Advice for the departing: Take a look around

By David King

I write this article for the students who are about to graduate. Between graduating from my own college, Swarthmore, in 2000 and coming here to pursue my Masters last fall, I like to think I’ve gained a lot of wisdom. Allow me to share with you some of what I’ve learned about life outside of academia.

During my years in the “real world” (yes, that expression instills fear in me just as much as it does you), I had the opportunity to meet many different kinds of people. A young man in the desert city of Tozeur, Tunisia, just wanted to sit on the steps and shoot the breeze. A motherly proprietor of a brasserie in Grenoble, France, lamented the increasingly hurried pace of lunch. A public bus driver in New York wanted to stick it to the French, and my host family in St. Petersburg, Russia—distant relatives of a college friend—took me into their home and treated me with a warm-heartedness that has stayed with me to this day.

I’ve met those who came off as confident but in actuality were shy, and those whose shyness hid a kindness; those who said a lot but had nothing to say, and those with a rare passion that touched and inspired me.

Having lived during those years in social settings quite different from this one, I’d like to offer you this piece of heartfelt advice: Try to remain open to everyone you meet.

Everyone will have something to teach you. I can’t emphasize this enough. You may have different kinds of relationships with professors and classmates than you will with your boss and your landlord, or the people who make your Subway sandwich or drive your bus, but when you close yourself off personally to anyone before getting to know him or her, you close yourself off to learning.

Though you may not think so, you’ll likely have something to teach others. A show of enthusiasm or an expression of thanks may serve as an example for someone in a way you can’t see. Remember that people express themselves differently and that you might well lift someone’s spirits without realizing it.

Outside of academia, one of my best teachers has been travel. If you have the time and the money, I wholeheartedly encourage you to take a trip. Take many trips. Travel off the touristy path, and travel with an open mind. The appreciation you will gain from meeting different kinds of people, encountering kindness from strangers, being exposed to different ways of thinking, and witnessing beautiful sights will be well worth the fear that comes with plunging into the unknown.

The University of Chicago is an academic powerhouse. But in my first and only year here, I’ve been disappointed to meet so many people who excel academically at the expense of appreciating another, very valuable side of life.

The motto of this University is “Crescat scientia; vita excolatur,” “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.” I agree, but I feel that a goal of this place, if it isn’t already, should be not just to make you think critically but also to encourage you to enrich this world with an eye towards humanity.

If you have time before leaving Hyde Park, I encourage you to do this: Get on the #171 or #172 bus, and strike up a conversation with the driver. Ask him how he feels about driving that route, how long he’s been working for the CTA, and what he’d otherwise like to be doing. Express a genuine interest in hearing what he has to say. I think this will be an enlightening conversation. And I hope it will be just one of many with different kinds of people to whom you’ll keep an open mind, with whom you’ll share your thirst for knowledge, and from whom you’ll be open to learning.