I am impressed and touched by the number of people I have met here who have expressed to me their desire to “change the world”, or “make a difference” for the better; it’s a sure-fire short cut to my heart. This desire seems to be a common ambition across all disciplines, though naturally more pronounced in my friends in International Development-type degrees, my tree-hugging, animal-loving GBF, neuroscientist buds, and those in applied sciences… it’s beautiful. As we are all still students at university, changing the world feels like a real possibility for us, and not a grandiose statement.
Students are the ultimate idealists, we all know that. How many major protests and political upheavals throughout history and around the world have been instigated by us lot? We have the education, the ideals, the ambition, the energy, the hope, the time and just the right amount of disconnect from the “real” world to champion our grand beliefs. Most of us haven’t been ground down by the reality of working life and family responsibilities, and still retain that precious naivete that allows us to think freely and radically. In our minds, the world is our oyster.
I noticed a marked difference when I was working. There, the talk revolved around the internal workings of the company, office gossip and how we spent our precious weekends. Once you start building an actual life for yourself, paying taxes, getting a mortgage etc, your energy gets diverted dramatically, and zooms right in to the individual, awful, adult things one must deal with to be an effective, functional member of society. Big picture thinking becomes thinking about your savings for the next ten years, rather than saving the world. Student status is a state of grace; we are on hiatus from reality.
At the same time I feel like much of academia is a bit of a waste of time. Don’t get me started on reading academic writing. The general principle seems to be that, once I’ve grasped the gist of the text after the fifth read, I realise the whole thing could be summarised in a fraction of the word count. But nooo, everything must be stated in the most roundabout, flowery way, so that the writer may appear smart and original. It’s being clever for the sake of it. That’s not going to help save the planet.
Pointlessly wordy academic essays aside, I feel in the ideal breeding ground for cultivating the skills and knowledge that might actually make me a worthy crusader for a better world. To have your primary life’s purpose (for now at least) be simply learning and improving yourself is the greatest privilege I can imagine. And we are exceptionally privileged; as a friend said, regarding making a positive change, “if not me, who?” Having an excellent and heterogeneous peer group is the key ingredient, for they are whom I spend the majority of my time with, not tutors or professors. They are the ones who spur me to study because they’re hitting the books, or make me feel bad because they are partying when I need to work, and vice-versa. They are the ones whose opinions and advice I seek, who will ask for mine, with whom I will celebrate and debate, laugh and cry, explore and expand my mind. And if they too all want to change the world, then surely together, we can?