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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Classmates: a thank you letter

The other day Bradford and I had dinner at Cambodian Thai.

He asked me, “Who’s your mentor?”

I thought for a second.

“You are,” I said.

He laughed and said, “No seriously.”

And I said, “No seriously.”

In “Walden,” Thoreau writes, “Tuition is an important item in the term bill, while for the far more valuable education which he gets by associating with the most cultivated of his contemporaries no charge is made.” He graduated Harvard in 1837.

I’m not a model student and my personal favorite piece of advice is: don’t take advice. But here’s some advice: learn from your peers.

With the same organized rigor that you schedule your classes and extracurriculars, vie for the free time of your friends. Not just between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. on the weekend — though beer talk is certainly some of the best. But also for coffee before class or lunch on a weekday afternoon. If you can’t meet in person start an email thread.

With the same attentiveness that you take notes in lecture to earn a high mark on the exam, listen to what your peers have to say and ask the right questions to earn their deeper insights which shallow conversations fail to find.

Certainly it begins with small talk, “How are your classes?” “Did you go out last night?” But with genuine interest it progresses to, “What are you reading right now?” “Could you teach me what you know about meditation, music, math, etc.?”

From these conversations with my peers, I learned more than during whole semesters in class listening to a professor. A writing pal became a business partner; a friend of a friend, a music adviser; a philosophy classmate, a confidant. From acquaintances appeared a concert pianist, trilingual literature expert, national jump rope champion, renewable energy entrepreneur and all-star basketball player.

If they let me graduate, my cardstock degrees will say finance and philosophy in a fancy script font. But I would sooner have an 8 1/2-by-11-inch piece of printer paper with the names of my best friends written in crayon—this would closer represent the value of my education.

Because college isn’t about labs, grades and 150-seat lecture halls; it’s about the people you meet amid all that. It’s about proximity to amazing peers.

Recently, we grilled out for a bonfire in the backyard. Bradford showed me how to press dimples in the beef patties with my thumb so they cook evenly. He also taught me gratitude: how to control my breathing and talk to trees. Martini taught me Nietzsche and Camus. AJ taught me piano. Puddle taught me trading. Sir Doyle taught me conversation. La’Hyle taught me self-awareness. Annalee taught me empathy.

For seniors, everyone’s favorite question is: Do you know what you’re doing after graduation? I tell my parents about my job offers. But to be honest, I’m trying to do the same thing I’ve done for the past four years. The only difference: instead of going to class, I’ll go to work.

From an Atlantic article that Emerson wrote about Thoreau after his death:

“At this time, a strong, healthy youth, fresh from college, whilst all his companions were choosing their profession, or eager to begin some lucrative employment. … He declined to give up his large ambition of knowledge and action for any narrow craft or profession, aiming at a much more comprehensive calling, the art of living well.”

I agree with Thoreau on a lot. Something I think he got wrong: spending so much time alone. Because it seems to me the art of living well has a lot to do with surrounding yourself with good people. For seniors, I wish you luck postgrad in finding a community like Notre Dame. For underclassmen, I hope you find this community as brilliant as I did.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.