For years, my parents and teachers encouraged me to hit the books. In middle school, their voices prodded: "Don't you want to get into a good high school?" At St. Joe's, it evolved into: "You better make sure you're accepted into a good college!"
I thank them now.
Academics never really had troubled me; as a kid I enjoyed learning miscellaneous facts outside school. At age 10 I could tell you where the hamlet of Ebenezer was or the first U.S. president to die in office, but not the differences among Beanie Babies or between Pikachu and the rest of the Pokemon pals.
In elementary and high school, one night for papers and a couple of hours for tests was all I needed to succeed. I carried that mentality to Syracuse last August: breezing through my first assignments, enjoying free time, and getting involved. Then I received my first essay back in writing class: a C. My teacher might as well have written in her evaluation: "Your fate is that of a faceless slug, destined to be another passing car on the Kensington Expressway morning commute."
A 78 and 64 on my first statistics and communications tests followed that.
I couldn't explain why my grades were sinking, so I began dedicating more time to schoolwork. I also asked for help from my professors, who despite their quirks and occasional unavailability, always helped me.
My communications professor, in teaching us the importance of the untold stories in the media, often referred to herself in the third person. I imagined my kindergarten teacher, "Miss Skifferly," doing the same: "Skifferly thinks you should tie your shoes. Skifferly is wondering why you are coloring outside of the lines. Come see Skifferly after class." My Spanish teacher emigrated from Cuba in 1989. We make a good pair: he struggles with English, and we struggle with Spanish. I learn as much hearing his stories of a different culture as I do learning the language; he stays after to help us. And though my news writing professor gave a negative 21 (!) to a classmate on the first assignment, her experience in the field greatly improves our writing.
Regardless of the professor, a large class size can distract from focusing. At my first astronomy class in January, the lecture hall seemed to stretch into outer space. As long as I'm not running late, I shrink the class by sitting closer to the front. Smaller classes make discussion and thought more attainable.
Life outside the classroom affects grades, too. I often leave my distracting dorm room and study in the library or lounge. When I have time for a full night's sleep and swimming at the free pool, I get far more accomplished than the frequent days I don't. And thankfully, my mother exerted a greater influence over me than Ronald McDonald, so I find it easy to eat well: yogurt, fruit, cereal and sandwich and salad bars are always available at the dining hall. "Brain food" is plentiful.
Occasionally, a reading isn't finished or a paper still isn't written until the night before, but I do what I can. Even after that rough start first semester, with much effort I made the dean's list and hopefully will finish the year well (if astronomy works out). Often, digging a hole in the beginning is the best motivation for success; college offers time for redemption.
Some classes have no relevance to my aspirations. If I ever become a reporter I won't use my knowledge of black holes from astronomy class to explain the opening of a local restaurant. But the liberal arts core helped me realize all I don't know. Ignorance is reached when you think you know it all, we are always capable of learning more.
I made it this far; I owe it to my family and myself to work hard (though I really should be doing homework as we speak). Classes are complemented with the other half of my education: living on my own and accepting others different from me. I try to take the whole experience and find the best way to change the world with it. There's the real test.
Brian Hayden is a freshman at Syracuse University.