Distinction should achieve personal fulfillment

Throughout most of my college career, I have to confess that I have been a prolific “apply-er.” Summer jobs? Why not apply to twenty? Internship that looks like it would be 5 percent cool, 95 percent mindless busy work? Might as well! This was the logic that dictated my decisions during my first three years at St. Olaf. Now I’m a senior, and while I cannot claim to be that much older and wiser it’s only been four years, after all, I’m starting to reconsider the idea of applying for something just because I can.

I first received a message announcing the opportunity to apply for distinction this fall. Two years ago, I would have signed up without batting an eye. But after four years of applying for everything that lands in my inbox, my “just do it” mentality was finally put to the test.

I have to admit, my instinct was to go for it. Distinction sounds really great. The college describes it as “a recognition of the academic or artistic excellence of a student’s work in the major.” It is like a pat on the head in a very visible, public manner. As humble as we all try to appear, it still feels good when people acknowledge our accomplishments. Most of us have spent days laboring in the library until midnight, forgoing social events to eke out the last page of that midterm paper. We have suffered through lackluster group projects, attended lethargic lectures and read every last bit of Augustine’s “Confessions” – twice. So why not seek out a title that will give formal legitimacy to four years of intense academic effort?

After reflecting for quite some time about whether or not I should apply, I think I might have finally found an answer. I realized that distinction is not something I want to pursue. To me, academic “success” is cumulative, and it is not always easily measured through formal awards such as distinction. Educational achievements are more than GPAs and test scores and big projects. Completing a final distinction project is a nice, neat way to tie together four years of study within your major, but it alone cannot convey the meaning of the time you spent working towards that major.

To me, success is less about a title and more about the relationships formed within the departmental community and the experiences that have been personally and academically meaningful. If you want the title of distinction to formally acknowledge your dedication, that is fine. But if not, you should not feel pressured or forced into pursuing it.

In the end, completing a distinction project will not make my experiences any more valuable for me personally. Sure, it would bolster my resume, but I like to think that my other experiences, both inside and outside of class, are a better representation of the work that I did and the person that I have become.

At a college of overachievers, a lot of us seem to suffer from what I call “homepage syndrome.” We crave recognition and fall prey to comparing ourselves with other students, especially our high-achieving peers whose faces grace the St. Olaf home page. Distinction and similar academic awards are emblematic of this broader cultural paradigm at St. Olaf that can quickly become unhealthy. In comparing ourselves to others and vying for the most academic awards, we detract from the sense of community. This unspoken ethic to overachieve is probably what guilted me into blindly applying for so many opportunities in the first place.

I want to make it clear that distinction is not an inherently bad thing, and I do not mean to belittle the achievement in any way. If it is something you choose to pursue, that is great. I am simply re-evaluating the tendency to apply for something solely because it is an opportunity to add to a list of titles and achievements. I am also challenging the largely implicit belief that gaining distinction means success, and opting not to pursue it means failure. This dichotomous thinking can wreak havoc on our sense of self-esteem and personal well-being. Whether or not you choose to pursue distinction, maybe we would all do well to remember that success is measured in many ways. That alone deserves some recognition.

Ellen Squires ’14 squirese@stolaf.edu is from St. Paul, Minn. She majors in biology and environmental studies.

Graphic Credit: CAROLINE WOOD/MANITOU MESSENGER

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