science, storytelling, & student orgs

This month has me questioning whether I like sharing stories because I like sharing stories, or I like sharing stories because I like to like sharing stories. (There are a lot of “likes” in that sentence, but the extra one holds importance– much like how when my cognitive science professor talks about intersubjectivity, he describes it as “I know that you know that I know you know,” with that last bit being imperative to defining the mutually-understood shared understanding.) Cogsci lectures aside, the time commitments I’ve sustained this quarter have definitely put me under some pressure in considering whether I make choices based on obligation or passion.

Since my first quarter in college, I existed under the ambition of being “well-rounded” and “multi-disciplinary.” I declared a double major (hence the tangential identity battle: am I more of a stereotypical biology or cognitive science major?). I launched into committee positions followed by leadership positions in multiple student orgs with the goals of 1) keeping myself busy with something besides schoolwork and 2) building my list of experiences. I held myself at an arm’s distance from that second part; I refused to be a resume-stacker, and I insisted on pouring myself into whatever I did with every ounce of interest I could muster. Even if I ended up in positions I wasn’t as happy with–for example, the time I ended up on a concert-planning committee–it’s always been tough for me to admit to myself that I may not enjoy something.

Over the years, I’ve become a little better at picking and choosing commitments. I left concert-planning. I’m taking a break from ecology research. In one of the most conflicting decision-making processes I’ve dealt with, I’m likely going to step down from being paid staff at my school’s radio station for my senior year. I used to think I could find time for everything, but this year helped me realize that I prefer to explore things in depth as much as I can before I move onto the next. I didn’t get involved in too many structured extracurriculars during high school and it let me pick up so many more individual projects; I’m itching to get back to that kind of schedule next year so I can find the headspace to move toward personal rather than organizational goals. Currently, much of my non-studying time is spent in administrative work for the science communication organization I lead.

It often feels like so much of student org culture comes from a place of self-promotion and resume building. The organization I lead is framed as one for science journalism, one that will result in portfolios and interesting activities for med school apps. However, I’ve learned through my position this year that the org’s real value is not always in the science communication. We tend to speak in big abstract ideas about promoting scientific literacy, but we are still exploring how to broaden our engagement. We don’t really write breaking news pieces, and our perspectives are syntheses more than original ideas.

Instead, we embrace our identity as a community of undergrads collectively learning what it takes to tell science stories. Our undergrad perspective in ideating, editing, and publishing stories is always evolving; the value I’ve found through student organizations is in uncovering the process of learning, observing the step-by-step unfolding of how experience is built–it’s more than just cultivating blurbs for a resume.

This past month, one of my friends exhibited his senior thesis in visual art. He spoke through his work about how sometimes the process of making art does more than the art itself, because in the process, the creator undergoes change. Some of us in this science communication org may go on to careers in science journalism, others of us may go on to med school, and still others may do something completely different. But through repeatedly writing drafts, developing our editing eyes, and fumbling our way through effective science communication, this organization facilitates discussion based in a love of science and storytelling.

So, yeah, I think I like storytelling. This month’s heavy schedule really put into perspective why I do what I do. I’m gaining a new sense of clarity in what separates my obligations from my choices and in how I can best pursue those choices. Sure, I’m building skills and therefore my resume, but I feel a new sense of purpose in the process that I didn’t quite have before. Cognitive science as a field lends itself to studying the why and how of human culture and cognition, and I think the in-class discussions about looking closely at the mundane are revealing things I just didn’t have the words to express before.

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