My buddies and I in the Army used to pass most evenings hanging out in somebody’s barracks room, drinking cheap beers and venting about the day. Life in the military isn’t easy, so these moments were rare opportunities to voice our frustrations, away from the prying ears of our sergeants. Most of these nights weren’t particularly memorable, except for one around three years ago when I had just reported to my unit. That night, I noticed written on my buddy’s whiteboard an oddly specific number: 986. Curious, I asked him what it meant. Grinning, he proudly proclaimed that he “only had” 986 days until his military discharge.
“Back to freedom,” he added facetiously.
Enlisting into the military should never be a hasty decision. All soldiers sign a contract that lasts anywhere from two to six years, and are expected to complete it. If a soldier were to come to me complaining that he wasn’t happy with his job and lifestyle, yet he still had two years left on his contract, all I could really tell him was to suck it up and wait for his discharge.
Needless to say, this discharge doesn't come easy, especially when it’s 986 days away. To get there, you just have to take it week by week, day by day, or even sometimes, when on a 24-hour “Charge of Quarters” duty, minute by agonizing minute.
Though not nearly as extreme, we here at Columbia make a similar decision. We more or less commit to spending four years of our lives at this institution, expecting a Columbia degree in return. That reward doesn't come easy, either. Between now and graduation lie dozens of sleepless nights, hundreds of hours of lectures, and an incalculable number of pages to read.
However, we must also keep in mind that while the Columbia degree is the medal waiting at the proverbial finish line, the experience comes from the miles leading up to it.
Like my buddy in the Army and many students at Columbia, I once made a similar countdown. At the beginning of my second year as a high school student living in Jordan, I calculated that there were 654 days until my 18th birthday—my last day in Amman. I was frustrated with all of the time I had spent away from home and wanted nothing more than to be back. Instead of taking it day by day, however, I became obsessed with the sheer amount of time I still had left. The countdown only made every day slower and even harder to endure.
Overwhelmed, I began exploring every option to cut down that number as much as possible.
I tried to graduate early, but my high school, surprisingly, wouldn’t let me. I applied to a D.C. internship program, only to be rejected. I looked into European boarding schools, finding them too expensive, and American boarding schools, finding them too restrictive. I even thought about getting my GED and starting at a community college, only to find out I was too young to test. All to no avail, I was left with only one option: sticking it out through the 600 some-odd days until my plane ticket home.
Looking back on it, I’m thankful every other option failed.
If I had left Jordan early, I would’ve never made the lifelong relationships I cherish that took three years to develop. I would’ve never opened up to my Arabic tutor, telling him about my concerns and frustrations, who then quickly became my closest friend. I would’ve never gotten to know a high school classmate from Queens who, during a spontaneous trip to NYC, showed me around the city and convinced me that a new life awaited me here.
I would’ve never gotten close to another high school classmate and current Columbia student who not only encouraged me to come to Columbia, assuring me that it was a good fit, but also pushed me to become a Spectator columnist despite my lack of writing experience, convincing me that I had perspectives worth sharing.
When you begin counting down the days, whether you are in the Army, in Jordan, or here at Columbia, you begin to lose sight of what really matters—the days in between, what you do with them, and who you meet along the way.
In between now and graduation lies ample opportunity to make friends, find new interests, or simply enjoy the time you have left here in New York City. Instead of getting overwhelmed with all of the work we still have left to do, let’s make the most of our days still left here on campus. The papers will get written, the exams will be taken, and the days will go by. Before we know it, we will all be walking down College Walk with not just our degrees, but all of the memories we have gained along the way.
After all, time goes by a lot faster than you may realize. My buddy who started that countdown so long ago just received his discharge. By the looks of his Facebook, and the conversation we had in August, he doesn’t seem to regret a single day of his enlistment. As for me, I started my countdown exactly 1,879 days ago. Some days went by fast, others went by slow, but in the end, they all led me here. Because of that, I’d never trade a single one for anything.
Kevin Petersen is a first-year student at the School of General Studies, still trying to memorize the “quotient rule.” Hypocritically, he is eagerly counting down the hours till fall break. Feel free to reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, especially if you have some spare cheap beers. Different Places, Different People, Different Perspectives runs alternate Fridays.
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