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(Sept. 5, 2002, Gazette)

A fine balance

Stephanie McCarthyI remember the very first semester that I started university, one of my friends planned out on paper each course she would have to do to for her chosen degree and which term she would complete each in. I was amazed. She was thoroughly organized, and absolutely sure that this was the path she was going to follow. As I watched her write it all down, I thought, that is too much information for me. Unlike my friend, I did not set down the parameters of the next four years, in part because I did not know which program I was going to be in. But more than that, I discovered something about myself: I instinctively shy away from absolutes. I’d like to know there is leeway.

The idea that everything is planned and set up a certain way only serves to make me want to do it slightly differently. Yet I am far from a rebel. It tends to be small things that I have difficulty with. For example, the very important and rightly emphasized writing of an essay outline. For as long as I can remember, my preferred method of tackling such a task was to simply sit down and write. Planning the essay in advance was more tortuous than any actual essay-writing could be. Selecting sub-topics and sub-sub-topics meant you had to know where you were going with the essay before you even got there. I found it easier to create as I went. While I didn’t suffer academically for it, the outline most likely does facilitate things in the end ... if you can do it!

Another reason I was mystified that my friend was already planning her next four or five years was that she was thinking ahead that far ahead. At the time, five years in the future to me was unfathomable. I thought, I cannot plan for five years from now. What will I be like? What will I want to do? It was too abstract. Undoubtedly my friend had a much better grasp on time; she knew probably better than the rest of us how quickly those years would pass, and that we would suddenly be where we hadn’t been able to picture. I admire this friend of mine tremendously. And although I know I could never be like her, I am not a complete opposite of her. I have been organizing my future academic plans for quite some time now; and I am known to write spot-on to-do lists and efficiently assimilate information and organize tasks. I know why people like to organize things right down to the last detail. When you do have things planned out, you get a little thrill; you now have given voice to what you want to do and are now in total control. There is satisfaction from seeing your plans progressing as you had envisaged. I enjoy seeing plans come to fruition too. I simply do things a little less rigidly. I like to think there isn’t just one best way of doing something. Possibilities are very important to me.

That is probably why I smile inwardly when asked “Where would you like to be in 10 years?” Of course I know generally what I would like to be doing: working with an international organization, whose principal is implementing concrete, practical ways to aid others; traveling and expanding my skills and interests. How I will get there though is yet unwritten. I look forward to attending school again in order to be able to compete in the post-graduate world. I love autumn and for me, rather than spring, it symbolizes a fresh beginning. However, if you had asked me five years ago, I most likely would have stared at you blankly when you mentioned grad school.
And as you will likely hear, if you are just starting university, although there are deadlines by which you should establish your main academic interests, there is also no penalty for changing them as you go. Just as essay outlines exist for a good reason, so do official recommendations for submitting your chosen degree. I remember deciding on my undergraduate degree in my second year (with a change in minor one year later). Quite a reasonable time, actually. It just took me extra time to be convinced that the options I chose were feasible and meaningful. Perhaps that is another matter: making academic and career plans is easier for some because they never question the “appropriateness” of their course of action. As in the case of my friend, she was driven by what she wanted to do because that was what she enjoyed, end of story. I on the other hand questioned the legitimacy of completing a degree in a topic I really liked. Wasn’t that too easy a decision? Wasn’t university always meant to be difficult?

Intellectually challenging, yes. Occasionally frustrating, of course. Different degrees hold various requirements, some which may be not suited to everyone. What is difficult for some is eagerly embraced by others. Perhaps my friend was ahead of us all because she already knew that her degree was the best for her, given her interests and strengths. When I waited longer to chose a program, perhaps I was resisting acting according to my own interests because I thought I was closing off possibilities. Perhaps I would be better off doing something else? I have realized since then thinking like that is simply not realistic. There is no “end” once you have made a decision, no consummate plan that cannot be altered. Possibilities do exist once you have committed yourself to a certain path: in fact, they tend to flourish once you get more involved. Indeed, you will flourish when you stop worrying about the “something else.” Wonder about the future, but don’t be afraid to act in the present: strike a balance.