Engage: Finding Your Niche

By Alice Oliveira Soens

Here’s a quick story, the likes of which almost everyone has heard before: One of my best friends, who goes to school at a prestigious university in the south, was considering transferring after her freshman year. She had gone through the year doing as many freshmen do, at her school and at schools everywhere. She found a group of about 5 close girlfriends, and together they went to bars and frat parties every weekend. She lived on the same floor as them, studied with them, cried on their shoulders, everything you would expect from a group of best friends. She spent all of her free time with them. She didn’t spend too much time studying – she wasn’t a bad student, just decidedly uninspired. And by the end of her year, despite having close friends, her choice of classes and no major problems, she still found herself miserable.

I talked to her about why she was so unhappy, and it came down to the fact that she felt like she didn’t belong. That she had nothing that really connected her to her school, nothing that really inspired her beyond her weekly bar crawl. She felt passionless, aimless, and lost amongst a crowd of people who seemingly knew what they wanted, not from future long-term plans, but from their basic, everyday life.

This story is universal – everyone knows someone who has experienced this crisis, if not experienced it themselves. My friend’s problem wasn’t a lack of long-term goals or creativity, but a lack of engagement. She had no passion that connected her to her school or environment, nothing to invest her energies in that gave immediate results.

One of my all-time favorite writings/poems/speeches is the speech given by David Foster Wallace at the 2005 Kenyon College Commencement.  It is a beautiful speech, and I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. At one point he touches on what I believe is the core reason for engagement in one’s life, at school and in all stages beyond. He describes modern, fast-paced society as perpetuating “worship of self,” allowing us “wealth and comfort and…the freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of the universe.” He calls this our “default setting,” because it is so easy to slip into this way of living, without even knowing.

Here lies the importance of engagement. Being engaged, being involved and invested in everyday activities and projects helps draw us out of our own “skull-sized kingdoms.” When someone is not invested in bigger projects or commitments, they use that energy to invest in themselves. This leads to neurotic, solitary spirals, and narcissistic attention to small, unimportant details. When you put weight on only yourself and the relative flimsiness of your own world, you are bound to lose your balance.

Foster Wallace remedies this problem in his own speech. To him, “the really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” It is this notion of caring that is so essential to engagement, and to happiness. Caring about things other than yourself, about bigger causes and other people and the perfect execution of that show, or winning that game, or making sure weekly meetings run smoothly and accomplish as much as possible – this is what engagement is really about.

And while it seems simple for so many at Georgetown, a student body that is incredibly socially active and involved, engagement must be purposefully and passionately carried out in order to have an effect. You have to actually care about what you are doing. Pad your resume all you want, that is undoubtedly important. But also stage manage that show, or commit to those weekly DC reads tutoring sessions because it makes you feel like you are in exactly the place you want to be and are meant to be. I have found that the times I have felt the most important and content have been when I have felt the smallest – a tiny, but essential, part of a project that is much bigger than myself.

To finish my story, my friend is currently a sophomore at the same school. She decided against transferring. But she is having the time of her life, more content than she has ever been. What changed? She joined the Ultimate Frisbee team. She is so much happier now, for reasons she can both name and not name. She has her place at school now, a niche she carved that she fits perfectly into. And while the Ultimate Frisbee team and so many other random activities on campus may seem arbitrary, the fact that students put their passion and care into them makes them the most important, most essential things in the world.