Savannah McEntire graduated from James Madison University in May of 2014 with a B.A. in Modern Foreign Languages, concentrating in Spanish. In addition, she minored in Secondary Education, Teaching ESL and Dance. She is currently finishing her Masters of Arts in Teaching, also at James Madison University, and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa Society. During her undergraduate career she was also a small group leader for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition she is passionate about working with immigrant communities, and is an advocate for sustainable farming. She loves travel, and hopes to work as a teacher both in an urban setting with large populations of immigrants, and outside of the United States in Latin America during her lifetime.
For many students, college is the first time that you are truly on your own. You are responsible for managing your time, for choosing what you do and where you will do it. That independence may seem freeing, or daunting, but it comes with so much potential. It means that you have the opportunity to define what kind of adult you are going to be. I say this because in many ways the kind of person you become is dependent on who you spend time with, what you value, and what your time and energy is spent on. During my college experience, I found that establishing, joining and investing in the community around me was extremely important to my personal development.
The word community can be used in several ways. I believe that it is important to invest in all kinds of communities. First of all, there is the community of your campus. In colleges, especially large campuses, it is easy to feel like a grain of sand in a vast desert. Make an effort to learn about all of the different groups and activities on campus. This is a great place to start. Sign up for everything that sounds interesting – signing up to get more information doesn’t mean you’re committed for life – and explore different options. However, once you have tested the waters, and have found a couple of things that you care about, or just truly enjoy, commit to them and really invest. Get involved as more than just a passive member, because in these organizations, you will have the opportunity to develop strong relationships, and find a home away from home. During my undergraduate career, I became involved in my campus’s chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. It was a large organization, but within it, students are divided up into “small groups” of 10-20. It was in this small group that I met some of my best friends, and found some of the most meaningful opportunities of my college experience. I had the chance to go on spring break trips to work with the New York City Urban Project, and after my first year, had the opportunity to lead a small group of my own. I found my college “family” in this organization.
Another important community is the community of your program. This may be a large or small group depending on your concentration of study, and in many cases you will not get to know your program until your junior or senior year when you have gotten into higher-level courses. Once you do, however, this is a place where you can easily find people who share your interests and passions, can challenge and help you, and can become professional contacts for your future career. I wish that I had invested in my academic community in the College of Education earlier in my career, because it is such a great experience to come together with people who share your dreams and aspirations, and work toward them together. In addition to your peers, this means getting to know professors, who are able to then serve as mentors in your education, instead of just people standing in the front of a lecture hall giving you information. While it may seem intimidating at first, it will be important as you prepare to enter the workforce.
So now, I have encouraged you to invest in your campus community, and your academic community, but there is one more community that often slips through the cracks. This is the community all around you. The town, or city where your university is located has a culture apart from the college students who occupy parts of it. Get to know what organizations, and groups of people are in your community. Find ways to incorporate your major, or even just your hobbies and get involved! Doing this serves several purposes. First of all, it gives you practical experience outside of the classroom to see if you really enjoy doing what you have studied. It also allows you the opportunity to explore different things, and maybe find out that you are passionate about things you’d never heard of, or didn’t know much about. Getting involved with the Refugee Resettlement Program in my community is where I learned that I am passionate about working with immigrant populations. Before this, I had had very little experience working with immigrants, and didn’t know that it was something I would fall in love with. Through that experience I discovered a key component of my purpose.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, getting involved in your local community teaches you lessons about how to live effectively as an adult, once you finish college. This happens in simple things like going to the local farmer’s market to learn about what products are made locally in your area, becoming a regular at a local coffee shop, or taking work out classes at a local Pilates studio. You begin to establish relationships that are centered around things other than your major, or what dorm you live in. This is the kind of thing that prepares you for the future.
Being a graduate student, as I am now, is much different from being an undergraduate student. I live in an apartment downtown. I cook and buy groceries. I go to a local gym instead of the one on campus. I attend a local church, and have become friends with other families who attend. I learned how to do all of this by getting involved in my community while I was in my undergraduate years. I learned that I value sustainable farming, and now try to purchase locally grown, organic, and fair trade products. I learned that as a 22 year old, I can have friends who are 28, 38 and even 88, because when you are an adult, age doesn’t matter a whole lot. Investing in community taught me so many important lessons, far to many to list here. So my biggest piece of advice to prospective and current college students is to get invested in all of the communities around you, because during these four formative years, so much of what is learned is outside of the classroom.