To the Weary College Student

To the stressed-out college student,

It is during meager study breaks that you give yourself a pep talk,

A “just keep going” kind of pep talk,

A “hey, I know you haven’t slept well, but you got this” kind of pep talk.

It is during every minute of free time that you snatch the opportunity to study,

Before work, after work, before bedtime.

It is during the classes leading up to the exam that you gaze at the professor,

Counting the hours before you can sleep.

When every study hour has passed, and you wake up on exam day,

I challenge you to carry an infectious optimism from your bedroom to the very campus of your university,

Because you were willing to sit on the edge of your limits for long enough to make it to this moment,

Prepared.

Before you open the exam packet, imagine.

Imagine a positive reaction to the test results,

Imagine yourself celebrating the week’s accomplishments with friends.

I’ve learned that we are more terrified of the possibility of achieving our greatest ambitions than failing.

Could we be as capable as we envision ourselves to be?

As I approach the conclusion of the midterms week,

I would like to honor the bags underneath my eyes,

The tireless pep talks,

The study sessions and “just a little bit more” moments.

I have not only epitomized the stereotypical image of the weary college student

but also achieved my midterm goals while being just that.

Let me wear my sweat pants as a symbol of relentless effort.

We achieve academic success only if we’re willing to crawl to the edge of our limits,

And gaze at the gray possibilities.

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A Lifelong Pursuit of Knowledge

Time is irrelevant, as Professor Schulze perfectly summarizes George Satayana’s assertion that those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it. My mind browses memories that support Satayana’s statement: recent instances of racism on the very grounds of my university, intensifying political polarization, the abuse of executive power, and more. Professor Schulze repeats key points, and my mind completes its search, like a webpage that suddenly stops loading. My thoughts are so engaged in this lecture that it feels as though I am the only student who is physically present in the classroom. “Wow,” I whisper, in awe at the extent to which the classroom content is relevant to my personal life as well as modern politics. I am intellectually stimulated, yet appalled by my sudden eagerness to mentally invest myself in a subject that I have often labeled “uninteresting.” Perhaps my self-doubt hindered me from entering this realm of intellectual engagement. But if I overcame the fear of failing to grasp the material, I would be less reluctant to be mentally present in this classroom.

There is a pattern in my approach to acquiring complex information in the traditional classroom. I either commit substantial time and energy outside of class and dedicate myself to consulting external resources for help, or I become resigned and assert my inherent inability to successfully process and store the information in my long-term memory. “Won’t I just forget all of this stuff after the semester ends,” I often wonder. But I realize that pure memorization is not the objective of most college courses. If I successfully travel along the unpaved path of the acquisition of knowledge, then I will have met my semester-end goal. Regardless of the grade I earn in the course, I am more interested in my personal and intellectual growth than a transcript that provides a limited perspective of my work ethic.

What I find to be deeply compelling about the learning process is the conflicting notions about traits that define a successful student, as the word “success” is subjective. I have met countless students (some of which I have taught) whose main semester-goal is to “get good grades.” But if we invest our energy in the process instead of the result, then we gradually evolve into lifelong learners.

As a student, I would like to define my success not by grade point average, but rather, by my personal and intellectual growth in and out of the classrooms of George Mason University. It is this subjective measurement of achievement that makes the learning process more satisfying than earning high letter grades. I do not mean to assert that grades are unimportant and should be ignored. But we should not become so fixated on grades that we undermine the value of our own learning.

If we dedicate ourselves to the learning process, we will engage in habits of active learners, which include (but are not limited to) the following: drawing connections between classroom content and our personal and academic interests, pursuing studies that stimulate our creative and intellectual drive, active participation through classroom discussion, and more.

As I walk into English class after Professor Schulze’s lecture, I immediately begin a discussion about the assigned reading with a classmate. I lose track of time, as we laugh about humorous insight from the novel we’re studying. It is moments like these that make learning so satisfying, when acquiring knowledge feels more like a friendly discussion with peers. After class, I walk back to the parking lot with a friend, once again engaged in a meaningful, and nevertheless, enjoyable conversation. We say our goodbyes, and I eventually make it back to my car and start the engine. Mulling over the productive school day, I exhale as my muscles relax into the worn leather of the driver’s seat.

 

Feigned Optimism

The alarm begins to sound at 7:30a.m., as the winter doldrums tempt the eyes to close. The body begs for sleep, but the mind is wiser than to let itself drift off. Suddenly, the brain recalls the myriad tasks that must be completed. Classes bright and early starting at 9:00a.m. and work until 8:00p.m. Yes. 8:00p.m. My finish-line. The end to all this bustle. The time that I can prepare to go to sleep again. I crave the feeling of clean sheets against a weary body. But where do I find the starting line?

Just peel the blanket away from you slowly. Let your mind wander a bit. Thoughts wrap themselves around the prospect of breakfast, of listening to my favorite songs on the way to school, of my plans for the weekend.

I get through my gen-eds (Math, History, English) and complete my work as a math instructor at 8:00p.m. On my way home, I remember a valuable lesson I learned from running cross-country.

Suddenly, I can’t remember why I am tired. I can’t remember that I’m struggling to get through the week. Rather, I am empowered by the fight I have left in me. It may only be the 2nd week of the spring semester, but I can already imagine the summer break… for during the break, it is not the restless nights of free writing that I will remember… or the rush to travel from school to work… or the wish to just go to sleep and shut it all out. It is the triumphs of my freshman year at George Mason University that I will remember… wrapping my mind around discrete mathematics until the concepts click. To my professors, to my students, to my employer, and most important, to myself: I wear these dark circles with pride. These “I just rolled out of bed” winter leggings, this “just get out of the house already” t-shirt. May I repeat the successes of my past. Better yet, let me surpass them. Let me find myself on the Dean’s list, let me surround myself with loved ones on the weekend, let me spend hours on homework assignments that trigger a thirst for knowledge. It is in these activities that I find balance.

So I will wake up for my 9:00a.m. review session in a few hours and demonstrate an eagerness to learn. And to all my classmates: you’ll likely remember me by “the crazy girl who said the homework was fun.” It’s a lot more exciting to fight for optimism than to give in to indifference. Try it. I dare you.

Planning for the Future

Hours fly as we converse under dim lights at a newly-opened Japanese restaurant, and our plates are nearly empty save for streaks of sauce. I don’t notice that the sun has set until I press the home button on my iPhone and see that it’s 6 o’clock. I remain planted in my chair, still, anticipating the next burst of laughter, or an astounding piece of advice that remains grounded in my mind like the dense air of a breezy autumn night. I tell Ms. Scharl, my former English teacher, about my concerns regarding the future. Informing her about my career and academic ambitions, I notice as fear and uncertainty coalesce. My greatest ambition is to live independently, but the only way to reach this destination is to successfully travel along the unpaved path of academia and career search. I am not a materialist, but rather a minimalist, and unfortunately, affording the cost of living is the prerequisite to living independently. And so the expenses will pile on, but Ms. Scharl soon shushes the voices of my uncertainties. She says, “Naima, you’re a go-getter. You’re going to get a good job.” Her words hold abundant weight, as they rest firmly at the bottom of my heart. Uncertainty withers away in veins that once pulsated arrhythmically. So her words rotate in my mind and follow me before I tuck myself into bed. The mind loves to plan for the future, often forgetting about the present and questioning, “What if?” Hushhh. Naima, you’re a go-getter. My brain ignites a chain-reaction of positive self-affirmations: I am confident. I am strong. I will succeed. Rinse and repeat.

I aspire to earn a Master’s degree in Information Technology (IT) at George Mason University so that I may become a college professor. My passion for teaching and being a leader among a group of individuals are aptitudes I would like to apply in the workplace. This profession enables me to choose a wide range of public universities nationwide, so I will have the opportunity to live in other states if I so choose. And even if I change my mind about teaching at the college level, I will have flexibility in choosing a wide range of professions worldwide, as Information Technology is a high-demand field of expertise.

I am thankful for those who continue to encourage me to fulfill my passions and to those who support me unconditionally. Thank you, Ms. Scharl, for fueling the fire in this 18-year-old. And when I am holding my diploma in a few years from now, I will thank and remember you. Your confidence in me is unmeasurable. Thank you so much for helping me take another step closer to achieving my greatest ambitions, for surely, this act of kindness cannot be repaid. But rather, it is vital for me to pay it forward. So when I look at all of my current students at Mathnasium, and even the ones in my future workplace, I recognize my responsibility to encourage my students just as you have encouraged yours. Thank you.

Why Eliminating Creativity in Public Schools is Dangerous

Staring at the clock, I acknowledged that I was required to be in the classroom for the full 90-minute period. Work in silence. Don’t take breaks; you’ll lose precious minutes. My body was firmly planted like a tree trunk in my own seat. “Don’t get up without raising your hand.” “Make sure to sign your planner before leaving class.” These regulations stole opportunities for me to develop independence. Mandating that a teenager carry a hallway pass when traveling from the classroom to a bathroom implies that the student cannot be trusted to conduct themselves appropriately and responsibly. Although these regulations enable teachers to hold students accountable for their actions, they deprive us of feeling that we are responsible for our own minds and bodies.  These rules do not serve to better prepare students to exemplify independence and self-accountability in their college years and beyond.

As a current freshman at George Mason University, I am fully responsible for my schedule, the quality of my education, and most important, my overall success and well-being. However, I often remind myself that no individual nor institution requires me to be in a school or workplace. It is difficult to feel truly independent after several years of biannual lessons on school rules and reminders to follow trivial regulations.

How do we develop independence within younger students without overwhelming them with responsibilities? Assigning self-conducted projects that require creative-thinking could catalyze the development of student independence. During my junior year of high school, my Creative Writing teacher gave his students full control over their progress as writers. In his class, I was encouraged to create my blog. This site began as a way for me to share running tips but evolved into a medium of creative story-telling. During the beginning of the school year, I chose to stay in my comfort zone by writing short narratives. However, over the course of several months, I had written poems, plays, persuasive articles, and more. Creativity was a clearing in which ideas and opportunities were limitless, as there was no “right” or “wrong” way to think.

Creativity should become a key component of school curriculums, as it helps students develop responsibility for their own learning and encourages them to venture beyond their academic comfort level. Creative-thinking is crucial in implementing effective problem-solving skills in and out of the classroom. Eliminating creativity in school leaves students to believe that there is only one correct way to complete a task or assignment. But through the years that I battled an anxiety disorder, I had to brainstorm multiple solutions to escape a classroom in which my health and safety was put at risk. Despite an awareness of my growing discomfort and declining health, I remained seated in that unsafe classroom. My mind flooded with thoughts of rules and regulations. I have to stay here until the bell rings. I have to complete my assignment so I don’t get a poor grade. But if we change the narrative from “have to” to “having the freedom to,” we can build students who know how to solve various conflicts that aren’t mentioned in the Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook.

We have taught students how to walk in straight lines and speak quietly in hallways. But do we discuss more critical issues, such as using creative-thinking skills to maintain our health and safety? Can we encourage them to “think outside the box” in situations when strict rules and regulations do not address exceptional conflicts? Can we eliminate “right” and “wrong” to encourage a trial-and-error approach to solving personal challenges?

As I am now halfway through my first college semester, I am deeply thankful for my success thus far. But when I mention “success,” what comes to mind? Is it my grades, or my grade point average? Although I am content with my academic marks, my success is accredited to mediums of creative expression. Through the art of writing, dance, and yoga, I have overcome mental health issues and personal challenges. Without creativity, I would have no choice but to walk the fine line of red tape, unaware that self-discovery and growth awaits beyond its boundaries.

Can Sports Help Students do well in School?

Running cross-country in high school yielded greater benefits than improving my mental and physical well-being. Balancing time for the sport with academics helped me build a determined mindset. As I am a college student now, I am confident that I will be able to manage fatigue, long days, and piles of work. I’ve had enough experience with pushing past internal conflict to achieve academic success. This skill can only be learned through experience. Anyone can say that they can stay up late to get work done. But when you’ve already put in eight hours of work at school, three hours at cross-country practice, and every bit of energy during interval workouts, you’ll build a greater level of strength. Your mind might be half-asleep at the end of the day, but you better believe that your history assignment will be turned in the next morning. And that you sure as anything will be waking up at 6:30a.m. just to do it all over again.

On the first day of IT 104, my professor informed the class that a 1500-word, APA style research paper is due in four weeks. Sounds pretty daunting, ay? Let’s talk about writing a quality, 1500-word essay at 3a.m. not because you’re fighting for your grades but because you’re fighting for your beliefs. Let’s talk waking up early because I’ve gotten up at 5:40a.m. on race day mornings when the crisp fall breeze tempts the eyes to close. Put naps aside until after you’ve beat your greatest competition (yourself) on that dewy cross-country course.

My sister informed me that college will be “hard.” So I meet all challenges with the persistence of a distance runner, the thoughtfulness of a writer, and the mind of a student who is determined to thrive as a George Mason Patriot.

Overwhelming Gratitude

Exhausted from my early Communications class, I recline on my bed. I roll onto my stomach, enjoying the feeling of clean sheets against my skin. Two hours slowly pass, and I open my eyes at 6:00p.m. My mind craves stimulation. I pull on my athletic tights and Under Armour shirt and drive to the gym. As I poise myself on the elliptical, I encourage a peaceful self-awareness. Chin up, chest open, arms swinging back and forth. I breathe deeply, guiding my mind toward positive thinking. I walk my thoughts into the golden gate of past and present occurrences. Cross-country races. I can hear the voice of a female spectator cheering, “Come on, Hayfield!” Thoughts of being content at George Mason University. The encouragement of fellow Patriots echoes in my mind, as they told me, “You’re doing great for your first week!” And of course, those little moments when tears of joy collected along my eyelid. Every time I try to explain why I am so overjoyed to be at Mason, I struggle to find words. But I can summarize it into the following quote: “Verily, after every hardship, there is ease.” (Qur’an 94:5).

Every students’ high school career has its fair share of highs and lows, but I underwent some particularly difficult circumstances that sometimes hindered my ability to learn. I am thankful to have developed problem-solving skills and to apply critical thinking to everyday conflicts. Being at Mason is the sunshine that breaks through gray skies after the storm is over. The storm is over. And I knew it was when I found I could finally feel comfortable in a classroom again and to express myself freely. The storm is over. And I knew it was as I noted that I am encouraged and supported by the Patriot community. So I wake up early on Monday mornings and go on runs around campus. I let oxygen fill my lungs as I stride up and down the beautiful hills of Fairfax city. This run, this honest self-expression is not only a celebration of my time at Mason. It is a celebration of life, a statement of gratitude for becoming stronger despite adversity. Today, I hold my head higher than before, as I observe the gradual changes in heartrate as I work out. The repetitive motion of swinging my arms back and forth calms me, and I increase the resistance of the machine. I let lyrics flow into my mind, filling my head with positive thoughts. The musician sings, “You can still be what you want to. You’ve got a warm heart. You’ve got a beautiful brain.” The sun illuminated the healthy green trees, as I sat at a table in front of the Johnson Center yesterday. Poised and confident, I observed passersby who rushed to their destinations. A woman walked past me, briefly making eye contact and sharing a warm smile. After she faded into the distance, my eyes welled up with tears of joy because once again, I was reminded that I am part of a healthy community. I am free. Free to express myself, seek support if needed, and to become successful without any destructive obstacles in the way.

Increasing the incline of the elliptical, I continue to listen to my body. The voice of a soulful singer flows into my mind. “You’ve got a warm heart. You’ve got a beautiful brain.” At the end of my day, I share this blogpost and wipe away tears of joy as I write. I am so thankful to be a Patriot, for my ability to thrive on the beautiful campus, for the chance to become the best version of myself. The tears fall unapologetically. The music still echoes in my head. And the visualization of sunlight breaking through trees in front of the Johnson Center comes to mind once more. I can sit on a bench outside the Performing Arts Building, or in a lecture room in Innovation Hall, or in a classroom in East Building. No matter where I am, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. Dismounting the elliptical, my beating heart eventually fades to a resting calm.

The College Balance

Time loves to present illusions. In the summer, the hours are unlimited. But when the school year begins, even fifteen minutes are precious. I wish I could save all my free time and bottle it for when I’ll really need it. It’s unbelievable how fast life is changing. Yesterday, I visited George Mason University and bumped into a friend from high school. We conversed for a little while, but in those few minutes, it felt as though I had watched the past six years fly by. My peers are human timelines. We watched each other grow up, embarrass ourselves, and make countless mistakes before learning how to correct them.

I sit firmly planted on July 28, but August 29 will kick me out of my seat as I look forward to a packed schedule. My friends and family have urged me to begin preparing for college, often giving me a polite, “Hurry up.” It’s difficult to sense the urgency when these summer minutes are seemingly infinite. But before I know it, I’ll be breathing in a cool autumn breeze as I rush to my first college class.

I am a juggler, as high school has taught me how to balance schoolwork, sports, and family life. But we’ve rewritten the script. I’ll be juggling college, extracurricular activities, and (hopefully) a job. I know I might feel overwhelmed when school begins. But I’ve successfully managed a packed schedule during high school. I balanced tiresome cross-country workouts with hours of homework before I’d go to sleep and do it all over again. Fatigue crept upon me during those final waking hours, as I wished that I could recharge without risking unfinished schoolwork.

In the rush of attending rigorous courses, I hope that I will establish a sense of belonging in the Mason community. I imagine sitting in the front rows of poetry slams, as my eyes watch outspoken writers perform. I want to join my fellow Patriots in the midst of laughter as I participate in outdoor activities. I look forward to being surrounded by intellectual thinkers who strive to make a difference in the community.

So as I sit on July 28, I am aware that the future won’t be exactly as I imagine it. I can accept that there will be disappointments and conflicts. But I will carry my problem-solving abilities and resilience on every commute to and from school. There are friendships to build, lessons to learn in and out of the classroom, and unique experiences to partake in. I cannot wait to go to Mason on August 29, look at the campus’ buildings, and think, This is the school where I will grow, transform, mess up, and rebuild.

 

 

A New Beginning

In the midst of countless college freshmen and family members, I reach out to others in search of friendship at my school’s orientation. The last time I experienced the confusion of adjusting to a new level of academic rigor and lifestyle was middle school. I am still the 12-year-old girl in Aeropostale apparel eager to find herself in the wake of a new beginning. “George Mason University feels like home to me,” I told my sister. But I knew I wouldn’t truly feel at home unless I had other members of this community by my side.

Examining the Concert Hall, I spot a student who appears to be more at ease than I am. I introduce myself without further ado, as she invites me to sit with her. As the day progresses, I expand my connections, and the packed schedule of activities flies by. A genuine sense of belonging transpires within me. In every direction I turn, I hear the echoes of laughter. Students sporting the green and gold walk in tight-knit groups, as  I share humorous anecdotes with other freshmen.

Time and progress is never at a standstill. But Mason’s aura of freedom and liveliness is unchanging. The school’s beauty manifests itself in the lush green trees around campus, in the green and gold students wear proudly, in the smile that stretches across my face as I interact with peers.

To get the most out of the college experience and life, I don’t have to exhaust my bank account or travel hundreds of miles.I simply need to be in the company of other productive, engaged, and friendly individuals. And I am content.

GMU

 

 

 

 

 

 

Freedom

Everyone wants to hear an uplifting graduation speech, not a five-minute spiel on the follies of the public school system.  But to me and many of my friends, receiving our diplomas symbolized the relief that we have long anticipated to meet a new freedom. I would love to talk about the upsides of my high school career—the cross-country races that delivered a rush of euphoria, the inspirational students and teachers I’ve had the honor to work with, the projects that helped me realize my eagerness to be an active learner. But as I exited Hayfield Secondary on graduation day, I imagined what the future held. I want to enjoy the summer air on the campus of George Mason University as I walk to class. I look forward to pulling the sleeves of my sweater over my hands as I exit the Patriot Center after a school-sponsored poetry slam. I aspire to balance academic work with building new friendships and maintaining old ones. Overall, I want to feel that I am part of a greater community, an aspect of the high school experience of which I often felt deprived.

On my last day of school, I asked several teachers to sign my yearbook. Mr. Viviani, a dedicated track coach and avid athlete. Ms. Passino, a bubbly English teacher who promotes an inclusive environment. Mrs. Poquis, an intelligent and experienced English teacher who demonstrates powerful leadership skills. And many, many more. As I read the uplifting remarks in my yearbook, I was dumbfounded. A substantial portion of my school schedule was spent with teachers who didn’t express their support for me that it was shocking to meet with those who did. It almost became normal to me that some staff members found it suitable to play a passive role in the school community and, well, just let time pass before the clock hit 2:45P.M. But it is crucial to work with those who strive to create an inclusive, uplifting, and productive environment rather than to criticize those who fail to do so.

Today, I attended my friend’s graduation party and met with parents and graduates who live up to the values that our high school represents. Feelings of support, care, and inclusiveness hung in the air. But it felt so foreign to me, to simply be asked if I was doing alright (as I had been sick for the past few days), to be embraced in the arms of countless individuals, and to be uplifted by members of the Hayfield community. And in the midst of laughter, conversation, and music, I remembered another adult who had supported me for many years, my cross-country coach. Before the graduation ceremony began, Coach Geraty said, “Hey Naima, it’s been a pleasure.” We exchanged expressions of gratitude and a heartfelt goodbye. As I met with these supportive individuals, I realized I had spent so much time in the dark that I forgot there was light.

The signatures in my yearbook symbolize a goal that I will satisfy as a college student. I will surround myself with teachers, peers, and friends who have a genuine desire to promote a productive learning environment. I will promote values that are vital for a healthy school, such as inclusiveness and freedom of expression.

As I walked onto the stage to receive my diploma, I thought of all the times I had imagined this moment. I didn’t know how to feel. Should I smile, or just carry on in the blur of short-lived applause? The diploma in my hand was tangible freedom from a staff member and classroom that triggered my anxiety time and time again (for reasons that are disclosed here). I felt that I was finally given permission to move forward—physically and emotionally—from the peaks and valleys of my high school days. I can now integrate myself as a part of an adult community at George Mason University where I will meet students who wear the green and gold with pride. I hope to meet individuals who demonstrate a genuine eagerness to learn, make a difference in the world, and take responsibility for the community.

Congratulations to the Class of 2016! I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.