Oberlin Blogs

What Do I Do It For?

November 7, 2014

Alexandria Cunningham ’16

Back in March, I had an epiphany of sorts when I wrote Redefining Value in a College Major. It is in my top favorite posts right along with 50 Pearls of Wisdom: Part One and Part Two. Since penning that post a few months back, I have been thinking about why it was so popular, what purpose it serves and why it was necessary to write it the way I did.

More than that, I think about the power it has to spark so many more conversations about higher education. Why liberal arts colleges? Why HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities)? What works for students of color in terms of support, environment and academics? I love the post for its honesty and its willingness to address these kinds of interwoven debates about higher education. It is a moment of honesty I have not been able to replicate in a post since, so I am merely continuing that discussion here. With the same vigor and intent as my favorite posts, I challenge myself to answer what do I do it for?

When I was met with inquiries of my life after graduation in high school, my reply was always college. It was "in the cards" for me to go and I dreamed of nothing else but joining the ranks of the formally educated and the degreed. My most immediate concern was (and still to varying degrees is) financing school. When I think about the weight of that concern on my life, rationalizing why I (and my family, the institution, my financial aid, etc.) need to shell out $60,000+ a year is a serious challenge. The basic question here is what am I doing exactly?

Really quickly, let us recap what a collegiate environment is great for:

  • Honing skills, talents and knowledge that can be applied in professional settings (e.g. getting a career and not just a "job")
  • Learning broader social issues (e.g. poverty, racism, unequal education, etc.)
  • Encouraging activism and a developing passion for issues of social justice
  • Facilitating a conscious awareness of a nuanced worldview (e.g. critical thinking)
  • Promoting ideas of cross-cultural awareness and engagement in global issues
  • Participating in invaluable formal and informal mentoring relationships
  • Appreciating the blending of personal, academic and professional goals in the work we do
  • Creating the space to mature into the people/scholars/citizens we envision ourselves as
  • Providing opportunities that may be more challenging to come across if not in school (e.g. international study and funding for research)

College for me is all of these things and definitely a part of my broader reason for going to school. To be completely honest, as much as I love my home of Chicago there is little for me to do without my degree or without having a ten-point plan and some sponsorship. The reality is that I live in a society where credentialing is a real thing. My degree, though only a piece of paper with signatures, represents far more than its material value.

So let us go beyond the material value of college for a moment while I share some things I did not know about college:

  • Do not be confused. You go to college to find yourself. It just so happens that you get a decorative degree paper at the end of it.
  • College is not for everybody because everyone has their own path to follow. For some, school is all they know and it is all right if that is the route you choose to go. It is equally all right if your future comes into existence another way.
  • If you ever want to see how resilient you can be and see how much you have grown, go to college for four years. I guarantee you there will be a new person at the end of it all.
  • Most of the awareness and consciousness of social issues I have come into through a formalized schooling structure have been in college. Elementary, middle and high school fed me essentialized "truths" and narratives about my identities and histories while giving me few tools to critique that.
  • College gave me buffer time to figure my life out. Instead of jumping right in there and hoping I swim rather than sink, I am getting time to hone all of my skills, market my strengths and acknowledge my weaknesses and do something about it. It is not a perfect process by any means, but I honestly get to keep some vital time to slow growing up. Just a little bit.

My degree means a lot to me because it is the accumulation of my four years of work. In that all too small section of my diploma talking about this degree being conferred upon my government name with all the rights, privileges and honors followed by a string of other words, IS ME. What that section does not tell you is that in those two lines rest my tears, my late nights, anxieties, successes, wishes of dropping out when it gets too hard and the ways I had to learn to make it through. To keep it plain, my life is in that degree.

College, more than anything, is a process of life. If has just as much meaning as the other parts of my life and how I choose to carry those experiences out. I guess, for me, the answer to what do I do it for is plain.

I do it because I can. I do it because I continually have the option to. I do it because I am my dreams and my dreams are lived experiences.

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