Three lessons from the bear in a flock of birds

Photo by Eugene Zemlyanskiy, via flickr 

Cristina E. Garcia/Staff Writer 

As the semester comes to a close and course evaluations are passed around, the time has come for some serious reflection. In the tradition of bodhisattvas (being in Buddhism that spreads enlightenment), I wanted to take a moment to share the three most important lessons I learned in my time at Florida International University.

Do you remember that silly-sounding three day retreat that they mention during orientation? I do. As a surprise, my father signed me up for Panther Camp in 2008 and packed my introverted self on the next bus to the Everglades to help me transition from high school to college. After several painful introduction exercises, I started opening up. The most memorable moment came during the last day when we had a field day and had to go through various obstacle courses.

During one event, two teams of about eight to 10 people were lined up across from each other; their objective was to retrieve a ball before their opponents and bring it across a specified line. They had us race in different directions and time after time I lost because I was a heavyset woman far from fit and running wasn’t my strong suit. However, time and time again I tried. It wasn’t until the final round when we had to run to the end of the arena, fetch the ball, and bring it across the line that I saw my chance to shine. Seeing as we had to run in the same direction both ways, when the whistle rang, I let my opponent run to the ball. As she did, I calmly walked to the middle of the field to the confusion of my teammates and waited for her to turn around. When she did, she stopped dead in her tracks.

Have you ever seen the look on people’s faces when a bear rears back and stands on its hind legs? She got that expression. Suddenly, everyone realized what I was aiming at. As she ran towards me, I blocked her from going past and hugged her tight, preventing her from moving. When I had stabilized her, I attempted to steal the ball from her so I could take it across the finish line – they didn’t specify how we could get the ball. After five minutes of holding her in place, both to conserve my own energy and wear her out, I was able to take the ball from her and take it across the finish line.

I realized that day lesson one: we all have our strengths and our weaknesses – some of us are fast like birds, others are strong like a bear – we just have to know ourselves; once we identify our strengths and weaknesses, we can work to the best of our abilities. While I wasn’t the fastest runner, I was smart, analyzed the situation and found a way to use my strength, literally.

Second, find a system that works for you. Use Rate My Professor or any other tools to find professors, courses or programs that fit your needs. If you know you’re not a morning person, don’t create problems for yourself by taking the 6 a.m. “Shakespearean Tragedies” class.

While volunteering at the Digital Writing Studio, I was introduced to Professor Ben Lauren, an instructor in the Writing and Rhetoric program. He introduced a completely new classroom system to me, one in which the professor only acts as a moderator, where the student is respected, where divergent thinking is encouraged and all parties realize they could learn from each other.

Divergent thinking looks a lot like brainstorming. Basically, it’s when you generate multiple solutions for any given problem. It tends to be spontaneous and organic.

During my time at the studio, I was supposed to design The Center for Women’s and Gender Studies student journal, “Making Waves.” A typical day might look like the following: walk in, research the science behind color, reflect on the color choices of a poster in the room, talk to my colleague about the colors in the poster and those I intend to use in the journal, commence to talk about the colors of different national flags and what they mean, dip briefly into Asian history, then apply any conclusions we might reach to my work.

Some people might consider the conversation between myself and my colleagues unproductive, but it is absolutely the opposite. We at the Studio consider it productive because it ultimately helps us come up with creative new solutions to our problems or tasks.

Working at the Studio, I realized I greatly enjoyed that sort of work dynamic, versus the top-down traditional model. So much so that as soon as I saw that Professor Lauren was going to teach Visual Rhetoric and Document Design in spring 2014, I signed up for the class.

You have to see what works for you. Ask yourself how much structure you need, what sort of restraints you want in your life and whether or not you even want to work in groups. Some professors are all about group-work and others are about the individual work.

Finally, the most important thing is communicate – with your teachers, with your classmates, with the universe – because it will ultimately save you a lot of trouble.

Communicating with professors is a great investment. Not only are professors important for recommendation letters, but they’re amazing human beings full of priceless information. The best thing you can do is approach your professors with your questions. Most of them are receptive and want you to excel, but they can’t answer questions they don’t know you have.

Don’t be a bear trying to be a bird. Find what works for you – what skill, what field and what group; when you do, things will feel natural, enjoyable and it will pay off in the end.

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