Opportunity, Coffee and Poetry

2013 Honors College Induction Ceremony Speech

By Azeem Khan

Good morning, everyone. Let me be one of many to tell you, “Welcome to the Honors College.” I’m Azeem Khan, a junior here at MU, and I, like all of you, am an honors student.

We have a lot in common. We’re all smart. We all did well in high school. We followed the rules, turned in our homework, and fought for the points we deserved.

We’re the kids who did everything and made it look easy. It might have even been easy. We filled our schedules with courses that started with “H” or “AP.” We piled on the extracurricular activities—became president of this and treasurer of that. And that doesn’t even include jobs or sports. Somehow, we made it work.

It’s tempting to try that in college, too, but I went from advisor to advisor and found out there are enough classes, clubs, and activities just within my major to fill a fifteen-year schedule. It turns out there’s no way to take all the hard classes like some of us did in high school. There aren’t enough hours in the week to handle all the clubs you want to join.

One way to cope with this overload of opportunities is to retreat from them. Choose a major, stick to it, and do well by only doing what you do best, whether it’s journalism, music, or creative writing. Specialize. But I don’t think that’s right.

In the Winter of 2012, I watched an interview with Eminem, a.k.a. The Real Slim Shady, in which he spoke about his motivation for getting into the music industry. He said, and I quote, “This the one thing that I feel like I have that I can do well. I can’t really do [anything] else.”

I’m a lot like Eminem… actually, that’s probably not true. But I at least used to feel like there was only one thing I was really good at. When I first came here, MU seemed huge, and I thought it would be easier to just focus on biology. But that just misses the point of having so many opportunities in the first place. So I’m here to share my experience. I’ve learned three lessons that make college less overwhelming without forcing you to miss out.

The first lesson I learned was to try something new.

During Summer Welcome when I was a freshman, I sat in Chamber Auditorium and watched Dr. Stuart Palonsky, the former Director of the Honors College, introduce a set of four classes over a two-year period called the Humanities Sequence. The Sequence takes students through 3000 years of literature, art, music, and philosophy to analyze what it means to be a human being (or something like that). Essentially, it’s a combination of every class I thought I wouldn’t have to take. Dr. Palonsky even made sure to tell us, “If you’re not a reader, don’t take this class!”

In high school, I wasn’t exactly what Dr. P. might call a “reader”—gobbling up 100 pages of Steinbeck every night just for fun. But I made it through classes that weren’t my strong suit and came out just fine. What was one class to challenge me? Some part of me, the ambitious honors student in me, looked Dr. Palonsky square in the eye and told him, “Challenge accepted.”

Later that summer, though, I had my doubts. I thought, “You know, I have most of my Humanities credits already… maybe I should just find some easier class to replace it.” What was I going to do with a bunch of storybooks?

And I got this close to dropping the class before I found out my FIG had forced me into it anyway.

During textbook pickup week, I walked into the MU Bookstore, smiling ID in hand, just eager as ever to drop the down payment of a car on some books. For the first class in Humanities, the Ancient World, I picked up 13 books—already a bad sign. To make things worse, a few of them were thicker than the dictionary. The Iliad felt heavy enough to break a window.

Lysistrata has naked people all over the cover which, depending on the kind of person you are, may or may not be encouraging. I had philosophy books by Plato, Aristotle, and Lucretius. Frankly, I thought people were done studying philosophy, like, we all moved on to science 1000 years ago, right?

Over time, though, I really got into Humanities. Aristotle was crazy smart! He thought about the universe in ways I never thought were possible, and soon philosophy became one of my favorite subjects, especially since it makes me feel smart to say that. And sure, the Iliad was long, but I loved the epic poems about Achilles making a name for himself as an Ancient Greek hero.

And this is in the class I almost dismissed as useless. In hindsight, when I was making up excuses to not take it, it’s not like I was too good or too focused for Humanities. To be honest, I was just too afraid to branch out.

That was one of the first things I learned in college: you have to get out of your comfort zone. What I found in Humanities might be what you find in math class or beauty pageants or advanced comic book history.

The second lesson I learned, or had to learn, was to ask for help.

Just because I was doing so much in Humanities didn’t mean I had given up on science. The next year I was in one of my biology classes trying to memorize…. everything. I was trying to remember the mechanism of G-protein-coupled receptors and where they can go wrong and what was a mitochondrion again? At the same time I was working in a lab and volunteering in the evenings and keeping up with Humanities and going to special events because I’m an honors student and I can do everything and that’s what honors students do, right?

For students like us, it can be too easy to get caught up in everything you want to do. By sophomore year, I was trying new things, getting out of my comfort zone—I had that first lesson down. But I tried too much, and in my Cell Bio class I ended up eight chapters behind when I needed to know them inside and out for the mid-term in three days.

I didn’t sleep much those three days. I mostly alternated between drinking way too much coffee and cramming biology facts, which is not the most effective way to study. But I could do it. I knew I could. “Just keep swimming.” “I think I can.” Anything that could fool me into thinking I would do great! But I couldn’t.

For a while, I thought I’d fail for sure. I had most of the facts somewhere in my head, but they were mixed up with the dread of letting myself down, of not being good enough in my own field, of failing out of college and becoming a toothless train-hopper for the rest of my life.

Okay, maybe I was being a little dramatic. But I only had an hour before the test, and I was running on four hours of sleep and a near-lethal dose of caffeine. So I entered the gray-on-gray tunnels of Tucker Hall, hoping to breathe in some biology or something that would help. Before I even made it to the right room, I was greeted by 20 or 30 students, sitting with their backs against the wall, who looked just as panicked as I felt.

I tried to get to the drinking fountain to get some water and at least try to think straight, but I had to wade through a swamp of notes and diagrams and hastily-made flash cards. Some people were closing their eyes trying to recall, “Was it microtubules or myofibrils that made your muscles move?” I heard others whispering shady things like, “Dude, I found this practice test on the internet. You think it’s legit?”

Then, as I stood tangled in open textbooks and jittering legs, a girl nearby asked me, “Hey, do you know how a G-protein-coupled receptor works? Can you explain it to me?”

As a matter of fact, I did. Barely. I explained it the best I could. Then I asked her about something I didn’t know, and she explained it, and we traded notes, and until the test we recited any process we could think of that might be on it “because I think he mentioned this was important once. Maybe.”

Neither of us knew everything we had to, but we filled some of the gaps in each other’s knowledge and both came out more prepared than we were an hour earlier—all because she asked me to help.

I didn’t do my best on that mid-term, but I had learned my second lesson. You can’t do everything alone, so don’t be afraid, don’t be too proud, don’t be too whatever, to ask for help when you need it.

After that, I made sure to meet up in study groups whenever I could. Every couple of weeks, a few other kids and I would get together to explain what we understood and ask about what we didn’t. At each meet-up, we all became teachers, we all became students, and, most importantly, we all became friends. Some of my closest friends don’t come from clubs or my residence hall but from hard classes, from study sessions that were way too close to the test, from moments of crisis when we had overextended ourselves and needed each other.

Asking for help doesn’t make you less of an honors student. It means you understand that education is a group activity, and the more people who are involved, the more everyone benefits.

By the end of sophomore year, I was trying new things and getting help when I needed it. But I had to learn my third lesson. If you have an idea, and it won’t hurt anybody, go for it. Follow through.

I really saw that when I set out to start a new organization: Poetry Club.

The idea was born on a quiet afternoon in my friend’s apartment. I was hanging out with him and a few other guys talking about action movies and how if penguins could fly they would be the ultimate land, sea, and air animals.

I leaned back on the couch, staring into the green LEDs of my friend’s computer, and let my mind wander. For some reason, I started thinking about Shakespeare. In taking that Humanities Sequence, I had found something new that I was good at, and I wanted to pursue it more.

So I turned to one of the guys who was eating Doritos, getting orange dust all over the place, and spit out this bright idea:

“Dude, we should start our own club.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. A poetry club. What do you think?”

And that could have been it. The idea could have floated away just like our discussions of super-penguins.

But we decided to go for it. Later that week, I went to the student organizations office and asked for instructions. “How do you start a club?”

The deal was this: I had to fill out a form with some basic info, discuss it with the ORG office, draft a constitution, find a faculty advisor, and find enough interested people to actually, you know, maintain a club.

Wow. I wanted to start Poetry Club, but, at that point, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. I could just bring a group to Starbucks and talk about rhymes for a while. I had never started an organization before, and I didn’t even know if enough people would be interested.

I asked around anyway just to see what would happen. My recruiting approach was about as straightforward as it gets. I went up to people I knew and asked, “Hey, I’m starting a poetry club. Do you want to join?” I asked people anywhere: my classes, the Student Center, Chipotle right here on Ninth Street.

At first, that seemed kind of weird, but, surprisingly, most people said “yeah.” They wanted to learn more about it and become part of something new. Soon, I had more than enough people to start the club. We wrote up a constitution, determined the values the club would stand for, and thought of fancy titles like “Chief of Poetic Content.” As for a faculty advisor, we chose Dr. Rachel Harper, my Humanities professor. She’s here in the audience today!

Poetry Club started out with a silly conversation over a bag of Doritos. And now, before we’ve even had our first meeting, people come up to me asking if they can join. If I had shied away from the opportunities that college provides, there’s no way that would be happening. There’s no way we’d be starting this semester, welcoming students of all majors, to just chill and talk about poetry.

Today, I can’t imagine sticking to just one thing I’m good at. I’ve thought about that interview with Eminem. Rap is “the one thing…I have that I can do well,” he said. But look at his life. If Eminem really believed that, he wouldn’t have been an actor to create 8 Mile. He wouldn’t be a producer as well as a rapper. And in that same interview, he said he’s also, in his words, “pretty nasty” at basketball.

If I had continued to believe that science was the one thing that I could do well, I wouldn’t have learned a thing about philosophy. I wouldn’t have tried to do too much and found out that we all benefit more when we work together. I wouldn’t be starting Poetry Club.

While you’re here, take a class you don’t need. Get help before you fail a test. Join clubs. Start one! Take as many opportunities as you can fit in your schedule, and engage with others while you do it. You never know what interests you’ll discover, and the friends you make along the way will help you get through it all. In college, those are the most important lessons I’ve learned.

But what do I know? I’m still learning. After all, I’m only a couple of years older than you.

Thank you.