Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Where none of it mattered, but all of it counted

With some effort upfront, a glimpse of the big picture
Kalina Kornacki

Perhaps I’m still thinking about my latest economics exam, but sometimes I imagine plotting my college experience on a graph. Of course, I’ll label the axes: assume time is on the “x” and quality is on the “y.”

I imagine hundreds of dots, each representing a specific personal event over my three-year undergraduate path.

Some dots will be exceptionally high: my brother and I in downtown Amherst on the first warm Sunday of April. Some dots will be very low: five midterms in the same week (of course, while I came down with some mysterious campus flu). Most of the dots will be somewhere in the middle: I bought groceries, I did homework, I stayed up late, I fretted over something monotonously silly.

As with any graph, all these points will trace out a curve — this curve represents the oscillating shape of my experience at the University of Massachusetts.

With all its magnitude and profoundness, how do I translate my college experience into something conclusive? Which points on the graph accurately preserve its “vibe?” What specific moments and stories do I bookmark, and on which memories do I double down? Overall, which points should I select to define the journey – and myself?

The answer: none of them.

The points no longer concern me. There should be no pressure to synthesize an experience into miniature, aestheticized personal fables to measure growth. I’ve learned that this only leads to self-constraining personal narratives. I don’t care about the details of what I did anymore. Rather, when I think about the big takeaway from college, I care about the sheer fact that I actually did it – the area under the curve.

For example, the other day when I picked up my cap and gown, I had the general realization that I had, in fact, withstood it all. That revealed something to me about myself.

So, in the end, none of the points mattered. But here’s the subtle distinction: all of it counted.

A conclusion cannot hinge on a single data point, but when you step back to see how everything adds up, the pattern reveals itself. I’ll forget the specifics of the past three years’ midterms, magazines and minutiae, but each still made necessary contributions to the overall experience. Zoomed out in the context of one another, I can see that every point counted. They counted a lot.

As a funny coincidence, a few weeks ago, I read Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That,” where she wrote, “That some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”

This truth has confronted me repeatedly, and I believe it will continue to hold. To Joan Didion’s point, yes, the mistakes count quite a lot– so some advice to my younger peers: never get too smug. But so does the diligence, the exertions, the goodwill and the effort.

Whatever you put forth in the moment, however fleeting, will come back in the end. And if you have the privilege of understanding this in advance — how your behavior will be both temporary and cumulative at the same time — you get a precious glimpse of the big picture.

How does one keep their eyes on the big picture? When nothing matters but everything counts, this is my advice: put in the effort upfront, even when it’s thankless.

To have high effort also means to care deeply and obviously about something – the opposite of the oh-so-alluring “cool apathy” in college. In fact, obvious effort might land you the brunt of the group project work or even (with heavy air quotes) someone’s “ick.”

But it’ll also land you the things you’ve always wanted.

In the end, none of the judgements or self-doubts could hold a candle to three years of insistence. I see the evidence now: caring is a strength, loquaciousness is a strength, taking things seriously is a strength. I’ll tell you this now: keep being a try-hard or a nerd or whatever. It makes life so fulfilling. It rules.

Today, I’m packing up my graph paper notebook. My college data set is complete. The points are plotted. The curve is drawn. The area is revealed.

And with finals week ending, I’m trying to stay awake long enough to realize what I’m even looking at. I think it’ll sink in eventually.

But I won’t remember everything that happened. I won’t even remember everything I learned.

But I’ll remember my effort — which is how I learned anything at all.


Kelly McMahan was the Creative Director. She can be reached at [email protected].


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