Last semester, about two-thirds of the way into the semester, I took a conscious decision about what I wanted to do this winter break. I decided that I wanted to relax. Take it easy. Slack off completely. Just laze around. Sleep in late. Watch TV. Get multiple food babies. I promised myself I’d be on “break” break for a change, with next to no work or responsibilities hovering over my head.
I felt I really needed this break because after one semester, one winter break working on a project, another (tougher) semester, an internship and yet another taxing semester, I was starting to lose steam and decided I might just burn myself out if I kept going. Plus, I needed to be properly rested for the next semester, which promises to be as challenging if not more so than the ones before it..
Anyway, I’m in Lake Zurich, Illinois, at my cousin’s for winter break. It’s Christmas, and the snow outside more than makes up for the subzero temperatures. I’m spending time catching up with TV shows, movies I really need to watch, old friends, new friends, friends to be, more than friends. I really do want Bruno Mars’ The Lazy Song to be the story of my life for the next two weeks or so.
Those who know me might recognise this as behaviour uncharacteristic of me. I won’t lie – I’ve been notorious for unconsciously testing my own limits on many occasions. Sleep. Food. Physical and mental wellbeing. They’ve been tossed out the window on occasion, to be retrieved from the sidewalk once the imminent train wreck has been averted.
This past semester, my third at CMU, is a prime example of what I’d like to call “the sophomore scrabble”. I may be recycling an analogy, but bear with me. It’s like racing up a mountain, except the sides consist of nothing but loose gravel and small rocks with only a few real crevices to serve as footholds and handholds. Something I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out is if this is the product of my own devices, or if it’s “the CMU way”.
I’ve taken the liberty of creating a short recipe for the CMU way. Modify it as you see fit. Add two large scoops of academic rigour, one (or two) scoop of non-academic commitments, one scoop of social life (optional). Next, add a dollop of food (as per taste and appetite). Sprinkle on a light dusting of sleep and rest. Best served in a waffle cone made of your own grit and tears. Just hope for the best.
But after seeing friends from all the different walks of college life at CMU fall victim to a similar struggle for balance, I don’t need a statistician’s permission to jump from empirical evidence to a theory – the CMU way is hard. It is taxing. It is rewarding. It is stressful. It is blissful. It is hell. It is heaven. It is anything and everything you want it to be, but it can never be easy.
But how can you even expect it to be easy? If you handpick the best and the brightest from around the country, and indeed, the world, and put them down on a campus with each other for company, you should expect magic. The magic that results from subjecting these minds to a rigorous program that tests their limits and presenting them with seemingly endless opportunities in every possible direction.
This brings me back to the unclimbable mountain analogy: the alternative to the CMU way is the possibility of a self-created mirage. I guess this is true in part – when you have several ambitious individuals trying to do their best, sometimes in a competitive manner, mountains are indeed made out of molehills. But the sad reality is that the CMU way is just a minefield of such molehills
Being the best and brightest, striving for success is second nature to us. I speak for the vast majority of students here when I say that settling for less does not come easily. This quest for success only makes CMU’s hurdles even more challenging. The CMU way is hard enough as it is – and trying to sprint your way through it, up and down molehills-turned-mountains really isn’t a task for the weak of heart.
But as I labour along this path, I see others racing past. There is magic to behold. When I hear or read about fellow students discovering and creating, striving to leave their mark on this campus and, consequently, the world, I am not filled with envy, but with a sense of wonder and pride. The fact that I am on the same path as them inspires me to keep going. The destination at the end is within everyone’s reach, but it is up to the individual to undertake the journey.
The academic and research programmes in this university would be worth next to nothing if it were not for the passion that courses through its veins. The vast majority of students I meet on my campus are not simply going through the motions of earning a degree – they are working towards a goal, personal, academic, professional or otherwise.
What I’m trying to say is that it is not sheer brilliance or intellect that drives this place – it is the people. Yes, even I cringed at the cliché, but personally, I have not been at a place where this adage has ever held truer. I know CMU is not the only place this holds true for – a quick glance at a few of its peer institutions gives us a handful of examples right within the realm of academia itself.
The people – they come from all walks of life, from different families, high schools, towns, cities and towns. The uniting factor? Passion. Passion is necessary to survive at CMU, but is it sufficient? Far from it. To bring this romantic piece of prose crashing down to reality, I invoke memories of the nitty-gritty of CMU that are capable of crafting a living hell. All-nighters. Exams. Deadlines. Time. Lack thereof. Clubs. Organisations. Meetings. Projects. Reports. Grades. Sleep. Lack thereof.
Passion steeled me for all of this, but it can not prepare you for any of this. Passion can motivate you to conquer CMU, but it cannot assist you. No matter where you’ve been before, it will be a challenge. Even for the best prepared, at the very least, the material will need to be overcome. For the most naïve, the notion of independent accountability will be brutally reinforced.
The process of acquiring the skills needed to survive at 15213 PA is not a simple one. It is one of failure, of success, of tension, of relief. Each assignment, each project, each exam teaches you something new. You can take it or leave it, but there is a lesson to be learnt in every challenge you encounter at CMU. Time management, task prioritisation and dynamic balance are just the bare essentials here.
But like a rubber band that has been stretched one too many times, some people snap. But of course, if you take the best and brightest and plunge them into a world of challenges, it’s reasonable to expect that not everyone can cope. Not everyone can cope with the feeling of not being able to cope. CMU takes the balance you may or may not have had coming in, disregards it completely, and loads you with its own weights.
The resources, the people, that you need to make it are well within reach, but it takes monumental effort to will yourself into accepting you need help. The help comes in many shapes and form – academic support, personal support, professional support. And indeed, from all quarters, family, friends, student life, faculty, staff, strangers. But all of this is worthless till you reach out.
I work hard so that I can avoid my life from becoming a train wreck. But this semester, it hit me – a different train, actually. Thanks to all my efforts to avoid the first train wreck, I’d probably ended up in one that was worse. There were points during the semester when I was a sleep deprived, hungry, lonely, frustrated, terrified, desperate mess. In retrospect, I was responsible for that mess.
In the madness of it all, I must have lost track. Of the people I needed. I forgot that this place is about the people and I didn’t realise that everybody could relate. Yes, it was my burden to bear, but I didn’t need to hide it. I forgot to embrace the CMU way. I needed help but didn’t want to need it. As if I had an option! I now realise that toughing it out was the single worst thing I could’ve done to cope.
The tough exterior must fall to the ground like a discarded skin. And I take off my mask of competence and ability. I now choose to embrace the CMU way. I hold my burdens high above my head, not because I am proud, but because I now know when it gets too heavy, someone will notice. And to remind others like myself that they are not alone with their own burdens.
But more importantly, I forgot all the people that needed me. Friends and family that I did not stay in touch with as much as I should have. In some respect, I lost touch with the rest of humanity and became a single-minded goal-oriented monster. I’m not going to let that happen again. In fact, I’d say that’s my early new year’s resolution and definitely one of the most important ones that I’ll be making.
I mentioned earlier that the CMU way is a path to a destination. That’s true and false. It’s a path to a destination, but that destination is not permanent. The destination is where you want to be. It’s important not to lose a sense of who you are and where you’re going because the journey is confusing and demanding. And as I’m going along this path, I can’t help but remember that thing they say during Playfair over and over…
…”If it gets too crazy, just let go.”