Taking the time to be involved

Hubble ultra deep field scanThe most esteemed Captain James Tiberius Kirk once said, “If something’s important, you make the time.” This quote stuck in my mind from the first time I heard it, and not simply because I belong to that cadre of academics who possess an affinity for most things Star Trek. No, high correlation between academia and trek-philia aside, I appreciate the sentiment that in spite of whatever else one has going on in one’s life, there are some things that one simply must make time for–either because they are just that important or because they are, in the long run, good for one.  This might also be understood as keeping an eye on the “bigger picture” and understanding that there are things in life that are larger and more significant than one’s own (selfish) needs and worries. In my experience it is often the larger, the more significant-than-thyself things that actually help me push through challenges and day-to-day problems. Knowing that I’m helping myself in the long run doesn’t hurt either. Taking the time to be involved can be difficult for the ever-busy graduate student, but it’s ultimately a game in which there are no losers. Being involved will not only help you stay sane; it’s also a very useful tool for gaining the sorts of skills and connections that improve your prospects on the job market.

There are several reasons I’m so pushy on this issue. Having spent most of my undergraduate career not being involved in any sort of service work–academic or otherwise–I speak from experience when I say that being involved pays off. As an undergraduate I paid my own way. My family did not possess the means to contribute to–let alone support–my college education, so I did it myself. I was fortunate enough to have access to the wonderful (pre-Bush level) federal Pell grants and I won a few scholarships here and there. But I also typically worked no less than two jobs simultaneously (at times it was three) while I attended school full-time and lived on my own. It used to drive me insane when I would overhear fellow classmates complain about the amount of homework they had to do, even as they admitted to not working, living at home, and sleeping in long hours every weekend. Fear of living in poverty the rest of my life served as one heck of a motivator, but so did my knowledge that I was extremely lucky to be receiving a college education at all and that my family was very proud of me for all of the work I was doing. Whenever I would get down about having to work 35, 40 or even 62 hours per week and still make time to write that paper or study for that exam, I would think about how great it would be to not have to live paycheck to paycheck and how I could–perhaps one day–even have the kind of job that would not only allow me to support myself but also help members of my family make ends meet. During those years, it was my involvement with family and appreciation of what a college education could mean for both me and them that helped me push through.

Much to my amazement I not only made it to graduate school, but was also financially able to attend thanks to a graduate assistantship with the Office of Academic Support and Intercultural Services (OASIS) at UNL’s Culture Center. My year at OASIS was crucial to my adjustment to my new status as a graduate student. Working with undergraduates who were also first-generation and from low-income backgrounds helped ease my culture shock by opening the door to an entire community of peers who faced many of the same issues I did. And, although I am an introvert at heart, I also forced myself to step up and join UNL’s History Graduate Students’ Association (HGSA). I quickly began to experience the many advantages of being involved in organizational service work while in grad school. Here are my top three reasons for promoting grad student involvement:

  1. It will pay off in the long run. This should appeal to both the humanistic and the selfish regions of your noodle. By being involved in a community of peers and volunteering your time to perform service work for the good of the whole organization you are simultaneously furthering your own interests. You are gaining experience balancing the various aspects of your life with the responsibilities of being a hard-working adult. You are collaborating, working, and communicating with others in ways that will help you forge the social connections and people skills that will serve you well throughout the rest of your life. You are demonstrating to your peers, mentors, and potential employers that you are not only capable but willing and ready to take the initiative, collaborate, and lead by example. This should make for at least a few good lines on your c.v., not to mention bragging rights about being all Spock-like by putting the good of the many above the good of the one or the few and what not.
  2. Wherever your career takes you, being involved will be key to your success. No one is going to hire you to sit in a corner all day grumbling to yourself about all the work you have to do. The jobs of the future are jobs in which the best individuals–and hence the best employees–are those who collaborate with others to the benefit of all. The sooner you start developing and practicing the kinds of skills and habits that you’ll need to obtain your dream job, the better. Like it or not, you will be competing with those of us who are involved and we’ll have all those extra lines on our vitae and pumped up reference letters to prove it. (Revisit point number one if you need more motivation.)
  3. It’s called part of being a decent human being. No moral judgment intended here but really–human society didn’t get where it is today by way of selfish individualism. You think those cave-babies made it to puberty on their own? No, they lived long enough to become your ancestors because their tribes (i.e. an aggregate of human critters working together) devised ways to shelter, protect, and provide for themselves as a unit. Surely, now and then a cave girl or boy needed time to themselves or held a few berries back as a special bedtime snack, but the point is that cooperation has done some serious good for humanity over the years. It wouldn’t hurt if we all took a turn.

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