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Semester learning: Finding out what’s truly important

Last Wednesday was the last day of class.

After gorging myself on celebratory donuts provided by the world’s greatest chemistry professor, I stumbled out of the building feeling both euphoric and dismal. I walked back to my dorm room feeling a little empty on the inside, just like the donuts I inhaled less than an hour before.

The lack of seasons around here makes it hard to gauge time. December in California feels like September in Minnesota — still brisk and bright and above 60 degrees. It’s nice in an awfully disorienting sort of way.

Wrapping up first semester of college felt like that.

In a moment of reflective whim, I asked the roommate if she felt like she had grown in the last four months. She didn’t hesitate in saying yes. Me? I said I guess so.

I mean, I learned a lot. And to be quite frank, it wasn’t always pleasant.

Looking back, I used to care a lot about being smart. It couldn’t be helped — since elementary school, people have primarily praised me for my intelligence. By high school, I believed from the bottom of my melodramatic, adolescent heart that being smart made me special.

If there’s anything I learned from skimming over 3,000 years worth of history, it’s that people want to be significant. They want to remain significant.

Earlier this semester, I read The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest surviving work of literature. In one scene, King Gilgamesh and his companion, Enkidu, embark on a quest to gain eternal fame and glory by killing the fierce monster Humbaba.

Apparently, being a divine king wasn’t good enough for Gilgamesh. He sought recognition by doing something heroic, something that would make textbook publishers 4,500 years later print his name in the books.

Likewise, on a slightly (just slightly) less egotistical scale, I wanted people to acknowledge how spectacularly clever I was. I wanted to cure cancer and write the next American novel, all before turning 30.

The problem with those goals weren’t that they were bad, it was that they fed my self-importance. My fatal flaw was that I cared more about prestige than passion.

Out of everything I learned in the past four months, the most painful lesson was how to acknowledge my shortcomings and still do the work. Staying motivated was difficult when it seems like no matter how hard I worked, it wasn’t enough. It still is. Mediocrity leaves a sour taste when it comes to things you love, to things you once excelled at.

Even now, I can’t honestly say that I’m above wanting to matter. I do — but it’s no longer for the sake of validation or recognition. I want to matter by contributing to something that matters.

During first semester of college, not only did I learn how to separate laundry and find free food virtually anywhere, I learned that there were more important things in life. It is important to be kind. It’s important to be balanced. It’s important to have a sense of humor. It’s important to take failure with grace and humility.

But being important? Not so much.

Goeun Park graduated from Detroit Lakes High School and attends college in California.