Ben Leake

There was a moment, on my first campus tour back in July of 2012, that I decided to split off from my mother and the rest of the tour group. We were passing Gorgas, so I dropped back and climbed up the library steps on my own. After falling in love with the campus and realizing this was where I’d be spending four years of my life, I wanted the chance to take it in entirely by myself. So I just sat there. I looked out across the Quad, admired Denny Chimes, studied the columned buildings I didn’t yet know the names of. It was only for a few seconds- I quickly got back up and rushed to rejoin the group so my Mom wouldn’t be concerned, and so I didn’t destroy my social experience for the next four years by being labeled by future fellow students as The Weird Guy Who Just Sits on the Gorgas Steps.

But as brief as it was, this is always the moment I think back to whenever the quintessential “If you could go back and tell your freshman self something, what would it be?” question arises. And, frankly, it’s why I’m not the biggest fan of senior columns. After four years navigating campus, a senior’s experiences are drowned by nostalgia and sentimentality, resulting in a flood of stereotypical advice that’s often contradictory from who the authors were during their time here. We enthusiastically give advice to others that we didn’t even start taking ourselves until this past month- sure, I may have “skip class” on my bucket list now, but anyone who knows me understands the crippling anxiety I would have felt the past three years even thinking about doing such a thing.

If I gave that type of advice to the kid sitting on the Gorgas steps before he got here, his college experience would have been vastly different, and likely in a not-so-great way. Because of this, senior columns (as well-intentioned and heartwarming to read as they may be) are often useless to anyone looking to them for meaningful advice.

Then again, here I am writing a senior column – so I must be useless, or at the very least a hypocrite. But if I were back on those Gorgas steps today, I wouldn’t give that 18 year-old sitting there one of the “spend more time with friends” quips or personal anecdotes. Because everything worth knowing in that moment are things he’d have to – and would – learn for himself.

He’d learn for himself how quickly we can trick ourselves into thinking this will all last forever. I found, during my time here, just how easily each and every one of us can get swept up in the “Game” at UA. Now, how we define the Game depends heavily on who we spend time with, and the score is kept a little differently for all of us- it could be the number of As we get every semester, organizations we become an officer of, Greek date parties we go to, or recognition/ awards we receive for ‘accomplishments’. Regardless, it all returns to the same idea- being someone defined by a number. Not who we were or who we loved, no – a player in the Game and the people they’re around are only as important as their score.

The Game can be fun for us to play for a while (c’mon – date parties are a blast, and you should be striving for the types of grades that would get you awards). But it’s so easy to forget what it is at its core- a temporary distraction. Something amusing, even superficial. Instead, it can become the driving force behind every decision we make and interaction we have for four years.

Some of us play the Game for all four years we’re here, and some do quite well. But ultimately, your Game ends after walking across the stage at graduation. Your score vanishes. And when you come back to campus, you’ll find just as many (if not more, at the rate we’re growing) different players spinning their wheels in an identical Game. The Game existed in high school. It exists on every college campus. Learning this – that everything we do here to arbitrarily measure ourselves against others fades away the second we leave- should push us away from that unfulfilling trap. Don’t let your best memories be winning a contest no one bothered to keep track of.

With that being said, he would also learn for himself it’s just as dangerous to think this won’t all last forever. There’s comfort in thinking superficiality, ignorance, apathy, and all the other less-than-glamorous realities of our campus will be left in the Tuscaloosa “Bubble” while we ride off into the sunset to life’s next stop. But, as my friends from Mobile say, “it’s never over”. There will always be superficiality. There will always be ignorance and apathy. All continue to exist- they may just look a little different wherever we end up. In many ways, the Tuscaloosa Bubble is a microcosm of the larger world we live in, and this is a profound opportunity we are blessed with. We are given the chance to face these realities while we’re here, and how we choose to respond to them now is a good indication of how we’ll respond when we leave. Where we fall short we can only pick ourselves up, armed with the knowledge of how to face them at life’s next stop.

Of all the other lessons the kid on those steps would learn for himself, one of the most difficult would be trying to make sense of the impact those next four years would have on his life after they came to a close. I don’t have the answer quite yet, and I think it will be a long time before I do. But I think I’ve started to get a clue to it as I’ve begun saying my goodbyes over the past few weeks.

When I arrived here on campus, I had stumbled upon a place 19 times the size of where I had grown up. I came from a place where I not only knew all my classmates and their parents on a first-name basis, but also their brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles… you get it. It’s a small town. Zero stoplights (we do have a four-way intersection of stop signs, though). I went from there to a place where I knew virtually no one, as many of us dirty Yankees do. My world was now filled with something I had never encountered before- strangers.

I came with the anticipation my most vivid memories would be specific experiences I had, but few of those registered at all. Instead, my most vivid memories came from those who were strangers when I arrived.

Some of you remained strangers, and I got the opportunity to walk by you every single day, reminded of the beauty of this campus’s scope- the thousands of unique stories and dreams we never shared with one another, but nevertheless resulted in our paths briefly crossing. I got to be a background character in your college experience, if only for a fleeting moment on the way to your 9am class. A few more of you weren’t quite strangers, but I don’t know your siblings on a first name basis- let alone your uncles, aunts, etc. In that class we had together or club we were in, I’m lucky to have shared the room with you, or at least to have had some speaking lines as a background character in your college experience. There are others of you, however, who went from strangers to something words can’t properly convey. Simply put, I can’t imagine my life without you.

All three groups – I need you to know you changed my life. Yes, you, the one reading this. Your interaction with me, best friend or passing stranger, has altered me. In the end, I couldn’t hope for anything more, if not that I’ve done the same for you in some small way. Our time together has left a ripple on my life, our interactions are forever interwoven in the fabric of our existence, or whatever abstract metaphor you’d like- because words fall short. Words cannot capture the gratitude I have for God putting your presence in my life, a gratitude the kid on those steps could not possibly fathom. Thank you.

Everything worth knowing you have to learn for yourself. Don’t let your elders or your peers “give” you that wisdom, or your college experience could quickly become dogmatic – you’ll find yourself trying to live the life of someone else on this campus. But there will always be more people you don’t please while trying to live out someone else’s vision of the “right” life- friends, family, that cute girl or boy. Knowing this is one of the most liberating truths we can come to terms with – it eliminates every possible barrier we put in front of ourselves to go pursue our own dreams. Don’t limit the people you could meet or things you could do just because you assume there is one right way. That’s garbage. There never has been, and never will be. And if you disagree with anything or everything I’ve written above, good. Go out and find your own truth.

“If you could go back and tell your freshman self something, what would it be?”

I think to that moment with the kid on the Gorgas steps during his first visit. I wouldn’t say much at all. I’d sit there, trying to take in that moment for just a second or two longer before he rushes back to the tour group, eager to learn for himself.

Well, except for one thing – I would tell that kid to learn how to swing dance. That one’s important.

Ben Leake is a senior majoring in management information sciences and finance.

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