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“You are a person first, a student second.” With those wise words spoken during my first weekend of freshman year, Dean Ritter of the College Arts and Sciences bestowed the Class of 2018 with more wisdom than most of us realized at the time. However, even with the words uttered right to my face, it would still take almost two years for the full significance of those words to hit me.

Granted, I may very possibly have been half asleep during Dean Ritter’s speech (clearly well on my way to being the quintessential college student who conks out during lectures), which is why the message didn’t sink in right away. And of course, it didn’t help that I was coming straight out of a four-year schooling experience where my future and expectations were built on a foundation of stellar report cards, near perfect test scores, and all around high academic achiever.

All freshman year, I was so caught up with grades that I failed to see the bigger picture, and it wasn’t until sometime sophomore year that I began to finally understand.

What made me see I needed to reevaluate things? Organic chemistry. As cliché as it sounds, I was one of those students who was doing okay academically, until I got to organic chemistry. The struggle between me and organic compounds is a story for another day, but that class taught me something important.


 

Having done average on the first exam of the year, I wasn’t full out panicking yet, even though this was the class many biology majors claimed to be one of the hardest classes of their undergraduate careers. However, by the time I got my third exam back, I knew I was well on my way to a C, which would be the lowest grade I had ever received in a class.

A few days before the organic chemistry final, I was invited to a get-together held by one of my club’s E-Boards. I was torn; I knew I needed all the time I could get to study organic chemistry, but I also wanted to get to know the members of the E-Board better, and this would be my last chance before the semester ended and everyone went their own way.

Half an hour in, one of the E-Board members sits down next to me, and we’re soon talking about weddings and careers and any number of general life musings. Honestly, I can’t say I remember the exact details of that conversation, but what I do know is that I was fully engaged and enjoying myself, and before I knew it, two hours had gone by.

Normally, I would have berated myself for wasting two hours of valuable study time, but to my surprise, I did not feel a single ounce of regret for spending my night the way I had. I realized I was so caught up in one particular class and grade that I forgot how nice it could be to just talk to someone else about anything and everything, to hold a conversation about our lives outside of school.

As it turns out, I still did pretty badly in organic chemistry, but it wasn’t the end of the world. Even though I still can’t tell you two things about alkenes, and my grades on my transcript reflect that, I learned plenty of other things. For one, to go to office hours more often. And another, to find more efficient methods of studying.

However, my little epiphany during my conversation reminded me of Dean Ritter’s words all those semesters ago. It seems pretty obvious now, but sometimes we need to be told, to actually hear, that as much as we are students, we needed to put our well being first, and that meant seeking fulfillment beyond grades. It meant connecting with peers, enjoying each other’s company, and setting schoolwork aside once in a while.

For me, one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had so far in college is being a part of the Science Olympiad club, in which we plan and host a tournament for high school teams. Being able to provide a fun and educational event to hundreds of students through my hard work and dedication gave me a sense of satisfaction completely separate from my role as a student. This not only helped boost my confidence overall, but helped shape my college experience into more than just four years of “attending class.”


 

As I’ve come to see, being a “person” first and “student” second is about making the most of the experiences in college that don’t fall under the definition of being a “student” in the strictest sense of the word. Whether that’s getting involved and taking on leadership roles in extracurriculars or learning to cook for myself, college pushed me to see myself as a more than just a “student” whose primary job was to go to class, do homework, and earn good grades.

Going to college taught me independence, from mundane tasks like doing laundry to becoming more mature by holding myself accountable for my mistakes and things I had left undone. All in all, these past few years in college have seen me grow as a “student,” but so much more as a “person,” and that’s exactly the way I think it should have been.

June Xia

June is a junior at Cornell University studying biology. She attended public high school in the Philly suburbs, where she ate lots of water ice and hoagies. June enjoys watching TV, playing candy crush, and reading the New York Times. Writing poetry and knitting kept her sane during admissions season, plus a lot of chocolate and hugs; she made it out alive, and is all the more introspective and aware thanks to the experience.