Wednesday, February 8, 2012

An open letter to undergrads

This morning I saw the link to this story, about the girl who sent her MIT admissions letter into space, and I was amazed. And then a random undergraduate student came to my office and called me a name because I wouldn't let him use my stapler. I wasn't trying to be mean, I was being frugal. But it got me thinking about the things I wish I had known when I was an undergrad:

Dear undergrads:

I was one of you once. I was not perfect. I'm still not perfect. But I have learned a lot in the intervening years, both in the workforce and since I returned to university for a graduate degree. I want to share some of those lessons with you.

University education is a wonderful thing. It is hard, but rewarding. Your university years will  be a mix of a lot of fun and a lot of learning (some of it will even be in lectures and labs). It is not, however, a right. It is still a privilege, and there are responsibilities that come with it. If you want to fast track to a good job and only learn the minimum you need to get and keep that job, you are in the wrong place. But if you want to learn how to learn, and how to think critically then you will excel here.

Even though it is a privilege to be here, you are just one of many. Take responsibility for your own education, and don't expect anything to be handed to you. What will you do to make yourself stand out among your peers? Intelligence alone isn't enough--it must go hand-in-hand with hard work, curiosity, tenacity, and above all, integrity. It is not unreasonable for you to be expected to work hard for your degree, but if you have all of these traits, other people will work hard to help you in return.

Don't be afraid to speak out against injustice, but choose your battles, and your weapons, wisely. Like it or not, your success in life rests on your reputation. How you treat each person you deal with matters. It matters because nothing goes unseen anymore, and it matters because in this world, anyone can rise up to become someone whose support you need.

Don't be afraid to be wrong. That is how you learn and how you grow. Seize every opportunity you can to be better: a better student, a better friend, a better citizen. Know when to admit that you need help. Know when to apologize for your actions and words. Know when to keep your mouth shut.

I speak from experience when I say that there is no reward for anger and nothing to be gained from passing the blame. There is no luck. It is up to you to make the best life you can for yourself, and when your dreams start coming true, at no expense to your own integrity, there is no greater feeling.