On making a difference

Disclaimer: I wear many hats. This post, however, represents only my personal views, not those of any of the organizations I am a part of

To the first-years:

So you’re a first-year at Columbia with big dreams and (possibly) plans for the future. You might have planned out your trajectory at school, whether that be finding lucrative internships for yourself or participating in social activism. Or maybe you haven’t — I know I certainly didn’t come in with anything more than a vague notion of what I wanted to do.

In any case, chances are pretty high that you won’t quite be following that trajectory. Most students will change majors during their four years of undergrad, and you may find that your best friends are people you’d never though you’d enjoy spending time with. That’s OK. Expected, even. Such things are the core of the college experience, and I urge you to make the most of them.

We live in a bubble, and in some ways we are insulated from the outside world and from the consequences of our actions. We’re spoiled, really — we can expect to have housing, food, and stuff to do without excess worry. And we are privileged. I don’t mean in the socioeconomic sense, though it is statistically likely that that is also true. We have this unique opportunity to spend time with an enormous number of brilliant people, who are interested in a huge variety of things.

It’s important to recognize that the bubble exists, and that it’s an imperfect illusion. As it turns out, what happens in the world affects us, and what we do affects the world. And guess what? Most of the world does not care about you. It’s a harsh place, and everyone’s trying to survive as best they can.

You will inevitably encounter some aspect of the world (perhaps even inside our bubble!) that is flawed. This may take the form of an administrative decision with negative impacts on the student body, or an attempted suicide of a close friend, or a myriad other things. At some point, you’ll ask yourself: “How can I make a difference?”

You can make a difference by your own actions, whether that be volunteering for a cause you believe in, providing guidance to those who need it, or by joining an organization whose values mirror your own. Extra hands are always appreciated, and there are countless things to work on that can make the world a better place.

Extra minds are appreciated even more: most people aren’t malicious, they’re ambivalent. If you give them an easy way to help, many of them will do so — especially if your plan is logically sound and well-presented. Some of these people might be able to do things that you yourself cannot, like changing laws and policies or directing funds to the right places. You might even acquire a title or two along the way, though that’s not terribly important in the grand scheme of things.

However, I would strongly suggest that you do not expect poking the bubble to do much of anything significant. While complaining at sufficient volume might be enough to convince the people who manage the bubble to respond to your concerns (for fear of damaging the bubble further), there is almost certainly a faster and more effective way of getting things done. As you might expect, most people respond better to constructive criticism than to hostility — so before you decide to complain about yet another problem with the world, try thinking of a solution as well 😀

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