We’re all familiar with the typical day in the life of the Wesleyan student. It starts off relatively low-key: wake up, go to class, brave the crazy lines at Usdan at 12:30 p.m. But for most, the end of class is hardly the end of the day. It’s only the beginning of a whirlwind of activities and meetings: students rush from class to sports practice, grab dinner as quickly as possible before heading to an environmental activism/debate/literary magazine meeting, followed by rehearsal for dance/a play/a cappella/a musical group into the wee hours of the night, with schoolwork somehow interspersed in between and sleep taking a definite backseat to coffee.
When other students used to tell me about what seemed like the thousands of extracurricular activities that they were involved in, I was impressed with their work ethic and passion, but I also shuddered at the thought of being in their shoes. When I got to campus last year, I knew that I was entering a world of vibrant student life with a multitude of opportunities to get involved in, and I was excited to do so. But I also didn’t see myself becoming active to quite the same extent as many of my singing, dancing, sports-playing, science-researching, filmmaking friends (and often that’s the description of just one Wesleyan student).
Much of my hesitation to take on an abundance of extracurricular commitments was due to my own personal disposition. After attending a Jewish day school with a dual curriculum and juggling about 12 classes a day with several extracurriculars, I learned that the whirlwind lifestyle wasn’t ideal for me. I don’t thrive on the constant hustle and business like many students my age do, and I perform better when I can give my all to a few priorities instead of taking on too much. But my hesitation was also guided by a certain view of what my priorities as a student at a rigorous academic institution should be, a view that I realize now is not entirely correct.
I had long dreamed of the academic opportunities that would be available to me at Wesleyan; I spent my time in high school English trying to imagine what college literature courses might be like, and WesMaps was my preferred beachside reading during the summer before my first year at Wesleyan. A place where I could study what I was interested in and work closely with brilliant professors seemed like a rare and precious gift, and I got to campus determined to make the most of it. At the time, I thought that meant skimping on my experiences outside of the classroom. But as I spent more time at Wesleyan, I began to realize that this was not the case.
I didn’t realize just how drastically my opinion of extracurriculars had changed until I read psychologist and Harvard Professor Steven Pinker’s criticism of extracurricular activities in a recent piece in The New Republic. In Pinker’s rebuttal of an article by William Deresiewicz, which criticizes the admission process of the Ivy League, he expresses doubt about the place of extracurricular activities in the college admissions process and in the lifestyle of students at selective, academically rigorous colleges.
“Some of these activities, like writing for the campus newspaper, are clearly educational, but most would be classified in any other setting as recreation: sports, dance, improv comedy, and music, music, music (many students perform in more than one ensemble),” he writes of the various extracurriculars that he sees playing a key role in the lives of Harvard students. “Many students have told me that the camaraderie, teamwork, and sense of accomplishment made these activities their most important experiences at Harvard. But it’s not clear why they could not have had the same experiences at Tailgate State, or, for that matter, the local YMCA, opening up places for less ‘well-rounded’ students who could take better advantage of the libraries, labs, and lectures.”
Reading this, I surprised myself with a strong desire to argue against Pinker’s point. The more time I spend at Wesleyan, the more I realize how mistaken I was to once view extracurricular life and academic life as two exclusive spheres. In reality, they are constantly intertwined in a process of give-and-take that makes for a multifaceted and meaningful college experience.
Truly taking advantage of the rigorous studies available to us at a school like Wesleyan involves taking the curriculum outside of the classroom and testing it in the context of real life. As a student of the humanities and social sciences, I’ve come to understand that learning about abstract concepts of the human condition, justice, and diversity at a desk is just the first step; it’s only when we apply this knowledge in our everyday lives that we can solidify our understanding of these ideas. By collaborating with a diverse student community and pursuing our passions, whatever they may be, we put all that we have learned into real practice, and this personalizes our connection to our studies in a way that nothing else can. Success in a challenging academic curriculum requires dedication and passion, and this is best achieved by the students’ personal understanding of why what they are learning is relevant.
While the unique perspectives that we each develop through our extracurriculars might seem unrelated to the academic sphere, these skills often end up most enhancing our ability to succeed in our academics. The visual artist brings his or her attention to detail to the science lab and the literature class; the activist brings his or her passion and real-world experience to the government or social science class. These parts of the student’s life do not detract from the ability to make the most of a rigorous academic curriculum; instead, they provide the student with the abilities and the passion to approach hir curriculum in creative ways.
At the student activities fair last week, I decided to put my own abstract ideas about the importance of extracurriculars into practice, and I saw many of my peers doing the same. I’m confident that through these new undertakings we will not only find lack of sleep and a strengthened addiction to coffee, but we’ll also find new perspective that will enrich both our studies and our lives.