The pillars of a Zen Valedictorian

By Cassie Jeon

Marsha Gelin/Collegian
Marsha Gelin/Collegian

Learning to give up was the most important lesson I learned from my high school teacher.

I was sitting in her classroom a few minutes before the bell rang when she came over to me and asked, “Are you okay?” And to my utter mortification and shame, I found my voice cracking, tears drenching my face, and that I was in desperate need of some tissues.

During my senior year of high school, I was taking six AP classes, had an insane workload, was involved with my high school’s marching band, was working twenty hours a week and also working as a teacher’s assistant. I was getting anywhere from three to five hours of sleep a night. My sleep-deprivation upset my immune system, and I became ill in September and never fully recovered until after my graduation. Oh, and just to add to my stress, there was that “minor” ordeal of applying to colleges.

That day, my teacher made it clear – and I certainly felt it – that she could see I was physically, mentally and emotionally drained. She told me that there was nothing wrong with cutting down on commitments. I didn’t get it, of course, at first.

After my first year of college I did it again. I overloaded on credits, joined too many clubs and worked ridiculous hours. The result? I was tired and received poor grades that were not reflective of my intelligence or skills.

Deciding things had to change, I took some advice from an online blog called Study Hacks, which was run by Cal Newport. Newport was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT] pursuing his Ph.D at the time. He firmly believed students shouldn’t have to go through incredible stress in order to appear impressive. Newport lists four categories that college students fall into, and their descriptions hit home.

One of the categories he lists is called “The Grind.” This person is often under huge amounts of stress. From overloading on credits to participating in an endless amount of clubs, this student is sacrificing a lot of time and energy for an impressive resumé and hopefully a job opportunity after graduation. “The Failed Grind” has burned out. All the commitments were too much, so the student is left with mediocre grades, poor health and anguish which made all the hard work amount to nothing. “The Slacker” is not concerned with grades or anything else besides having fun, and while this student may lead a relaxed life there are little rewards reaped through this kind of party-only lifestyle. Finally, there is the “Zen Valedictorian.” This student seems just as impressive as “The Grind,” yet leads a relaxed lifestyle and maintains a social life. Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? How can someone be impressive without having a list of activities?

The Zen Valedictorian Philosophy proposes a student do less in order to accomplish more. A Zen Valedictorian does not enroll in more than the minimum number of classes so that the student can focus on getting a good grade but also leaving room to explore a subject further if their interest is piqued. This isn’t possible when a student is scrambling to do all the assignments for a packed schedule and rushing to get them done.

Clubs and extracurricular activities are limited to just one or two and definitely no more than three. The point is to get involved and work yourself up to a higher level of responsibility instead of being just a passive member of any given group.

Time left over from having a simplified schedule is used towards developing interests or honing skills this student might already have. If there isn’t anything in particular, a Zen Valedictorian uses this free time to explore. The important thing is once something does seem appealing a student needs to take action and follow up rather than putting it off until later.

The Zen Valedictorian Philosophy encourages students to present themselves as [and truly be] interesting rather than impressive by focusing in one or two areas and gaining expertise rather than having a hand in a variety of interests.

Using Newport’s strategies last year, I was able to bring my grades up significantly and actually have time to pursue activities that I never had time for because of my former packed schedule. Now in my third year, I still find myself fighting the instinct to fill up my schedule. At times, I feel like I should be doing more – especially as I watch friends take more than 18 credits or get involved with an obscene number of on-campus activities. Yet, I know the stress and exhaustion are not worth giving up my less hectic and still fulfilling lifestyle.

The add/drop period ended yesterday, but students still have one month to withdraw from their classes with a ‘W’ on their record. I would urge all “Grinds” to take a look at their schedule this fall and realize that our academic successes are not part of a competition. The first one to finish does not always win.

And transitioning into the job market will be far easier for students who chose to become experts in selective fields and not sacrifice their health and sanity to fill up a single sheet resume.

Cassie Jeon is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]