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“What was the most important thing you learned this year?”

It was my 20th birthday and I was taking a leisurely stroll with a friend in the garden behind our residence in Telc, Czech Republic. We treaded past overgrown willows, gnarled tree stumps, and grassy clearings dotted with flowers while reflecting back on the past year of my life. To my surprise, I found that I knew the answer to her question as soon as it was asked.

“I think that it’s to not blindly accept what we’re told, but to constantly examine and evaluate our priorities, which can be different for everyone.”

The moment that had brought me to that epiphany had taken place months prior, towards the end of the second semester of university. Like millions of students around the world at that time, I was struggling to keep up with the exorbitant amount of assignments, not only for academics but for my extracurricular involvements as well, most notably concerning the coffee shop that I co-managed. At any point of the year, the task of running a café with a team of 140 volunteers is daunting enough. This was not helped by the fact that I was now in regular meetings with the college administration discussing a pressing matter that would greatly impact the near future of its operations. More than once, the timing of these meetings coincided with my class times, however, I found that when presented with the choice, I would choose the meetings over class without a second’s hesitation.

This was in part due to the fact that I was one of only three students who had a direct say in the matter, and as a result, I could clearly see the impact of my actions. I had also been landed with a couple of rather poor professors that term, one of whom was an avid J.F.K. conspiracy theorist who used his course as a way of propagating books and videos about the issue. It was whilst labouring through one of the essays for this particular course that the absurdity of my situation hit me. I was writing J.F.K. conspiracy theories for class and managing a business in my spare time. Something about that seemed slightly backwards.

I knew that academics were meant to take priority, however, I couldn’t always bring myself to abide by that. I considered Caffiends to be more important than half of my classes, because in many ways, it was. Not only was the fate of the café affecting hundreds of people, but I was also learning far more from the experience than I could have ever learned in any class. I was growing as a person, and as a leader. Personally, that was much more valuable to me than the percents I lost from my grades.

While someone else in my position could very likely have decided otherwise, I prioritized what mattered more to me in that moment, and have no regrets looking back now. At this stage in life, it can be so easy to narrowly focus on the path we’ve laid out for ourselves and refrain from getting distracted, when those distractions might be the things that make us happiest. When I look back on the best, most valuable parts of my university experience thus far, I don’t see lectures or readings. I see the little student-run café tucked in the old janitor’s closet of Old Vic. I see the 6AM wakeup calls for Orientation, the late nights watching Pixar films during Don training, and the faces of the community I’ve built on the way. Not one of those were originally part of my plan, but I’m so infinitely happier to have stumbled across them along the way.

This is not to say that we should disregard academics altogether, but merely that our priorities should not mimic the ones of the people around us, or be internalized mindlessly. They should be evaluated and re-evaluated constantly, and our decisions adjusted to suit those personal needs. After all, the point of university — and of life — is to learn and to grow, wherever that learning presents itself.