It is never easy to admit that you paid to waste four years of your life. On a recent mountaineering trip a fellow Army officer and I began discussing our future plans in the military as we huddled in our tent to weather a snowstorm. My friend explained that he considers his undergraduate degree useless for most civilian jobs and that the Army is his only viable career option because “in the military, it doesn’t matter what kind of degree you have, as long as you have one.” He continued, “I had a blast in college, but I just don’t think my major will get me anywhere practical.”
Sadly, my friend is one of many college graduates I’ve encountered who disregard their undergraduate education simply because they do not actively use their actual major. Our experiences could not be more opposite. I have only once used my Russian-language major to communicate in three years of military service, yet I consider my Dickinson education to be the foundation of all I have accomplished since graduation.
In many ways, my Dickinson education better prepared me for an Army career than did my military schooling. Certainly, I learned the nuances of performing my job in specialized military courses, but in the Dickinson classroom I learned how to collect information, determine its accuracy, combine it with my own ideas and then communicate it. I learned to view all information with a healthy dose of skepticism, knowing that a printed text can contain errors and that a speaker still has an agenda that affects the content of a message. More important, classroom discussion and peer-reviewed papers encouraged me to examine my ideas and delivery. As I transitioned into the military, I found that my years at Dickinson had ingrained the critical and analytical skills I was now using to create detailed plans in an office or to make rapid decisions during missions.
Yet the most valuable aspect of my Dickinson education is embodied in the term that some of my classmates viewed with sarcasm—“engaging the world.” A year after graduation I realized Dickinson’s commitment to engagement means teaching students to integrate diverse communities by being interested in differences rather than being repelled by them.
When I arrived at my first assignment at Fort Lewis in Washington state, I found that my unit’s location on the Pacific Rim resulted in frequent training exercises with the South Korean and Japanese armies. I was amazed at how quickly I won the trust of our partners and how well we worked together in mission planning and execution after only days of practice.
After each day’s training, as I discussed the results with my American peers, I realized that my fellow officers simply could not bridge the gap between our American way of thinking and that of our partners. My friends had trouble engaging the Koreans or Japanese because they could not view our tasks from our partners’ perspective. However, Dickinson’s emphasis on engagement required us not to convert people to our own way of thinking but to work to understand their experiences and perspectives and, ultimately, to connect the two viewpoints.
We often have heard the promise that we would gain a “useful” education at Dickinson. But what many of us failed to realize is that the usefulness of the education is not limited to using the undergraduate major in the execution of postgraduate activities. It is not in the thesis but in the writing of the thesis, not in the fluency with which one speaks a foreign language but in the willingness to attempt to speak the language in the bustling center of a foreign city. As Dickinsonians we acquire these skills that guide our activities in our postcollege lives.
Nathan Fry ’06 graduated with a self-developed major in Russian and English comparative literature. He has spent the last two years on active duty as a platoon leader and assistant operations officer for the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, and is attending the Captain’s Career Course and Special Forces Qualification Course.