Academia may be a game — but we are not pawns 

Through self-advocacy we can shape our futures 

(Collegian file photo)

(Collegian file photo)

By Tessa Oliver, Collegian Contributor

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I recently read Dan Riley’s column “Academia is a game — don’t play into it,” and while I understand the cynicism of his viewpoint, I disagree with its sentiment. Academia may be a game, but great students are not the ones who exploit it – they are the students who thrive despite the game, who work within the system to make the best out of their college experience. These students advocate for themselves, engaging in valuable experiences in college that will benefit them long into their future.

Viewing college as an obligation and as a system you have to game takes away your own personal responsibility to pursue your interests and goals. Students are not helpless pawns or players who have to cheat to win. We are in charge of making our own plays through self-advocacy. In fact, many of us don’t even have the luxury or power to sabotage the system, especially minority students, low-income students or students with disabilities who have to learn to work within various systems from a very young age. For many students, the only option is to take advantage of every opportunity and resource that is available to them, from pursuing independent research to using the myriad of resources that the Learning Resource Center has to offer. A lot of students could benefit from this mindset, but it does involve accepting responsibility for your own education. This can be difficult for some people, especially when they don’t know where to start.

College is so much more than the classes we take and the grades we receive, and it is shortsighted and personally harmful to think this way because it takes focus away from the many enriching opportunities outside of the classroom that we pay for with our tuition. I agree that sometimes major and university requirements can feel irrelevant to my interests, but despite those requirements I have been able to have fulfilling experiences here at the University Massachusetts. During my sophomore year, I joined a research lab on campus, and I have learned a lot of skills and built relationships that I never would have had access to in the classroom. I didn’t know the professor I work with before joining the lab; I simply emailed him expressing interest in his research and met with him to discuss becoming a research assistant. I’m now currently working on my honors thesis in the lab and it has been an incredibly rewarding experience. I chose to pursue departmental honors because I knew that taking honors general education courses wouldn’t help me achieve my goals, but that doing a thesis would be helpful for my future career.

Students shouldn’t feel limited by the classes they have to take. If you’re interested in a particular period of history, or are interested in global health and know of professors who do research in those areas, you should reach out to them to discuss your interests, build your network and see if you can work on research projects with them throughout your undergraduate career. You don’t have to be in their class to do this. Most professors enjoy mentoring students, and the worst thing that can happen is they say no. If you want to do research and don’t know how the process of contacting faculty members works, the Office of Undergraduate Research and Studies is a resource that I highly recommend for students.

As a biochemistry major, I try to regularly check out weekly graduate research seminars, where speakers come in from various institutions to discuss their research projects. I also enjoy going to Distinguished Faculty Lectures and Pizza and Prof lectures through the Honors College. There are so many opportunities on campus for academic enrichment – you just have to find them. Many departments have a regular seminar series or journal clubs where you can engage with current research in your field of interest and actively network with graduate students and professors who are doing work in that field. In addition, there are so many offices on campus that can help you achieve your academic goals such as researching abroad, finding a mentor or applying to grants and research scholarships.

When it comes down to it, academia is not really about the classes you have to take – it’s about the critical thinking skills you gain, the people you network with and learning how to be a self-advocate, especially at a school as large and brimming with opportunity as UMass.

I think if there is criticism to be had, it should be in whether our school sets up its students to self-advocate. As someone who works at the Learning Resource Center, we try really hard to reach out to students early on. A lot of departments and offices could do better and there is always room for improvement. But the truth is that a lot of students don’t take full advantage of what is offered to them. Many people have this “college is a game” mindset, and that can really hold you back, especially since we as students have the power to make our time at UMass the best and most fulfilling it can be.

Tessa Oliver is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]