The Persistent Academic

May 2016

I struggled to engage the mind, as a substantial workload presented itself. Lengthy rubrics and deadlines fueled a forest fire of doubt, and anxiety woke from its restless slumber. The word “can’t” flooded my mind, duplicating itself like countless pages being ejected from a printer… falling onto the expanse of a room void of confidence. I attempted to hush the subconscious mind, which was active in protest. The conscious mind was a fool to believe that its peaceful demonstration could repress such intimidation.

February 2017

I graduated from high school and have successfully completed my first semester of college. I am taking a course similar to the one of which I spoke several months ago. But there is one significant difference between the former and the latter course. I no longer encounter the mental roadblocks that once hindered my academic performance. Anxiety is a feeble enemy, particularly to the persistent academic.

Allow me to digress. I would like to mention that I earned an ‘F’ on my final exam in the class I discussed in May (and yes, I do mean, “earned”). But when I received my report card in the summer, I was not disappointed… because my ‘F’ was more than a letter grade. It was the purest symbol of trying and failing, and trying and failing, and trying again. It was a representation of my long-term fight against anxiety, and the many lessons I learned. I learned that my mental well-being is a greater priority than grades. I learned never to ignore my intuition, even if I can’t muster the words to explain the problem. I would rather receive an unsatisfactory letter grade and have grown intellectually than to earn an ‘A’ but not have achieved personal growth. Quite frankly, the aim of acquiring information is not to achieve an ideal result but to learn from the process.

On another note, it would bother me for others to perceive my academic success as a paved route. I am so thankful to have earned a spot on my school’s Dean’s list. But it is vital to note that high-achieving students often possess effective problem-solving abilities because they have had substantial experience tackling personal and academic challenges.

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.

 

Trial-and-Error

During the months that I was learning how to drive, I craved the opportunity to sit in the front seat and steer myself in any direction I chose. The yellow paper that reads ‘180-day Temporary License’ is a reminiscence of my drive toward personal freedom. But the first time I nervously shrunk into the driver seat, I accepted that making mistakes was an inherent part of learning. As I performed myriad reckless turns, I wondered if the steering wheel was secretly working against me. I let myself err before I could correct.  Overcoming a personal health issue I have faced required a similar approach.

I spent months pondering what the root-cause of the issue could be, as I often returned home with a flat tire. Without an understanding of the problem, there was no chance of reaching a solution. So I ran a trial-and-error experiment, using my mind as both a battleground and laboratory. My resources ran short, lacking in fuel and knowledge of how to successfully steer myself through the process of self-understanding. I panicked when my tires hit a pothole. I fought to ignore the issue, the occasional disruptions in physical and personal comfort I experienced as I sat in the driver’s seat. It was a pain that demanded to be felt, an uncertainty I often met as I doubted my ability to perform careful turns. I wished I could let other drivers know that I was inexperienced—that my errors could cause damage to other vehicles. But I continued to drive, confidently tapping the accelerator as I perfected turns and lane-changes. Today, I pride myself on being a safe and responsible driver, but I’ve travelled through countless unpaved roads to reach this destination.

The drivers that whiz by me before I embark on daily outings share a commonality. Our driver’s licenses are representative of the learning process—its smooth roads and unpaved paths, its epiphanies and its downfalls. We must allow ourselves to mess up, make uncontrolled turns and hasty accelerations. We must stop hitting the brakes and begin to accelerate toward a better version of ourselves. We need to take hold of the steering wheel and leave doubt behind.

A few days ago, I told my mother, “I don’t know how to park. My driving instructor never taught me how.” But ruthless potholes, impatient drivers who honk at their own leisure, and speed limits that exceed my level of comfort have opened my mind. Learning is most effective when we actively apply ourselves to a given situation. When I told my mother, “I don’t know how,” I meant, “I just need time to figure it out.” Let me mess up, and then try again. And again. Until the clean parallel lines nicely run along the tires of my car.

Dear Reader, through the journeys I’ve travelled—in a classroom desk, behind the wheel, and in front of a keyboard where I write my stories—I have made leaps toward personal growth. You, too, can steer yourself in any direction that delivers freedom and happiness into your heart. You are no longer the passenger. You sit confidently in the driver’s seat, as your mind floods with an eagerness to learn and expand. Get up and seek any opportunity you wish to pursue. Don’t wait, don’t say, “what if.” There is no better time than now. Just let go of the brake.