Four years before the lectern

By Daniel Stratford

Cade Belisle/Collegian

“Bright college years, with pleasure rife/ The shortest, gladdest years of life/ How swiftly ye are gliding by!/ Oh, why doth time so quickly fly?”

These words mark the opening of “Bright College Years,” the alma mater song of Yale University. Despite being performed mostly under the auspices of the Yale Glee Club, the song’s applicability to graduating college seniors everywhere is indisputable. After what many regard as the best years of one’s life, it is difficult not to express some degree of melancholy sentimentality about departing from the institution that one has called home  – especially with regards to an establishment as endearing as the University of Massachusetts.

We are often told as children that, no matter how insipid, disenchanting, or disillusioning elementary, middle, and even high school are, college is the place where we will find our proverbial niche. This self-searching manifests itself in different ways in different people, and, especially in a large public university, no two undergraduate experiences are identical. Especially for those that are involved in campus life, the four years of undergraduate study are often underpinned by this constant evolution and rumination – clubs are joined and later abandoned, friends are made and lost, and ideologies and worldviews are often significantly altered or even cast by the wayside entirely as one’s appreciation for the complexity of the world increases.

At risk of expressing a degree of braggadocio, this humble columnist will proudly proclaim his four years at UMass to be amongst the most enthralling of any student at this University. It has afforded me constant opportunities for extracurricular involvement, as well as instilled in me an indefatigable desire to read outside the curriculum – even more so than I did in high school. As a political science major, it allowed me to considerably refine my relatively verdant worldview against the backdrop of history-changing events, such as the onset of the Great Recession, the election of Barack Obama, the Arab Spring, the death of Osama bin Laden, and the coming-of-age of the Internet. In four years, I went from being a left-leaning libertarian to a traditionalist conservative, and from rebelling against society to appreciating the order and stability it affords.

My extracurricular involvement only expedited this ideological metamorphosis. I was initially a member of the UMass Minuteman Marching Band for two years, though I had to later depart that fine organization to continue where my talents could be most efficaciously applied – in the political arena. I was elected Membership Director of the UMass Republican Club in the spring of my first year, and by the fall of 2009, in the midst of what amounted to a sea change in campus politics, I was elected to the organization that I would call my happy home for the next three years – the Student Government Association Senate.

The impact of the SGA Senate upon both my political and personal development is something that cannot under any circumstances be understated. I was sworn in in the fall of 2009 as an awkward, meek sophomore that was absolutely terrified of public speaking, had virtually no student government experience in high school, and shied away at the most fleeting sign of controversy.

I was transformed over the course of those three short years into not just a student that happened to be swept up in the SGA, but an SGA Senator that just happened to find the motivation to be a student from time to time. During those three years, I have had the honor of serving as a Senate committee chairman twice, the chance to assemble an historical archive of SGA documents for posterity, and the opportunity to be involved in numerous election campaigns, protests, meetings with administrators, and decisions ranging from the mundane to the monumental. Over the course of three years, “SGA life” became synonymous with “student life,” and involvement in the day-to-day business of student governance was transformed from mere resume fodder into the very meaning of my life.

Aside from the most effective ways to practice the fine art of politics, the SGA taught me that UMass, for all its foibles, quirks and inefficiency, is very much our home, and not merely an extended field trip that we all take from our families for the majority of the year. In this sense, it is grotesque, but it is gorgeous, for it provides us not just with an education in the classical sense of the term, but with a sense of time, place and community – in short, with roots. This is a sense of community that I see every day, for the SGA office plays host to not just SGA officers, but to students of all stripes and persuasions. Student government serves as the closest thing that campus has to a melting pot, and, if Times Square can claim the moniker of “Crossroads of the World,” then the SGA can at least lay claimant to the title of “Crossroads of UMass.” The continued existence of the SGA evinces that there is, in fact, a “great chain of being” of sorts that binds together all UMass students, no matter how different or disparate they may be.

For me, student government initially appeared to be merely a “means to an end” with regards to self-advancement, but it eventually became an end in itself. Consequently, it permitted my four years in college to truly be the hitherto happiest in my life, and one can only hope that the same degree of felicity and sense of belonging can be had by future generations. In that sense, that Yale alma mater song doesn’t seem so out of place after all, for, after four years of serving its student body, my heart yearns to cry out on graduation day, “For God, for Country, and for UMass!”

Dan Stratford was a Collegian columnist and Chairman of the SGA Ways and Means Committees. He can be reached at [email protected]