“These are the best 4 years of your life.” How many times does an undergraduate have to endure these words from a well intentioned parent, teacher, or older friend? Students are urged to excess (of studying, socializing, traveling, and pursuing new endeavors) in the name of maximizing the potential that the undergraduate experience promises. The plethora of opportunities for enrichment, personal growth, and fun, combined with the benefits of carefree youth and boundless energy, are supposed to make for the happiest period of one’s life.
These words that are meant as an encouragement to embrace new opportunities and broader horizons so often become a burden, pressuring students to play as hard as they work, and to savor the fun and friendships that college facilitates. Those friendships are genuine goods, and universities have a special ability to induce students to step outside of their comfort zones to study new disciplines, face new challenges, and embrace new adventures.
Yet certain features of undergraduate university life make it difficult to be truly happy. Happiness is demanding: it involves shouldering real responsibilities and being accountable to a community. Happiness is not only the ephemeral pleasure of the moment, but the fruit of deep, personal investment in the endeavors and people who are necessary for living authentically as a human person.
Such a community would be constituted not only of one’s peers with whom one chooses to associate out of inclination but also of people with greater age and wisdom, children and youth who themselves need guidance and support, the elderly, who are all too easily forgotten or ignored, and the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized whom we have always with us, in every community. Some of the endeavors necessary for happiness surely entail living in solidarity with these people in a way that regularly inconveniences one but which provides worthwhile reasons to suffer inconvenience.
None of these characteristics are found in contemporary university life in any robust way. The undergraduate population is largely homogenous, in terms of age, ethnic background, and socio-economic status. Associations are almost exclusively with one’s peer group, and any effort to spend time with those outside of one’s peer group is seen as a laudable exercise in self-giving.
Moreover, universities do not do a good job of holding undergraduates accountable for anything, even the responsibilities they have freely undertaken. Certainly, a student’s grades may suffer somewhat from turning in poor assignments or for maintaining an especially poor attendance record, but very few face serious consequences for failing to apply themselves.
A student might be admonished by his or her supervisor at work if he or she fails to be punctual, but it is unlikely that the student will lose his or her low wage campus job. Res Life certainly hands out its fair share of penalties for the most egregious transgressions against DU LAC, but those (largely alcohol-fueled) transgressions typically carry the “penalty” of community service.
Students are largely allowed to set their own priorities with few repercussions for setting bad ones. Rarely is it demonstrated to students how their poor choices are detrimental to those to whom they owe duties: fellow classmates, dorm mates, coworkers, and members of the South Bend community. This is evidenced by the tone of outrage found in so many student submissions to the OBSERVER’s Viewpoint, reviling the South Bend police force for enforcing the drinking laws, or the university for upholding its own moral standards. They fail to see how their behavior harms the communities those policies are intended to protect.
Often students’ criticisms are framed as a defense of the college experience, a time when young people are given the freedom to test boundaries and make their own mistakes, to cut loose and have the fun that adult responsibilities will preclude. Yet the Notre Dame “experience” was never intended to be an “experience.” Rather it should be an EDUCATION: a work of leading the young into a transformation of mind and heart, a transformation that will allow them to live their adult lives in rich and deep ways, developing all of their gifts.
If this diagnosis of contemporary undergraduate life is correct, then seniors who see their time here slipping away all too quickly should not lament the loss they are facing. If they truly have been educated during their time here, then it is not a time of loss, but of gain: they will be able to face the adult world they are about to enter with openness, with a capacity for complexity, with selflessness, and with a grasp of what it means to live authentically.
Seniors are on the cusp of shedding the insularity of campus life, to dig into the demanding endeavor of adult life: of finding happiness through dedication, sacrifice, and commitment to a community that does not exist to serve them, but rather deserves to be served by them. They came to Notre Dame only to be sent back out into the world.
The best is yet to come.
Greer Hannan served as the Rover’s executive editor in 2008-2009. She is currently the program coordinator for the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, but will soon resign from that position to join the St. Peter Claver Catholic Worker Community and pursue Masters degrees in Nonprofit Administration and Divinity at Notre Dame. Last Tuesday, she cycled all the way from South Bend to Chicago with 9 of her friends for Ben & Jerry’s free cone day.