Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Book the Fourth

In May I finished my fourth year of college. In keeping with the pattern of my previous posts, I'm doing one final "Book the ____" post.

Looking back, I'm glad of how far I have come. I worried about grad school and I was a lonely person... and I still am to some extent.

Senior year was different. It kept with the pattern of high school, which went: freshman year - exciting and awesome, sophomore year - lame and lonely, junior year - academically tough and most interesting, and senior year - first semester dreary, second semester paradise.

The first year was all about new beginnings, new experiences, and they carried over into a year-long high. The second year was the fallen year, the in between year, the year I had to get through to move on, the crash from the high, if you will. The third year was about building up strength and momentum in aspects of my life that I needed to shore up to move on to the next step. The final year, first semester, was the climax; the second semester, the resolution and falling action.

During the summer of 2012 I did research all summer in an effort to accomplish enough to sell myself on my grad school applications. I did this. It was successful enough to get me into a couple of grad schools, but more on that later.

In fall of 2012, I took a gamble and decided to return to Dil Se. No one from my old team was still there except for Manisha. See, in spring of 2011, I left Dil Se for many reasons: a lack of respect, a lack of belonging, issues with my role on the team and with the administration of the team, but mostly, I just felt lost, alone in a room full of people. My friend Sunny once advised me against returning, telling me that Dil Se was a tremendous source of sadness in my life. But the thing is, Dil Se was also the greatest source of happiness in college. So going in, knowing none of the old members were returning, I said to myself: I'll just do it for the music, if all else fails; and if I manage to make friends, all the better.

It was the right decision. I made many friendships that I consider strong, that I hope will last me a long while. I returned to singing and it felt good. And finally, I finally felt like I got the respect that I sought for so long. Even if it was only because I was a senior, I'll take it. There was a time I would walk into Dil Se practice and feel like I walked into a room full of strangers, people who wouldn't talk to me, who I didn't connect with... with maybe one or two exceptions. Now, I could look forward to seeing friends during Dil Se practice.

Also in fall, I applied to grad school. It was tough, but I was mentally prepared for not being accepted to good schools because I hadn't really thought about the research aspect of my application. My GPA was decent but not flawless. And my first Physics GRE score wasn't very good, either. But one week before apps were due, I got a much better GRE score, and that was a game changer. I quickly did the best I could on my applications and sent them off. It was a grueling semester, but I felt like I could handle it by then.

There was also something else that happened around that time, but there is no way in hell I am posting about it somewhere where anyone can read it. Sorry.

Second semester was my relax semester. I was done with grad apps for the time being; I could take it easy. I took Math History, General Relativity (for fun), a History of Middle Earth decal, a Quantum Gravity Seminar, and thesis units. All of these were great fun, and my workload was so reduced I was free to pursue forging social connections. This was my last semester, after all, and I'd be leaving people behind. I hoped to make sure the people I left behind were connected to worthy relationships.

Sometime around this time, I talked to Aloka a lot as we walked home from practices. And she noticed a rather destructive lack of self-worth in me, but unlike anyone else who might have ever noticed it before, she did not let it go. She was determined to help me, and help me she did. In the end she encouraged me to seek some counseling to determine just why I could not see value in myself and why I thought no one else did, either. This I did. The counselor, named Holly, helped me understand that I was simply perceiving the world in a negative way, ensnaring myself into what she called "cognitive traps" -- patterns of thinking that tended to attack my self-image. The key was, recognize these cognitive traps, and replace them with a more balanced thought. I tried to implement this, and I had some success; I came away feeling happier in general, and although there was the occasional catastrophic crash in which I temporarily lost all value I ever assigned myself, I now feel like I have the tools necessary to reverse this streak of something that might have turned into depression one day.

I was accepted to grad school in Physics. Both UCLA and UCSD accepted me in early February. From that point on I was really able to relax, because no matter what, I'd be going to grad school. No other schools accepted me, and that's okay. I probably couldn't hack the cutthroat environment of the top 10 schools, anyway.

My last great works in college were my painting of the Valar for my History of Middle Earth class, and my senior honors thesis (which I really shouldn't be calling great, but it's acceptable).

Life was well. Although I wasn't the top of the top in every way like I was in high school, I was happy. I had friends, physics friends and Dil Se friends and a few random others; I was a good student, good enough to be going to UCLA physics in the fall; I had begun to overcome a mental issue that I realized had been plaguing me indirectly for years; and the whole summer stretched ahead of me, free.

I might start a grad school blog. I have commitment issues when it comes to journal writing, so I don't know how often I will end up updating it. We'll see.

Thoughts on Graduation

I'm done with college. I graduated from UC Berkeley with degrees in Physics and Mathematics, high honors overall, honors in Physics, on May 18, 2013.

That's what it says on my diploma, anyway. (Or rather, what it will say; I haven't received it yet.)

But what's in a diploma? It's just a fancy piece of paper.

Well, I made that diploma worth something... and it isn't something tangible. It isn't a checked-off item on the laundry list of Things To Do In Life, and it isn't a portal to a well-paying job, and it isn't a status symbol to be touted in public. My diploma is only worth something to me. To me, it's proof of a real education.

Now, I have to explain what a real education is to me, and why I think it's only worth something to me. After all, an education is a stepping stone to success, right? It makes me somebody, right? I can tell people with pride, I have a college degree, I'm highly educated, right?

Before I tell you what a real education is to me, I have to provide a little context. Read on.

Once, while studying for my Physics GRE, I stumbled across a thread on the inter-webs posted by some guy who wanted to know what good his physics degree would do him. Would he be a financial success? Would he get a decent job? Would majoring in physics train him for work sufficiently? And there was a reply, very succinct, very eloquent, that summed up things perfectly. He said, No, the purpose of a college degree isn't to get a job... it's to get an education. College degrees don't directly train you for jobs, they give you an education so you can gain the skills necessary for life; a job will usually train you once you acquire it. He went on to say, engineering degrees are a little different because they're technical degrees, and so they supposedly directly train you for the workforce.

I'd always majored in physics because I liked it. I love being a student and learning things. But I know plenty of people who are getting their degrees for other reasons, whether it's money, or parental pressure, or practicality, or just because they knew it was the right next step. Those are all perfectly valid reasons. But somewhere along the way, lost in the annals of time, I think society has forgotten something: The purpose of college is to get an education.

Let me be more specific. These days, if you tell many Indian parents that your major is something like English, or Art, or Theater, or Sociology, you will get disappointed or disgusted looks and the question, "But what can you do with that? What kind of a job will it get you?" Even as a Physics major, my dad got asked that question: "What could he do with Physics?" Among many Indian parents, the acceptable path is Engineering or Medicine or perhaps Law or Business. Those are the subjects that lead directly to social and monetary success. I'm not trying to bully Indian parents, and of course not everyone exhibits this mentality. It's just an example to illustrate a point.

But the person who posted that reply is making the following point: getting a college degree at all gets you an education. That may mean acquiring writing skills, or critical thinking, or quantitative analysis, or debating and persuading skills, or social and communication skills, or things like the ability to stay focused during a long night, or the ability to plan, organize, and execute. These aren't major specific. You can learn them just as well getting a major in English as you can getting a major in Math.

Can you just imagine this idea in today's world? Majoring in something not for the content, but for the skills that studying that subject gives you? You'd think, getting a degree in Computer Science means you want to pursue computer science as a career. That may be true, but if you think about it, it doesn't have to necessarily be true. I mean, if you major in Philosophy, are you really going to be a "philosopher"? That's not a career, that's just a way of thinking, analyzing, writing, and expressing ideas. No, majoring in philosophy gives you a toolkit for viewing, interacting, and contributing to the world. You can use this toolkit to build and understand anything you want. In fact, majoring in anything should give you this toolkit.

This idea, that college is about education, not content, made brilliant sense to me: I know plenty of Physics grad students who are going to go into finance when they graduate. I know a couple Physics undergrads are going to go to medical school. And they're going to do well, but it's not because they know a lot about economics or about biology. It's because majoring in physics gave them an education, a set of skills they need for life -- and then they can go on to do anything they want.

Majoring in Engineering trains you to be an engineer (and other things of course). But majoring in Math gives you acute analytical reasoning. Majoring in Physics gives you data analysis and theoretical modeling. Majoring in English gives you critical thinking and literary analysis. Majoring in Theater gives you balance and control in social interactions. Majoring in History gives you perspective on current events with ready context. And so on. These are just examples. These skills will carry with you when you're not memorizing the metabolic pathways or the death toll at Gettysburg or the most influential Romantic artists.

When you think of it this way, you realize that your grades by themselves really don't matter at all. Your grade in a class is a letter that indicates how many answers you got right or how well you explained your thoughts on three or four assessments isolated and scattered throughout a single term, perhaps even timed to take place on a particular day, within a particular hour. Is this really indicative of how much you learned, or how well you know something? Absolutely not. More importantly, does your grade reflect the education you got from taking that class?

So when you laugh about forgetting all the dates or formulas you memorized for that test the very next day, consider that it wasn't memorizing the dates or formulas that was the point of the test. Even memorization is a skill, but that's not all you learned. You may walk away from class forgetting the content, but you don't forget the skills you learned while studying long hours. It's easy to forget this while in the middle of it all, wondering why does it really matter what year the printing press was discovered or why this essay you're writing about the political structure in Germany during the 1940s has anything to do with anything. It's clear that our education system isn't perfect -- we do end up valuing the grade as a reliable indicator of success, to some extent -- but perspective, for why education is really called education, is key to really seeing the grand scheme of things.

And it's entirely possible these days, as a bright student, to walk blindly through college, doing well, and considering high grades and the prospect of a well-paying job, a real education, and real success. I refer to this lovely comic on the dangers of going through the motions of a mechanical education. But you can still get a diploma, which is why, to me, my diploma by itself isn't worth anything to me.

To me, my diploma is proof that I spent four years sharpening my mind, my reasoning, my analysis, my thinking, my abilities to focus on a task, plan for the future, organize and accomplish goals, plunge into something completely new and grasp at least the basic ideas in a short amount of time. And it is proof that I spent four years interacting with many different types of people, learning to socialize and hold a conversation, experiencing some of the nuances, benefits, and downsides of being part of a network of people. And it is proof that I could work hard and be diligent when I needed to, and have fun and enjoy the brilliant world and the beauty of life when I didn't.

That, to me, is a real education.