A lot of times, college students sit at their desks, tapping their pens against their notepads during the middle of a three hour lecture and begin to think, “This relates nothing to my major; why do I need to sit through this?” Although initially eager to begin the college experience that opens up the doorway for a diverse range of opportunities, students are pummeled by essays and group assignments that heavily decrease their enthusiasm for a college degree. It’s especially frustrating to heave through the general education requirements, like math, English, and science, when they do not relate to the student’s major. How am I going to impact the world by sitting in Critical Reading and Writing 102, or First Year Seminar? Are all these classes I’m taking even going to lead me anywhere?
Addams’s graduation picture from Rockford Seminary, 1881
Like most college students, Addams had a lot of ambition entering Rockford Seminary at the age of 17. She, too, wanted to impact the world by pursing an education; however, Addams had many barriers and limitations that would delay her successes like the Hull House or recognition for her speeches on women suffrage, child labor, etc. As New York Times writer David Brooks writes in his article, “The Jane Addams Model,” Addams was a “morally ambitious young woman who dreamed of some epic life service without much idea about how it might come about… In her twenties she was one of those young people who don’t get to themselves quickly.”
During Addams’s education she desired to pursue a degree in medicine, but Rockford, which was a seminary at the time, encouraged careers associated with religion. Like many college students who are indecisive in choosing their own majors, Addams considered transferring to Smith College in Massachusetts, but never followed through with it. After finishing school at Rockford, Addams felt limited in her education because there weren’t many career paths options for women in additional education.
Addams faced a range of personal problems that affected her education as well. After graduating Rockford, her father, whom she viewed as one of her closest friends, died. She wrote two weeks after his funeral, “how purposeless and without ambition am I.” Any motivation she had about pursuing another degree disappeared with the death of her father. When Addams did eventually enroll in medical school, she suffered from severe back pains and psychological problems and chose to admit herself into a hospital instead. In addition to these issues, she felt pressure from her family to focus inward on them rather than pursue her education.
Addams standing with parasol in her class picture at Rockford, 1881
Her life filled with the same uncertainties that many of us students have, Addams chose to leave these pressures and travel outside her comfort zone. Seeing London’s streets of poverty rekindled the desire to connect with people personally. Addams recognized the contrast between the way she lived her life and the streets of Chicago and felt inspired to not only provide effective services, but also protect the dignity of those she helped. In order to do this, she thought about who she ought to be and started changing her life in small ways. With these small changes, she was able provide comfort and safety to thousands of immigrants through the Hull-House.
Students may not always know where they are headed; but the truth is Addams didn’t know either. Changing a lifestyle and becoming uncomfortable to do what’s good for others are small steps for big achievements. A three hour lecture in Math for the Modern World may be boring, or writing an essay on a topic unrelated to a major may seem useless, but they may lead to opportunities or spark a buried passion. For students, making an impact can be a simple as joining clubs on campus that they are interested in. If Addams were alive today to speak to these students, she would encourage them to vocalize their desires on a club’s executive board.
Sources: Brooks, David. “The Jane Addams Model.” New York Times, 25 Apr. 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/25/opinion/the-jane-addams-model.html?_r=1 Accessed 6 Jun. 2017. Schneiderhan, Erik. The Size of Others’ Burdens: Barack Obama, Jane Addams, and the Politics of Helping Others. Stanford University Press, 2015.