Regardless of how impossible the achievement of my dreams seems at times I have found that my fears are often not based in reality. The reality is that, yes it is true that, our world is full of hardships and even set-backs, but it is also true that I have been granted everything that I need to overcome those obstacles. The sobering reality lay also in the fact that even though I have been granted everything I need to overcome any and all obstacles that are set before me, that I still forget it from time to time and find myself wallowing in self-doubt, remorse, self-pity and shame as if I, Michael Anthony Moynihan was destined to be a failure. And no matter how much my brain may try to convince me of these things when times get rough and I am faced with hardships, it is simply not the case that I am destined to be a failure because I am meant for greatness and so are all of you.
Quite some time ago I set out to record the experiences I have had while I trudge through the higher education system on my way to earning a Law degree for three reasons: (1) to process what I have been through; (2) so that I have a record of my experiences to refer back to; (3) and most importantly, so that I can share my hardships and successes with all of you who are either going through the same struggle that I am or you are interested in pursuing higher education and want to know what to expect and some tactics to meet with success. In this particular essay I will be analyzing my first quarter at the University of Washington, challenging the assumptions that I held when entering the school, exposing the difficulties that I met during the quarter and how they were overcome.
When I graduated from North Seattle Community College (NSCC) in June of 2013 with my Associate of Arts degree, and was honored as the valedictorian I thought I had this higher education thing figured out. Yet, when I got to the University of Washington (UW) I discovered that I was sadly mistaken. Now although my education at NSCC was and is an invaluable asset, and I definitely had to put every ounce of my being into successfully completing the program, I was not as prepared for the transition to university life as I thought. I had it worked into my head that I was going to carry the same success with the same techniques from community college into the university setting and that I was going to continue to earn the 4.0’s of which I had grown so accustomed. As Sarra Tekola, a seasoned student at the University of Washington in the Environmental Science program and an Audubon scholar, a UW Diversity merit scholar, and a McNair UNCF scholar put it:
“You cannot use the same strategies at the university level that you used at the community college level and expect to meet with the same level of success. You are going to have to adapt and it is not going to be easy, but I have no doubt that you will be able to handle it. Just remember, that if you were to just come to this school and start earning 4.0’s, then the school would not truly be challenging you and it would not be doing you any good. The fact that you are not earning 4.0’s, right now, is proof that you are being challenged so, do not be discouraged, all transfer students go through this their first quarter at the University of Washington, but we all also caught ahold of the ropes. You got this.”
Sarra said this to me when I came to her for advice halfway through the quarter and I was bashing my head against the wall in disgust at my apparent lack of ability to adapt. Advice that I desperately needed because I was just about ready to throw my hands up and call it quits. I assumed that I would not have to invest any more effort into my education at the UW than I had at NSCC, but that was not the case. Their expectations at the University of Washington are ten-fold what they were at my community college. I was expected to accomplish two to three times as much reading every week, on top of the assignments that were due, and to be able to comprehend the material and synthesize compelling arguments that compared and contrasted all the material covered throughout the quarter. In short, I was expected to have a complete and intimate understanding of all the material covered and to have it stored in memory for quick retrieval in practical application scenarios. I was not prepared for that, and as such, I was caught off guard and I felt unworthy because I was not performing at the level that I expected to be performing at. Miss Tekola’s words of encouragement and reassurance came at just the right time and told me precisely what I needed to hear: the UW is not community college and the same techniques that worked for me there will not work at the university level, but don’t give up because the first quarter is always the hardest, it is the transition period after which you will know what is expected of you and how to accomplish that.
The next major hurtle that I encountered centered primarily on other people’s opinions. It is true that I have just endorsed the opinions of Sarra Tekola, and although it may not be explicitly evident all the time, not everyone’s opinion, or rather not every opinion is of the same value. If it is the case that, you have wisely chosen the direction of your life, then it is not the case that, when you encounter hardships that opinions of encouragement and discouragement are of the same value. First of all, life is full of hardships and earning a degree is no exception to this fact. Second, and perhaps more important, is that opinions of discouragement dissuade us from accomplishing our goals, and if we are dissuaded from our goals then it may be the case that we accomplish nothing. While in contrast, opinions of encouragement will in times of despair, reinforce our own resolve to accomplish those goals. Thus, if the measure of other people’s opinions is measured in terms of whether or not they help us to achieve our goals, then not all opinions are of the same value and when we have justifiable goals, then encouraging opinions are to be valued above discouraging opinions. Tekola’s opinions were of the encouraging sort, so they are to be valued because they have helped me to achieve my goals; that is why I have endorsed her opinions.
However, when I began to have trouble during my first quarter at the University of Washington, in particular with the philosophy course that I was taking and I made mention of it, one of the major opinions I heard in response to my concerns was to “give up on philosophy”. And although I disagreed with this opinion entirely, if nothing has come through more clearly in my first course in philosophy then it is this: before an argument can be rejected, it must first be analyzed and then either one or all of the premises must be questioned and rejected or the reasoning drawn from the premises (the conclusion) must rejected, but it cannot be rejected on solely emotional grounds. The basic reason given for not pursuing a degree in philosophy was that they believed it to be a useless discipline, but I challenge that premise.
Before this quarter began I decided that I was going to major in both history and philosophy because they are two of the primary degrees that people get before going to law school. The history degree will teach me how to do research, which is what precedent law in America is all about, and it will also teach me how to analyze the documents that I uncover through my research, which is precisely what will be necessary to prove any case. The philosophy degree will teach me about moral and ethical frameworks, which are vitally necessary for the organization of humans in society and for the creation and interpretation of that society’s laws. It will also teach me how to analyze and to form arguments, which is an essential skill of a great lawyer. Thus, philosophy is not a useless discipline, at least not for me and my aims, or for anyone who intends to participate in law or politics in any measure.
The second and more troubling premise of the argument that was made for my giving up on philosophy was inherent in their assertions, though implicit in their arguments: if it is tough, and it since is unnecessary, then you should not do it. However, as I have shown philosophy is not an unnecessary discipline already, I will focus on the former portion of the claim, that “if it is tough… you should not do it.” If that assertion were true, then we would not have Olympic gold medalists, and nor would slavery have been abolished, nor would women have been enfranchised with the success of the suffrage movement. The list could go on ad infinitum, but I think that these examples make the point explicitly clear that some pursuit being tough does not justify not doing it.
Which brings us back to the initial assertion in this line of reasoning, “if it is the case that, you have wisely chosen the direction of your life, then it is not the case that, when you encounter hardships that opinions of encouragement and discouragement are of the same value.” I have shown that the reasoning behind my decision to pursue a degree in philosophy was sound, so it was not the case that I selected my classes poorly or that they did not fit within my overall objectives. And since I have also shown that the premises of the assertion that I “should give up on philosophy” are faulty, then it must also be the case that the conclusion is false. Since it is not the case that I should give up on philosophy, then it must be the case that the opinions of discouragement that were offered to me when I expressed dismay in my progress at the University of Washington are to be devalued because they do not help me to achieve my goals.
All of this reasoning has been accomplished in retrospect, but when I was in the middle of my last quarter it was not so clear and based on those opinions which would have derailed my progress, I almost decided to not continue my pursuit. That is the unfortunate outcome of discouragement and it is my belief that we may all be likely to encounter this type of thinking. The way I overcame this was to take more than a few moments of serious thought to discern what and why I was doing it, so I asked myself; “Why am I studying philosophy?” I have shown you the reasoning and the answer that came from that line of inquisition. This was a vital step, and though I did fully question and answer that question prior to my deciding to earn a philosophy degree, I did forget it once I was under the pressure of potentially failing one of my first courses at the University of Washington. Until this question was answered I could not discern which line of opinions, the encouragement or the discouragement was in my best interest and I was just as susceptible to be influenced by both because I could not assign value to either. That is why it is so important to take this step and evaluate why you are doing what you are doing, because we have to be able to evaluate the opinions that will flood our thoughts as we progress through our ambitions and we have to be able to discern which opinions to listen to and which opinions to disregard. To give the people who provided me with those discouraging opinions credit, if it had not been for them then I would not have question my actions for myself and I would not have come to the conclusion that I drew. And it was because I drew the conclusion that it was necessary for me to earn the philosophy degree that I am after that I started to value the encouraging opinions and reinforce my ambition to succeed with resolute determination to do so. This is why I endorsed Sarra Tekola’s opinions at the beginning of this paper and why what she said made such a difference in the outcome of my quarter.
The outcome of the psychological battle that goes on in our own heads can make the difference between winning and losing, between success and failure, between achieving our goals and leaving empty handed. I have just detailed for all of you the primary aspects of the psychological battle that I went through last quarter and how with help, I was able to overcome it. But that was only the beginning. That victory had to be translated into action in order for me to meet with success. I had to reevaluate my approach to learning at the University of Washington and revise the techniques that worked for me at North Seattle Community College and I had to learn a new way to learn.
As I stated earlier: “I was expected to have a complete and intimate understanding of all the material covered and to have it stored in memory for quick retrieval in practical application scenarios.” Before I got to UW, it was sufficient for me to read a chapter once and incorporate 30% or so to memory taking only the key points with me. However, that method was inadequate for me at UW because my courses not only expected memorization, but also a deep comprehension of the material and a synthesis of my own opinions on what I read. Until I got to UW I did not know that there was a difference between rote memorization and comprehension or how important it was to distinguish between the two. For example, there is a big difference between memorizing the rules for how to manipulate an equation in algebra and applying those techniques to a word problem wherein one has to create an equation to solve the problem. Discerning the solution requires an intimate understanding of how the rules function and how they can be manipulated. Just as memorizing a specific equation would be inadequate for solving such a problem, so was just memorizing 30% or so of my philosophy book for synthesizing arguments in support of or against a particular philosopher or ideology. In short, there is a big difference between memorization and learning how to think for ourselves and that is what I was unprepared for when I began classes at the University of Washington.
I quickly found that the method I had of reading through a chapter once was inadequate and in many cases I had to reread a chapter several times and even at times tear them apart line by line to achieve the level of understanding that was expected of me. To accomplish the transition from how I was reading to how I needed to read required an increased investment in the amount of time that I allotted to each chapter and a level of concentration higher than I was unaccustomed to. I cannot stress how important that extra investment has been to my understanding of the material and my ability to think about the things that I am learning. That was the key to success at the University of Washington. The primary difference I made by changing the amount of time I dedicated to each chapter was made to my understanding of each chapter. By spending longer in each chapter it allowed me the time necessary for me to actually think about the things that I was reading. And it was that thought process that allowed me not only to memorize the material I was expected to memorize but to also formulate my own thoughts on what I was reading. We cannot have thoughts about what we read if we do not think about what we read. I know that this may seem like a bit of common sense, but I assure that it was not for me. I had to learn that the hard way. What I have found is that people and particularly at the University of Washington are not as interested in what we read as they are in what we think about what we read. The same is true for society and that includes professional situations like politics. People want us to have an opinion, not simply to be academics who, are on the fence on important issues. In other words, people value our thoughts and it is our thoughts that are valuable.
The last major change to my learning process that I had to enact at the University of Washington was giving up on the concept that I can do everything alone. I do not like to depend on other people and I have avoided it like the plague. However, I have learned that I do not pick up on everything embedded in the material that I read and that some of the things that I miss others pick up on. Furthermore, one of the best ways to improve your understanding of a subject is to debate it. Based on those reasons I started to take part in study groups both throughout the quarter and to prepare for exams. It is so crazy to think that the way America is, it places us in competition with one another and continuously advocates the advantage of being an individual that can do things on their own. But the truth is that we function better as groups. And since we are communal creatures the assertion that we function better as groups only makes sense. As a result of these two major changes to my method of learning, in the space of one quarter, I went from assimilating about 30% of what I read to assimilating more than 70% of what I read and I am now able to wade through the strengths and weaknesses of arguments and apply them to real life scenarios in real time.
I did not walk out of my first quarter at the University of Washington with 4.0’s, and in fact I did not earn one 4.0 at all. The truth is that since I started college, this has turned out to been the worst quarter in terms of grades that I have had so far. I earned a 3.0 in Socio-Linguistics, a 3.1 in Philosophy and a 3.6 in History of the Middle East with a 3.23 cumulative G.P.A. But as Sarra Tekola said, “if you were to just come to this school and start earning 4.0’s, then the school would not truly be challenging you and it would not be doing you any good. The fact that you are not earning 4.0’s, right now, is proof that you are being challenged so, do not be discouraged.” What I learned and earned my first quarter at UW was far more important than a 4.0. I learned that my thoughts are important, that I can rely on other people, that I can synthesize the material I read into a coherent train of thought, and that I am worthy of being a student at the University of Washington. I learned that I have selected the correct degrees for what I want to do with my life and I have a firm grasp of who I am, what and why I am doing it, and how I intend to achieve my goals. Most importantly, I have surrounded myself with people who believe in me and my goals and are willing and able to provide me with the necessary feedback on my thoughts and encouragement to achieve my goals. Most importantly, just as Tekola promised me, I have made the transition from the community college level to the university level and I am prepared to continue my education at the University of Washington because I have caught ahold of the ropes.
I got this.