Excerpts from email to dorm
by RA Matt Gelchion
Class of 2009 (Political Science and Sociology)
…I realize that what I say applies differently to some of you than it does to others. Because of different workloads, majors, and that some of you play a varsity sport, there is a degree of variability as to how much free time you're afforded. As a result, some of what I say in one part may resonate strongly with a few of you but not be as relevant to others. In the end, though, I believe there are a few points that you can all benefit from. If I didn't hold this belief, chances are you wouldn't be receiving this e-mail. Anyway, here it goes. Below are the pieces of information that I only wished I knew when I started at Notre Dame.
You all have no idea just how fast your time at Notre Dame will go by. People will tell you that, you'll nod your head in agreement, and to some degree you'll know it, but in all likelihood this knowledge probably won't affect much for you. I know because I was the exact same way. Not being a student at Notre Dame is probably one of the farthest things from your mind. You've been taking classes for all of 8 weeks, and it feels like there's been practically a lifetime's worth of memories that have occurred during that span. But please believe me when I say it is scary how quickly each year passes.
As much as possible, guys, try not to turn down conversations. We all have those times where our minds our racing a thousand miles an hour, wondering how we're going to balance studying, sleeping, and taking care of certain extraneous responsibilities. At these times, figuring out how even dinner fits in becomes an issue. It's understandable that making ourselves totally available at these times just doesn't seem possible. But seriously, how many times do we find ourselves legitimately having absolutely no time at all? There probably aren't as many as we think. Maybe a friend asks you to go to the grotto or asks if you'd want to spend 15 minutes swinging by Reckers to grab something. If it's within reason, take him up on the offer. Believe me, I realize as well as anyone how essential sleep is. And of course we can't stretch ourselves thin all the time. In some cases, passing up a trip is the smart move. But in the long run, will those 15-30 extra minutes of sleep be something we remember about our Notre Dame experience? Possibly that short trip would lead to a memory, though. I have no idea if that extra sleep would have made me retain just a little more information in my 9:30 Genetics class. I do know, however, that I won't forget staying in the hallway and participating in a discussion about which Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle we'd be. A stupid conversation? Almost undoubtedly. But it's a memory, and I'll always have that. As I jokingly tell one of my friends, there's plenty of time to sleep when you're dead.
At this point, some of you are reaching a very important point of your college careers. For others, it probably won't happen until later on. (For me, it didn't really happen until Sophomore year.) What I'm referring to is figuring out what people – or more specifically what group of people – will probably become your closest friends both at Notre Dame and beyond. It's a tricky time. On the one hand, you still want to keep meeting new people. On the other, you want to spend time with this close-knit group and work on making more memories. There's no secret to a perfect balance, or at least I don't know of one, and sometimes it can be a little challenging. I will say, though, that if you choose to close yourself off and think, "You know, I've got my group. I'm set" then you're making a mistake. More than any of us realize, there are a whole lot of genuinely good people on this campus. Unfortunately, I didn't learn this lesson until the summer before Junior year when I served as a counselor at ND Vision. Nevertheless, I'm lucky that I did at some point. Regretfully, some of my closest friends still have yet to come to this point of recognition. It's not easy, and there's no one right way of striking this balance. Appreciate the time you have with your closest friends and make those memories, but don't make the mistake of failing to be open. As I've heard my dad say time and time again, "You can never know too many good people."
I bring that quote up because I've realized firsthand just how true those words are. Last Fall Break I was on a service trip in West Virginia. On the last night, I started a conversation with a friend of mine, whose name is Natalie. (She was a good friend, not a great one. We did ND Vision together, and there was a definite mutual respect, but we'd never really hung out before or anything like that.) All week something inside me had kind of been hinting that I should try and talk to her one-on-one. I can't say for sure what it was, but I think we all know that in some instances we simply have those feelings. Well, we started talking on the last night, and we continued talking…for close to 2 hours. It turned out to be one of the most important conversations I've ever had in my life. Even though she was a year older than I, we were going through a number of similar things at that point. I'm not exaggerating when I say that it proved to be life-changing for both of us.
Why do I bring a story like this one up? Well, if I hadn't taken a chance and done Vision, I wouldn't have met her. If I didn't go a little out of my comfort zone and do a service trip, I wouldn't have been there. And if I didn't trust my instincts, that conversation would have never happened. And instead of having just another decent or good friend, I now have a great one.
I cannot stress enough: reach out to people; branch out; find out for yourself what makes Notre Dame so special. Maybe there's a person you know only in passing – perhaps you've had a class with him or her – about whom you think, "Ya know, I think if I got to know so and so, we'd probably be pretty good friends. He/She strikes me as a good, friendly, down to earth person." Ask these people if they'd want to grab dinner sometime. Shoot these people an e-mail seeing if they'd be interested in getting lunch together. What's the worst that can happen? They think you're hitting on them? Or that you're a little on the weird side? So what? If they react negatively, then no big deal; it's no one's loss. You guys probably wouldn't have been friends anyway. On the flip side, maybe it turns out that you guys hit if off, and this person thinks to invite you to hang out with his friends on a night when there wasn't too much going on in your dorm. Who knows? When you think about it, what's the downside? It's a little awkward? Given the possible benefits, I'd take that as the "negative" any time.
Along those same lines, be honest with people, and be real. Heck, as tough as it is for us to do, even make yourself a little vulnerable. Sure, it might be rough temporarily, but in those times when you're embraced instead, it makes it all the more meaningful. Maybe it's a girl you've got feelings for…maybe you're not really sure if the feelings are reciprocated…maybe it's even a case where you think she's got feelings for someone else. If you like her – if you sincerely believe that there's at least the possibility of something special there, something that would be more than worth your while – go for it. Again, why not? Maybe you look foolish for a little bit. Maybe your fears of the feelings not being returned are realized? One last time, so what? You move on, and you emerge with a better understanding of yourself, not to mention the fact that you saved yourself a whole bunch of time on something that would ultimately have amounted to nothing. Plus, given the type of people that Notre Dame tends to attract, in these cases where you open yourself up, the worst case scenario is that they at least gain respect for you for being mature enough (and brave enough) to put yourself out there. People can appreciate others who take risks. The only thing you really risk losing is the constant headache of "what if." "What if this person only knew how I feel?" Call me crazy, but I'd much rather take a simple "Sorry but I just like you as a friend" than wondering what could have been. (Note: your roommates and friends also much prefer the former than hearing you constantly harping on "only ifs.") Also, this whole being honest bit isn't just reserved for people of the opposite sex. Tell those people closest to you that you appreciate them. If you're lucky enough to have a friend or a group of friends whom you can trust and upon whom you can rely, let them know every now and then that you are grateful. As much as we try not to think about it, there's a sad reality in the saying "Tomorrow is promised to no one."
I know it seems like you have your whole college career ahead of you – and you do – but if doing something is important to you, do it. Do as much as you can for your entire four years, and you'll still be amazed how much more you wish you could have experienced when you graduate. Never take any opportunities or achievements for granted. I've learned that one the hard way. As a number of you know, I won Bengal Bouts freshman year (heck, the first punch I ever landed knocked my opponent down and ended the fight). I figured, "Hey, if I won this as a freshman, what can stop me from repeating the next 3 years?" Well, a chest cold before a semi-final fight combined with bad execution and a good opponent prevented it Sophomore year; and then a brutal first semester schedule Junior year that drained me and prevented me mentally from even giving it a go. Trust me, I never envisioned either of those possibilities. So here I am with only one chance to win another champion's jacket. One final shot to win an event that I had subconsciously taken as a given after my first year. Crazy.
While I'm at it, I might as well mention a few other important things I've learned. When you get the chance, visit your professors. I'm not talking about being a "brown-noser" or anything, but drop by, introduce yourself, just talk to them. Notre Dame attracts a lot of great people, and it's not just limited to students. Aside from the fact that these are the people who will be writing recommendations for you -- whether it's for study abroad, or being an RA, or grad school, whatever – in which case it generally is helpful when they actually know a little something about you, there are some really cool professors out there whose highlight of their days is students dropping by. Talk to your professors, do service (preferably non-Res Life mandated service), go on a retreat, say hello to the dining hall ladies, attend a random lecture, go to a random sporting event, the list goes on. Just…do something.
As you all know, Notre Dame values tradition more than almost all, if not all, schools in the country. And being part of these traditions is an incredible blessing. What that also means, though, is that it is next to impossible for any one individual to truly change Notre Dame. Leaving Notre Dame a tangibly different place, specifically a better place, because of our presence is something for which we all should strive, but it's not exactly easy. In fact, it's exceedingly hard. To my knowledge, there exists but a single way to make your mark on ND. And that is through people. By setting an example such that a person can say about you, "Honestly, this guy is what Notre Dame is about. He represents what a Notre Dame student should be," then you've done something special.
If you've ever read Lou Holtz's book or heard him give a speech, he talks about the importance of three questions. "1. Are you committed to excellence? 2. Can I trust you? 3. Do you care about me?" If people are asked these questions about you and can answer affirmatively to all of them, then you're doing your part. Many years from now, long after you've graduated, if someone reflects back on his time at school and you are part of his association with Notre Dame, then you surely have made your mark. That's quite an accomplishment, and something you can hang your hat on for the rest of your life.
One last thing…Try not to let others define you. Rather, don't give reason for people to define you in one particular way. You know what I'm talking about. "Oh, he's the guy who cares only about his work. Or he's the music guy. Or he's the…funny guy, ladies man, athlete, computer guy, video gamer, the Mr. Inappropriate guy..." Whatever it is. All of us use shortcuts to some degree, and it is true that for some of us a large part of our time will be dedicated to particular tasks. Those of you who are architecture majors will spend hours on end working on projects. There's no avoiding that. But always be something more than just one thing. I think for a while, without even realizing it, people had pegged me as the "good at boxing guy." Yeah, Bengal Bouts took up a lot of my time, but I'm more than that. During last year when I wasn't able to do it, I learned how important it is to never be too comfortable or settled in. There's so much out there and only four years to experience it.