedom to focus on my chosen area of interest: writing. High school students are usually not given much power to choose what to study, especially because high school’s purpose is to broadly educate students in various areas from English to Earth Science.

Attending college is different because students specialize in their areas of interests, and are thus free to choose what to study, right?

Not really. The implementation of general education requirements bind students to a high-school-like system where they must take classes in key areas such as writing, mathematics, literature and natural or physical science. Although the goal is to provide a well-rounded education and opportunities to explore different study fields, these general education courses usually take time away from those who already know what they want to pursue, and force students to take specific classes in certain subjects that do not match with students’ individual interests.

Many students know their academic passions when coming to college and aim to take classes that will quench their thirst for knowledge in a specific field. I know what I love and want to pursue: writing. I will not change my mind about my passion, although I’m willing to explore other study areas and pick a minor or double major in something other than English. But my main goal in college is to write, write, write until I reach an ideal point of improvement. Is it helpful then to dedicate hours to a natural science class that surely does not spark my interest? My answer is no because it takes away time that I could spend dedicating to writing.

For people who have already discovered what specific career to follow, or know what their interests are, they shouldn’t have to take many general education courses – unless they want to – because they will ineffectively fill the time that could be used to work on what they really love.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are undecided students who have little or no clue about what careers satisfy their goals. A way to find out is by experimenting, taking a variety of classes and then choosing a field that seems most interesting. Thus for undecided students, taking several general education requirements makes sense, since it helps in their search to find their passion. But making both decided and undecided students take general education classes does not seem as effective because the difference between the two groups of students is very clear: one knows what study fields to focus on, while the other is still looking for their passions and interests.

General education requirements are important because they require that students experiment with different subjects and maybe discover that, instead of architecture, what really touches their heart is neuroscience. In addition, the “GE’s” do provide students with a more well-rounded education and broader worldview. But a magnifying glass works more powerfully when focused on one target. I’d much rather spend more hours improving my writing than attending that natural science class I am not interested in, because it will count more for my academic improvement in the end.

Colleges could perhaps invest in a better approach by offering diversity requirements instead of general education requirements. What this change would do is encourage students to take a handful of “diverse” classes – those unrelated to their study fields – that they consider interesting and helpful to their career pursuit. I may choose to take classes on graphics and web production, knowing that the expanding world of online literature will only strengthen my English studies.

The best way to provide students with the option of exploring different fields and provide a well-rounded education is to offer an array of classes to be counted as diversity requirements, handing the responsibility directly to the students to experiment as much as necessary, until they can determine what they love. With this change, people can combine different study areas and form well-rounded education emphases.

The College Bubble

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This opinion article was published in the Wall Street Journal Classroom Edition in October 2012. 

When choosing a university to attend, the city environment was a major requirement for me. Living on campus, however, has shown me that many times students become comfortably stuck in a bubble and miss out on the opportunities to grow and explore their chosen field of study.

The proximity to classes, engagement in academic opportunities and social life at the university lead many people into becoming more isolated from the outside world and less engaged with the greater community.

Attending a university allows students to develop knowledge on a specific area of interest as well as to become citizens of the world. In college, we learn to critically analyze societal issues that surround us in order to, not only recognize them, but know how to solve them and come up with innovative ways to improve society as a whole. However, it has been interesting to note that, in most cases, students become part of a university bubble where the rest of the world may be observed and discussed about, but it remains being an isolated rest of the world.

In many ways, the opportunity to be away from societal concerns give students the time to understand them more and create alternative ways of addressing issues that would otherwise be harder to come up with. However, after starting college this fall, it hasn’t take me much time to realize that, unfortunately, many students take advantage of this safe isolation by living with an undisciplined and careless manner.

The key is not to use the given freedom to engage too much in social life or simply hide inside a dorm all day, but to go out and explore. The world is at our feet, and the university should be our support and link to the real world. College, being a transition between the haven many of us have been raised in and the responsibility of independent life, should be seen as an ideal opportunity to be more adventurous, explore areas of interest avidly and obtain great results out of it.

As Steve Jobs pointed out, life-changing experiences take place outside of the classroom. The bubble should not stop students from exploring the world surrounding them, but instead provide a safe environment in which to do so.