Beginning’s End – Everyone Should Learn Computer Science (Yes, Everyone)

A few days ago my mom sent me an article from the Daily Progress, Charlottesville’s local paper. The article (here it is in full) states that Computer Science will be added to the SOL [Standards of Learning], Virginia’s standardized testing program. They claim that this will make students more prepared to enter the job market, but from the wording of the article (and without doing further research into the change),  I am somewhat dubious. In particular, the fact that “The new standards do not add additional requirements to the curriculum or replace any subjects” makes me doubt that the new material will be sufficient to accomplish much of anything. That doesn’t really worry me, though. Standardized testing is enough of a complex and touchy topic without talking about what subjects deserve to be tested.

The part that really worries and upsets me, however, is a direct quote from Virginia’s governor. At a ceremony announcing the change, Governor McAuliffe said that, “We will be sending a clear message…to all the businesses around the globe that we’re very serious about this, computer science, and what we need to do to build those skill sets of the future…” On the surface, McAuliffe shows a refreshing practicality for a government official – the economy seems to be moving towards tech, so why not give our students a head start? The problem is that he is pushing for computer science because those skills will be valuable in the job market. It’s not just McAuliffe making this small but fatal mistake of motivation – even President Obama’s pushes for coding and computer science always have an employability and national status underpinning to them.

This heavily implies that the only reason we value computer science so heavily right now is that the economy demands more coders. Were the economy to shift back away from programming, it means we would drop computer science from the national curriculum like leftover food left out all night. It restricts computer science to a skill, coding, useful only for the function it provides. Contrast this with the way (and the reason that) we teach history. Every high school student learns at least two, usually three or four years of history. Yet we do not demand that more of those students become historians or enter other related disciplines. Rather, we require our students to work though multiple years of history because we as a society believe that they become better people by that work. That the true value of an education in history is not the direct skills or knowledge that it grants you, but the increased ability to understand and interact with life as it continues to flow as a continuation of that same history. No matter the fluctuations of the economy, learning history will always be valuable towards our current understanding of an educated person.

Coding is the vital skill at the center of computer science, but computer science has so much more to offer, such that the difference between someone who simply knows how to code and someone with a full computer science education is akin to the difference between a historian and someone who has read some history textbooks. Perhaps it is possible that they know the same facts, at least on the surface. The way that they would go about solving problems, however, is entirely different.

The true value of computer science is the resilience and humility it requires. Never have I been told that I’m wrong so often and so quickly as when I am coding. Nearly every time you run a program you are in the process of writing, it will end in angry red text spit back at you through the console. You don’t get to argue your point, as in English or History. You don’t even get to argue over which interpretation of objective truth is correct, as in Math or Chem. If the computer says you’re wrong, you’re wrong. Every single time. Here’s a conversation I’ve had more times than I can count with students who come into my office hours:

Them: It’s giving me a null pointer exception!

Me: Ok. So at some point you are trying to call a method or reference a field on an object that isn’t actually there. It’s like trying to shuffle the deck that’s inside of an empty box.

Them: But that’s not possible. None of my references are null.

Me: Well, you’re wrong. It must be possible, because it’s currently happening.

Repeat the above and modify slightly for: concurrent modification exception, class cast exception, arithmetic exception, stack overflow error, etc etc etc…

While the failures are delivered in a safe and private environment (i.e. your computer), this is nonetheless a really tough pill for some introductory computer science students to swallow. It’s hard to learn that something you were so sure of is actually incorrect, especially in such a blunt and unforgiving manner. It’s one of the reasons that computer science has a problem with retention, especially among women and certain minorities. When you get told that you’re wrong so often, it’s only natural to wonder if you aren’t cut out for the subject. What’s wrong, however, is thinking that everyone else is getting it right on the first try while you’re up at three AM debugging the same stupid error. Everyone in a class (literally, everyone) hits roughly the same number of snags in completing a given project. This should be intuitive – everyone received the same project to begin with, and everyone has roughly the same knowledge base going into it. Of course everyone will get tripped up in essentially the same spots along the way.

The difference between those who struggle through computer science and those who seem like wizards, then, is how long each of those errors take to fix. The better students don’t avoid failure, they get better at failing. They learn to have no problem admitting that something is wrong, because that is the first absolutely necessary step towards fixing it. They learn that one failure or even a multitude of failures does not reflect on them negatively, neither as a coder nor as a person, as long as they acknowledge that something is wrong and retain the desire to improve. They learn that it is not the multitude of your failures, but the magnitude of your successes, that truly matter. Computer science forces you to fail so often that you become immune to the mental damage it would cause. Rather than dwelling on your failure by getting angry or giving up, it forces you to move past it by searching for understanding, because that is the only way you will ever succeed.

Being a computer scientist, therefore, is much more than knowing how to code. It’s the long nights of futile search for the single remaining bug, and wanting to throw your computer out the window. It’s the sleep-deprived haze under which you finally stumble upon and correct the unbelievably stupid mistake you made three months ago. It’s the utter elation you get when the damn thing finally runs. Finally, it’s the warm glow you feel when a friend complains about an error subtly similar to yours, which you find and fix in five minutes instead of three weeks. It is all this and more, because in that moment your friend is not silently judging you, that it took three weeks to find this silly, simple bug. They know all too well what that frustrating search feels like, and you, you wonderful human being, were able to save them that effort. In that moment, you are not defined by your weeks of inadequacy, but by your perseverance, your empathy, and your humility.

That is a lesson everyone, regardless of age, gender, race or profession, needs to learn. It’s nice that the economy is tilting towards coding right now, and that computer science is in the public spotlight. Even if that were not the case, I truly believe that we all would be more resilient, more humble, more empathetic people if we all spent a few years learning computer science.

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Beginning’s End – Dear Cornell Freshman

My semester ended with both a whimper (classes) and a bang (slope day), so I suppose I hit all of the right notes. Now we begin the slow march towards the finish line, with little to occupy our days but procrastinating on studying and spending time with friends before they leave campus. More bitter than sweet, at this point.

It seems that the recollective bug has bitten many seniors this spring – I was asked by a good friend of mine (and future roommate?? TBD) if I would write a short piece addressing both myself of four years ago, and the incoming class of Cornell Freshmen. The goal is to let them know what they’re in for and to put them in the right mindset for what lies ahead. Below is my fictional time traveling letter, titled “They go too fast”.


Dear Freshman Michael,

Welcome to the fastest, most stressful and most exhilarating four years of your life. Four years may seem like forever when you first arrive on campus. Now that I’m standing on the finish line, trust me it goes by all too quickly. You owe it yourself to get the most out of every day, because you don’t get any of them back.

There’s a lot I could say in terms of advice. What I did and didn’t do, what I regret and what I don’t regret. As I’ve written and re-written this letter, all of it sounds preachy and very anecdotal. I’m still going to give opinions on my time here, but take it all with a grain of salt. This is a bit of my story, and yours will certainly be different.

You’ll have some up days and some down days. Sometimes you’ll coast to a good grade in a class, while in others you’ll work harder than you thought possible just to get the mean, or worse. Some weekends you will want to party across campus, soles sticky with beer residue, while others you’ll live in libraries and make the Olin to Uris 2AM transfer. More than anything else, college is made up of choices that shape your time here. Some are small, some big, some smart and others fun. But you control every single one. Not your parents, not your friends, not significant other. Only you.

If I had to sell Cornell to prospective students based on a single tag line, I’d go with “the place for intelligent and dedicated students who don’t care to prove to you exactly how intelligent and dedicated they are.” It’s a bit wordy (note to self – edit this), but it still sums up the overall attitude on campus. Just about everyone you meet on campus is secretly absolutely brilliant. More importantly, no one is just skating by. The more dedicated the person, the harder they are working, because they want to accomplish even more in their four years. Cornell encourages students to learn as much as possible, to make an impact on campus, and to squeeze every drop out of every day, because to do less would be a waste of your time here. You define your own success. You never need to prove that you deserve your spot more than the person next to you.    

It’s your undergraduate career. Strive to defeat every challenge and exceed every expectation that you set for yourself. However, know that it’s ok to strike out after giving something your all. There will be times that you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, and that you may pass out from mental exhaustion simply from working too hard. You know what? That’s okay. College teaches you more than the material that makes up your major, it teaches you resilience. Cornell will throw more at you than you can possibly handle. Part of life, the part you get to learn here, is how to keep on pushing through the most stressful of weeks. While working as hard as you can to produce top quality work, don’t evaluate yourself too strongly by the results. You are not a bad test score, or a poorly researched philosophy paper written the night before it is due. You are the optimistic and intelligent student who acknowledges that failure, makes amends and turns that grade into a distant memory.

Cornell is your next great challenge, and one you can’t handle alone. The fastest way to make your life a living hell is to view your classmates and friends as opponents, not to be trusted with tiny grade-boosting details. I urge you, though this may go against your natural future-Ivy-leaguer inclination, to view your classmates as teammates, working together as fully as you can (of course respecting the academic integrity guidelines). Remember that this is a place for staggeringly intelligent yet humble people. You never know which random friend will be the one to pull you through Linear Algebra. More importantly, however, trust your friends enough to truly talk to them. No real friend of yours wants you to suffer in silence. When you are at your weakest, have the strength to ask for help. When it comes your turn, be there for your friends. Give them a patient ear, a steady shoulder, and non-judgmental advice. Together, there is nothing you cannot accomplish.

One part of college that comes as a shock to some is how quickly your social scene may change. An extra-large shift comes after freshman year, as your tightest-knit group of friends suddenly dissipates across North Campus, West Campus, and Collegetown. It’s easy to view this as downside of college or a trial to overcome. You can attempt to keep track of everyone you meet during your four years, but I would urge you in the opposite direction. Focus on making lifelong friends, not simply collecting acquaintances. It could be the friends you meet on your freshman floor, but it could be an entirely different group. Of course it is important to have less serious friends to have a good time with, but as you near the end of your time here, the ones that really count will be the ones you’ll stay in touch with for the rest of your life. So long as you treat everyone you meet with respect and actively push newly formed friendships beyond their superficial beginnings, I have no doubt that you will meet lifelong friends during your time here.

In the end, I would give anything to be in your position once again. I survived the classes, I partied hard, and I got the job, but I would gladly throw that all up in the air again to do it all over.  As the Glee Club sometimes sings, “But oh, to be twenty, and back at Cornell.”

Holy shit, you’re in for a wild ride.

P.S. Just go with Shnik. People here will flip for it, and the pun opportunities are endless.

Beginning’s End – Go Boldly

It didn’t really hit me until I woke up three days ago. Seeing May 1st on my phone made me remember that within the month I will be graduating, that my time on the hill is nearly at an end. I knew I had very little time left, but suddenly that amount was measured in weeks and days, not months.

I’ve had many “lasts” in the past few months. My last concert with The Chai Notes, my last return to campus as a student, my last prelim. Today (yesterday at this point), I taught my last recitation as a Java TA. Soon I’ll have my last class, and not long after my last final. As each one passed, I couldn’t help but think about the corresponding “first”, the event that began the series I was now ending. Each and every one has been extremely bittersweet in remembrance. When I began as a singer, a TA, a student, and every other role I took on during my four years here, I couldn’t possibly have known how important they would become. I can only appreciate in retrospect how much I loved every bit of my time, and how sad I am to see it end.

In an attempt to bottle these memories, I’m going to spend the next month reflecting on what I’ve learned over the last four years. Perhaps now I can make good on the topics I promised to cover way back when I started this blog. More importantly, I hope that you can glean something of use, or at minimum savor a little bit of the warmth of reliving happy memories.


The funny and sad part in this reflection is that so many of my most important decisions in college began as accidents. I first saw The Chai Notes at the first shabbat dinner of my freshman year, which I attended on a whim. I initially wanted to be a Matlab TA, but they weren’t taking applications in the spring so I ended up being a Java TA. I had planned on living on west campus my sophomore year, but I and most of my floor didn’t get a good time slot so I pleaded my way into the CJL annex. Despite the randomness of these three decisions, all played a central role in my college experience. I feel so lucky to have have lived the amazing past four years, given how little planning went into it all.

But on the other hand, maybe that’s always how it goes. The morning of the most important day of your life is like any other morning. You can’t possibly know that your life will change at approximately 8:15PM when the performing group sings Nachamu. Moreover, even at the time it’s impossible to tell. Most life events aren’t so impactful and sudden that you know right in that instant that you are now heading down a different path. You can only trace back where it all changed, for better or worse, in retrospect.

The takeaway here, for college and for life beyond, is that you should simply try everything you have any desire to do. I stood alone outside of 104West that Friday night worrying that it would be awkward not knowing anyone. I decided to go in because I might meet my best friends there, and I couldn’t pass up the chance. I had no way of knowing then, but I was exactly right. Every time you get that little thought of “this could be amazing”, opposed by the little nagging doubts about practicality, perceived coolness, and required effort, I urge you to just give that new endeavor a shot. So long as you keep your whits about you and stay attentive, you can always bail if it turns out not to your liking. But if you never try, you’ll never know what you’re missing. I truly believe that a life lived fully is a life lived well.

College is only four (plus/minus) years. There’s really no time to waste being timid, in worrying and delaying. So go boldly forward where you have not gone before. Spend these years forging new paths and trying new things. Some things won’t work out, and that’s ok, but the things that do will so profoundly affect you that you won’t understand who you were before.

When I look back, those are the things that I remember. Those happy accidents that I only achieved because I took a risk, chose the mystery option. They are quirks of fate that I can only appreciate now that my time at Cornell is ending. But in placing such importance on chance, I have to wonder,

What will tomorrow bring?

 

How do You Recognize a Person?

There are two days from this past fall semester that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. One is when I performed for the President. Singing for the President of the United States, in person, was truly surreal. That experience, however, has been well documented all over social media; I see no need to add another recounting.

The other day, however, is one that wasn’t splattered across Facebook like a new chocolate cake recipe. That other day was Wednesday, September 23 – specifically, Yom Kippur. On the surface, it wasn’t an unusual Yom Kippur, especially by college standards. I skipped all of my classes, went to the bare minimum amount of services, and managed to fast for the whole day. More importantly, I invited two close friends over to hang out and generally pass the time until the fast ended later that evening. After some talking and a board game, one of the two went off to take a nap. The conversation I had with the other over the next hour is still one of my favorite that I have ever had. I wish I could remember the whole thing and play it back at will. In terms of thinking about who I want to be and fixing past mistakes, that conversation did more for me than any summation of Yom Kippur services.

I do remember one key question that she asked, and that one question is why I’ll never forget that day. We were on the topic of being Jewish at Cornell, as students who had to skip class to attend services and the like. She asked, “Are you a Jewish American, or an American Jew?” It isn’t a completely mind-shattering question to ask, but nonetheless was one that I had never actually sat down and thought about. I thought for a while, and eventually answered, “I am an american, jewish human.”


Over this past summer, I lived in San Jose with a group of seven other software engineering interns, plus few more who hung out with us as the situation allowed. Midway through the summer, one of the Google interns suggested that I read a popular Harry Potter fan-fiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. To say that I highly recommend it is a massive understatement. It might be my favorite “book” (using the term loosely here) of all time. I’m reading through it again right now and loving every single word.

In brief, HPMOR (for short) starts with a very simple premise – Petunia Evans, sister of Lily Evans who would go on to be Lily Potter, dumps Vernon Dursley in college. Instead, she ends up marrying Oxford professor Michal Verres. Instead of being raised in a stifling home with horrid stepparents and a truly abhorrent stepbrother, Harry is adopted as a single child into a nurturing and very academic household. This one alteration to the basic premise of the entire series changes just about everything in a rapidly expanding ripple effect, from who is friends with whom, and even to house placement. I can’t say more without spoilers, but suffice to say that if you read the first ten chapters or so and aren’t hooked, your sense of curiosity needs a checkup.

What I can say is that one of the main themes throughout the book is the battle between good and evil, right and wrong. Specifically, in the aftermath of you-know-who’s rampage, the entire wizarding world has been left divided. Politically, militarily, even across house lines, the entire rhetoric revolves around concepts of “us” and “them”. Only Harry, coming from a heavily-educated muggle background, seems to think any differently. One passage in particular really stands out to me, in which Harry describes his outlook on the ultimate definition of goodness:

“…when we go out into the stars, we might find other people there. And if so, they certainly won’t look like we do. There might be things out there that are grown from crystal, or big pulsating blobs… or they might be made of magic, now that I think about it. So with all that strangeness, how do you recognize a person? Not by the shape, not by how many arms or legs it has. Not by the sort of substance it’s made out of, whether that’s flesh or crystal or stuff I can’t imagine. You would have to recognize them as people from their minds. And even their minds wouldn’t work just like ours do. But anything that lives and thinks and knows itself and doesn’t want to die, […] it’s sad if that person has to die, because it doesn’t want to. Compared to what might be out there, every human being who ever lived, we’re all like brothers and sisters, you could hardly even tell us apart. The ones out there who met us, they wouldn’t see British or French, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, they’d just see a human being. Humans who can love, and hate, and laugh, and cry; and to them, the ones out there, that would make us all as alike as peas in the same pod. They would be different, though. Really different. But that wouldn’t stop us, and it wouldn’t stop them, if we both wanted to be friends together. […] Because if we can get along with crystal things someday, how silly would it be not to get along with Muggleborns, who are shaped like us, and think like us, as alike to us as peas in a pod? The crystal things wouldn’t even be able to tell the difference. […] Every life is precious, everything that thinks and knows itself and doesn’t want to die. […] even though it’s too late for them now, it was sad when they died. But there are other lives that are still alive to be fought for. Your life, and my life, and Hermione Granger’s life, all the lives of Earth, and all the lives beyond, to be defended and protected, EXPECTO PATRONUM!

I agree a lot with Harry throughout HPMOR, but on this passage in particular we are completely in sync. When I look at another person, I don’t think about their skin color, or their gender, or their age. I wonder about their mind – who they are, in the true sense. I am not an American before all else. I am not a Jew before all else. I am a Human first and foremost, and even that definition will change in the case that we discover intelligent life elsewhere.

I truly believe that having this outlook makes you a better person. Even if you are still your nationality, or your religion, race or gender first, appreciate your common bond with every human you come across. Whenever you pick up a book, we built the written language that covers its manufactured pages from scratch. When you open a bottle of wine, we spent literal millennia perfecting the craft of processing fruit just so to form the infinitely complex liquid. If you ever need true inspiration, all you have to do is look towards the bright orb in the night sky. WE. GOT. THERE. I don’t mean America got to the moon. Or that capitalism got to the moon. I mean that humans, who once huddled in their huts and caves and grunted as they gripped rudimentary tools, got to the moon.
WE.
GOT.
THERE.
We includes me. It includes you too. So long as you are a member of the human race (which I believe included everyone able to read this), you share in that accomplishment. Think what we could accomplish if we truly worked together.

This topic seems particularly pertinent, as one particular american politician is running a hate-basted us-versus-them campaign. It saddens me that people are so convinced that the way to raise oneself up is by clawing others down.
It might mean that I’ll end up being taken advantage of throughout my life, but I will never let go my belief that people are truly good, when given the chance to be. When the human race reaches and inevitably surpasses its next big boundary, I want to be right there. Moreover, I want you to be there too. It wouldn’t mean anything otherwise.

Sing an Eb if You Agree

Not that much remains of the Spring 2015 semester. One more test needs taking, boxes need packing, and an apartment needs cleaning, but after that I trade in Ithaca for Sunny(vale) Cali. Before I begin my final checklist, I absolutely need to take a moment to reflect on the events of this afternoon. A few hours ago I journeyed to the Regal Cinemas in the Ithaca mall to see Pitch Perfect 2 with my favorite Jewish-themed A Cappella group, The Chai Notes. I can’t know how this movie will affect (or won’t affect) other people, but as the cap on three years of A Cappella, Pitch Perfect 2 hit me right in the feels.

To bring you uncultured philistines who haven’t made time to see the best sequel since Home Alone Two: Lost in New York (just kidding, it’s actually Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel) up to speed, here’s your super-brief summary of both Pitch Perfect movies.

  • Music nerd Beca (yes that’s how they spell her name, apparently) goes to local college because her father works there. She has no intentions of auditioning for A Cappella but is ambushed in the shower by Barton Bellas member Chloe and coerced into auditioning.
  • Beca ends up auditioning (via the cup song) and getting in to the Bellas. From there she injects new ideas into the group, fueling their drive to the top
  • At the end of the first movie, the Bellas manage to win the national title and retire in fame back to college.
  • Since the first movie 3 years have passed, since when the Bellas have consecutively defended the national title. All of the returning characters are now seniors, with one as a super-super senior who has failed classes to not have to graduate.
  • An unfortunate choreography accident ends up embarrassing the Bellas to the point of their being suspended from competing in America or taking new members. Through reasonably sound logic the Bellas determine that their only path back to fame is to win the A Cappella World Championships.
  • Standing in their way is a german group called Das Sound Machine (DSM for short) who is intimidating in just about every way, and are also the reigning world champs.
  • After falling even further, the Bellas regroup at a retreat to rediscover themselves as a group and as individuals.
  • Coming back from that, they group up and take down the world championships with a completely original song written by freshman legacy Emily and produced by Beca.

The movie does a good job of depicting the career struggle that all college students go through. In the first movie Beca struggles internally to find her place in the world, and the the second movie she works to try and prove that she deserves a slot in that world after graduation. It also both criticizes and glorifies the organization-based bonds that are forged during college, specifically pertaining to A Cappella groups but with easy extension to greek houses and academic groups. Is the short four-year span we get to spend learning all we can about our new “family” a fatal flaw in the bonds we form during college, or the hottest fire that permits life-long friendships to be created during such a short span of time? The movie seems to suggest the latter, but adds a crucial caveat: when it comes your time to move on to that next step in your life, you can’t stall with one foot out the door. The final (and hardest) step of making life-long friends during college is knowing that when college ends you have to move on to bigger and better things.

These are all reasons why I think Pitch Perfect 2 is a pretty good movie for anyone. They aren’t, however, the reasons why I was tearing up at the final victory scene. More than anything else, I can personally say that Pitch Perfect 2 perfectly chronicles the internal struggles faced by The Chai Notes during my tenure here, and I would guess that many other groups at Cornell if not nationally can say the same. Over the duration of the movie, the Bellas struggle with two central conflicts which cannot be fully resolved – they can only be patched for this generation before coming up again with the next fresh batch of auditionees.

The first conflict is particularly applicable to collegiate A Cappella, an entertainment form that requires long hours on a very regular schedule and that is populated almost exclusively by students who have no desire to make professional music into their careers. Here we are, pre-meds and engineers, designers, architects and others, who spend 7+ hours/week in the music building. Doesn’t that seem insane? The obvious question this begs is the same one asked by Pitch Perfect 2 – why do we do it? What are we hoping to gain, on a scale greater than one concert for each semester? After all it seems that after we graduate all our effort will only amount to a resume line that quickly gets evicted in favor of more career-specific experience. There are two quick answers to the question of purpose: we do it because we enjoy it, or we do it because we want to make good music. On the surface these two reasons can coexist, but it isn’t too long into the lifetime of any group before they come into conflict. Fun is rarely hard to find at the start, but when it’s the third hour of the second extra rehearsal this week, the question of why we do it is on everyone’s mind.

Over my three years we’ve come awfully close to “losing the fun” on a few occasions. We were all working hard to put together the best concert we could possibly manage, and in the process we pushed the metaphorical engine too far. Everyone was frustrated with just about everyone, and as the fun disappeared productivity started to drain with it. At each point, however, the people in power took stock and made changes to ensure that the fun came back. Every time we went up to the brink of disaster we came back stronger than ever, and with new appreciation for the people who double the above time commitment to run the group.

The truth is that without fun there can’t be good music, and without good music there can’t be fun. If everyone is pissed all of the time and everything is a struggle nothing is going to sound good no matter how many extra hours are piled on. On the other hand, if it is common knowledge that the group isn’t good, it’s hard to enjoy the experience of producing sub-par music. Seeing the Bellas up on the screen dealing with their interpersonal problems and differing visions of the group was extremely cathartic. I’ve been in that position, when it simultaneously feels like one wrong move will irrevocably break the group you’ve tried so hard to build up, but that you also are so out of energy that you just don’t care anymore. I know how much effort it takes to come back from that position both from watching it and from being in the driver’s seat, and how great it feels to have group-wide happiness and unity once more.

The second question the movie asks is one faced by every group looking to actively improve, and so certainly applies to The Chai Notes. It takes time for the question to develop in the movie, but around the campfire it is eventually aired: Who are we? Who do we want to be? What do we want to be viewed as? In the movie the Bellas try to beat DSM by taking a page out of their book, but this only leads to catastrophic failure as their performances become more and more hectic. Only by returning to what made them great in the first place are they able to take DSM down and secure the world championship. This is an easy movie theme to spin (the power was within you all along!), but in reality is unfortunately only partially true. Collaborating with and learning from other competing groups around your own is a very worthwhile process, both in A Cappella and in life as a whole. I very often walk away from performances by other groups on campus pondering what my single favorite part of their performance was, and how we could better appeal to that aspect of performing. I consider myself lucky to be on a campus where each different A Cappella I see perform brings something new to appreciate and learn from.

During these internal one-sided discussions, however, I always hit up against the hard underlying truth harped on in Pitch Perfect 2 – maybe the reason that group was able to blend so well and that other group made my jaw drop from solo power was because those are just their things. Maybe instead of (or in addition to) trying to incorporate the best elements of other groups into our own we should be focusing more on what we do the best, and taking pride with that one aspect of our performance. After all, I joined The Chai Notes for a reason – I felt they were a group of people I could be comfortable around, being my regular weird self and expressing that in my performance. We let our fun fuel our performance. Doing it any other way just wouldn’t make sense to me. Just the like the previous question, this one can only be answered by a balance of the two extremes. You have to take some inspiration from outside sources, or risk becoming stale and both externally and internally boring. On the other hand, you can’t lose yourself so far into your pursuit of excellence that you forget what made your group unique, and why you joined it in the first place.

To this day I remain at the core that same quirky freshman, and I’m proud to say that our group environment hasn’t changed since. I’m also proud to say that if I were to audition today, I’m fairly confident that I wouldn’t get accepted. We’ve come a long way in the last six semesters, and I’m honored to have been part of that well-earned ascension.

Not only has the group changed, but I have as well. Thanks to my time in The Chai Notes, I am now much more able to express myself, both on a personal level and on a stage. I’m more comfortable following someone else’s schedule, and I’m able to transition between being a friend and a board member as the scenario requires. I may be the same quirky freshman as before, but I’m a lot more prepared to take on the world than I would have been with only a B.A. in CS and Econ. If I had somehow been told during my first semester how big of an impact this group would have on me, I’m not sure I would believe it. Even more worrying, I’m not sure I would have auditioned with the knowledge that I would change so much. Change can be a scary thing, and I don’t trust my freshman self to have made the right decision knowing what was on the line.

Thankfully, though, I didn’t. I walked into and out of the audition worrying only about how well I had done. I showed up to the callback late because my instructions were vague, and immediately set to wondering if I had already blown my chance. Only after our first concert did I start to realize what I had gotten myself into, and by that point I was so enamored with the group that I wouldn’t have given it up for anything.

To our seniors – Becca and Justin, you will be solely missed. Both of you are so talented in many ways and I know you’ll kick ass out in the real world. Don’t forget to drop us a line every now and again.

To the current members – Watching Pitch Perfect 2 reminded me to be appreciative of how far we’ve come. That’s not to say we should stop striving to make tomorrow’s group better, but after every event I think we’d be greatly mistaken to not take a moment and relish our successes thus far. As I’m sure you all know, we don’t have all that long in the group. Every performance, every rehearsal, and every party is sacred because starting from your very first rehearsal you are counting down to the day when you have to leave.

To those members that I haven’t met yet –  August can’t come soon enough. You’re about to embark on a journey that will change your college experience, and maybe even your life. You just don’t know it yet.


P.S. – This bulk of this post was written while listening to Dream On off of The Key Elements’ new album Catalyst. It gives an extra air of power to the post that I rather like. Check ’em out here.