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Treat Your Education Like a Toolbox for Change

Looking back, freshman orientation changed my life.  I remember being quite intimidated by the people around me; everybody had a plan.  They knew exactly what major they were going to pursue.  They described exactly what job they were going to get upon graduation, and the type of house they would live in.  They said it with such confidence, and authority; for them college was just a stepping-stone to a good life.

I am lucky that someone showed me another way to understand my education.  During freshman orientation, my orientation leader brought us all into a room and talked to us about campus climate, resources and beyond.  “Treat your education like a toolbox for change,” he said.  His words still resonate in my mind.

“What problem would you like to solve in the world?  What is your vision for the future?”  he asked.

I had always imagined college to be like a restaurant where you choose a path from a meal.  His statement made me see it instead as a buffet.  His insight forced me to change my approach to my education.  Classes ceased being a series of hoops through which to jump, or a means to a particular job.  Instead they became indispensible opportunities to engage the questions that I had about the world, so that I could begin to change it.

So what changes did I want to make in the world?  What knowledge did I need to cultivate?

Well, I thought back to the conversations that stimulated me the most.  I grew up in Chicago.  I loved that my mom, my dad and I often had rich conversations about segregation in the city, the construction and demolition of public housing, real estate and local business, the disparities in access to public transportation, and neighborhood abandonment.  I realized that I wanted to improve the future of my city and improve the lives of the people who called it home.  After a fruitful conversation with a series of faculty members at the university, I discovered Urban & Regional Planning, an interdisciplinary field that empowers people to make real changes in cities, and for the people who call them home.  And I took courses in political science, law, engineering, mathematics, economics, history, and beyond.

So for you, what changes do you want to make in the world?

Take the time to explore this question.  Look inwardly.  Think about your own personal experiences. Structure your coursework so that you can understand these issues holistically from multiple disciplines and professional perspectives.  Be courageous and ask difficult questions.  Remember that your ideas matter, and that they can always be fine-tuned.  Listen, even to people with radically different perspectives; a divergent point of view might expose you to new ideas and new solutions.  Finally, find a mentor who will help you to cultivate your thinking and your career and develop a 50-list.

Here is a great video pieced together by Mak Edward Sansom with some inspiration from Will Smith.

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