“This is Petra, the ancient rose-red city carved into the mountains of southern Jordan. Here I am climbing up to the tomb of Aaron – you know, Moses’ brother who died on the trip to the holy land. Oh, and this is a friend whom I met with in Amman, and here is where we had the most amazing falafel.” My friends waited patiently as I scrambled to find the next photograph that captured the essence of my summer trip to the Middle East.
Like many, I had fallen prey to taking too many photos during an exotic journey, but when describing my travels back home I found myself unable to fully express how I felt while abroad. Neither my pictures nor the objects I brought home told the full story. Ultimately, it was the first-hand experiences that completed my tale.
For example, a small packet of cinnamon brought back held little of its original exoticism when removed from the noisy, dusty market from which it came. I could show the spice to my friends, entice them to smell it and perhaps even cook with it, but I felt hard pressed to recount the tale of my exchange with the seller. The elegant bartering dance in which we had been partners, cheered on by the rumble of commerce around us and an anxious friend by my side now seemed like a trite tale from a travel book. Instead of trying to explain the excitement of the purchase, I tucked the crumpled bag into a kitchen drawer, reasoning that no one would really understand what I was talking about anyway.
Pawing through this mound of photographs and trinkets, I thought about packing up to move back to D.C. for my last school year. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have accumulated a horrifying amount of crap from three years of college. Notes from a statistics class I was in for all of three days freshman year, a ratty Fall Fest t-shirt stained with paint and CDs pilfered from The Hatchet office round out the eclectic collection. I wondered what I would end up keeping after I graduated in May. Digital pictures detailing slightly questionable antics stored on my computer, naturally, but also particularly well-written papers, some good books assigned in class (there are at least four worth keeping after three years of classes) and maybe the one GW sweatshirt that doesn’t completely reek of beer.
However, the same problem of trying to create a cohesive representation of my experience appeared as I rummaged through my stuff – the most important moments of college aren’t rendered true by physical objects. The “ah ha” moments in class, wrapping a friend’s door in tinfoil and late-night trips through Kogan Plaza in the early spring when the underground lights sweetly illuminate the blossoming trees can’t be saved in a shoebox – not to mention the internships completed, friendships created, concerts heard and museums discovered. Like a brag-worthy trip, we tuck away objects and ideas both physical and not. College is not the mere amassing of credits and job contacts but the collection of more elusive and larger moments.
Studying at college is a privilege, afforded to a select few – only 24.4 percent of the adult American population has a bachelor’s degree. Being able to focus our energies solely on schoolwork without hyperventilating about mortgages and mutual funds is an enviable luxury. These four (or three, or possibly five) years are designated times for personal growth and development. They’re also the only chance in life when we’re allowed to make mistakes and not be penalized in a major way. The textbooks and foam hatchets from basketball games are important, but not more so than the larger experiences at our time at GW.
As a senior, it’s easy for me to stand on my high perch and pass on these words of wisdom to underclassmen. Yet I encourage my classmates to make sure that they have collected everything they could before leaving campus for the real world. What will we take with us from school? And who knows what souvenirs we’ll collect on our next trip?
-The writer is a senior majoring in international affairs and political science.