From being hit on multiple extremities by a representative’s umbrella to attempting to console a senator after some not-so-subtle hints towards her current family issues, working with the Enact program head-on this year as LEAD Co-Coordinator has been the marked crucible of my senior year. On I-Days, while my peers in the junior and senior class were on a bus to their SIR labs and research sites or sleeping soundly in their beds, I played ambassador-for-a-day with the visiting legislators who had agreed to advise the research and synthesis of a state bill in one of six Enact classes. It certainly wasn’t the way I had expected to be spending my Wednesdays at the beginning of the year, but hardly anything in the past three years at a whirlwind institution like IMSA ever is “predictable”.
Before I continue, I must say that I do not at all envy the work that the Student Committee for IMSA Advancement (SCIA) does on behalf of this institution. This article is not about that particular topic, but I feel it necessary to pay homage to their martyrdom in advance. In the short bursts that I did work with this branch of the academy, I was given the chimera-like role of LEAD advocator and “Legislator Lackey.” Even while I was promoting the internal LEAD program, I had to constantly ensure – at the behest of Dr. Purva DeVol – that the legislators saw the best version of IMSA that they could. During those times, I became very familiar to hearing words like “funding” and “cutbacks” in every conversation I had. In the Fall of 2013, the very state legislators I spent my I-Days with helped to sponsor GRF/EAF funding for the academy worth a sum total just shy of a 17.7 million dollars. Over the course of three academic years – assuming approximately 650 students attend the academy – a graduate of the academy will have accumulated $80,000 worth of state funding. I will digress from the exact figures, as I am sure IMSA students do not need assistance in the calculations; however, do keep this number in the back of your mind as it will become important later.
My work with legislators didn’t just end with personal interaction, however. During one of our modules second semester, Shruthi Mothkur (one of the LEAD team’s SCIA contacts and extremely capable facilitators) brought blank letters for all the sophomore students. Two letters were to be sent out to the students’ respective representative and senator of their district. Every student was instructed to write the letters briefly in class to each of their legislators. I had been familiar with the process before, as we had done it my own LEAD class sophomore year and had facilitated the activity hands-on in my own class junior year. At the time of the activity, I was evaluating two of my facilitators in their classroom and thought nothing strange about the classroom activity.
Hence my shock and disappointment when Shruthi approached me some two weeks later with a very troublesome issue surrounding the legislator letters. Many of the letters were removed from the “send” pool due to embarrassing unprofessionalism and down-right immaturity. A few letters had been written in crayon. Some had naught but a sentence greeting the person (sometimes by the incorrect title). And – the most infuriating of all – some letters actually described how much they “hated and couldn’t wait to leave IMSA.”
As much as I would like to pretend this is an isolated incident, that is an impossible task to accomplish. All it takes is a simple scroll through any social media webpage or to take a seat at the senior u-bench for five minutes to hear similar sentiments expressed without restraint. Just the other day I actually heard a senior say “I would go to class, but math is just not really my thing” without a trace of irony in his voice. That was something said in complete seriousness at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy.
Despite its drawbacks and occasional mind-numbing repetition, working with the legislators gave me a much stronger perspective into the state funding process and – more importantly – a greater appreciation for the state’s commitment to the education of Illinois’ “best and brightest.” This brings me to the titular component of this article. In finance, a negative return is procured when the gain from an investment is less than that of cost. At the end of the day, every student of the academy is a $28,000 cost of investment per academic year.
My family didn’t have a lot of money while I was growing up. We weren’t poor by any means, but I certainly learned what the value of a dollar is. From cutting back on after-school snacks to never expecting to have the same fancy clothes as the other kids, every dollar I was given I worked for. I worked for it because I knew I was never entitled to a single penny of it. Every investment made into my life, I worked hard to ensure the gain was at minimum equivalent to the investment. I will not go so far as to claim that I was never given anything pro bono, but I was raised to never take advantage of any investment no matter the cost.
When I came to IMSA, this lesson was never lost on me. Over the course of my three year here, I have seen myriads of students squander the investment the academy, the state, and the people of Illinois have injected into this community. I have seen seniors settle with a ferocious complacency, content with being a statistic. I have seen juniors expect nothing but the minimum from themselves in the hope of simply surviving instead of living. I have seen sophomores coast through the year, expecting success to surprise them around the corner of their wayward detour towards cathartic stasis. I’ve witnessed graduates fade into the crowd, fearful of expressing their impenetrable capacity to stick-out. I have seen myself fall into this very enigma of greater self-expectations and lesser self-motivation, turning my back on one of the most important lessons I learned as a child.
On the other hand, I have seen amazing things done on this campus. Ground-breaking and field-changing research is done every day. Students come out of science classes invigorated and itching for more. Extensive independent studies enhance the academic dialogue across the board. Clubs and organizations give back to the community with rigorous hunger for change and betterment. Ethical leaders go forward to change their universities, develop apps for children, or bring the IMSA spirit of advancing the human condition to a fresh group of individuals across the world.
I am not here to claim that IMSA is a perfect institution. Of course it’s not; it has its flaws and many things it must improve if it truly wants to be a pioneering academy in this country. It may not even be what you signed up for in that month of May however long ago. But you’re here now; this is what you’ve been dealt. Now is the time to either stop being a delusional child upset with the taste of the inner layer of the jawbreaker or pack your bags and quit wasting space for a student who can truly commit to a positive return on investment instead of your forecasted cripplingly negative return.
There is a choice we are faced with every day not only at this academy but every day of our lives as well. Am I going to commit to the positive return, or am I going to take the easy route and coast trough, content with anything but extraordinary? Suppose someone gave you an $80,000 grant to put together a respectable symposium of authors, scientists and artists. The things you could do with that much money are endless, but the question of where it goes essentially boils down to this: Do I spend this money as effective as possible to make the best symposium possible, or do I squander it on personal vices and the like? For any self-respecting individual, the answer to this question is obvious. And yet every day, people at this academy turn their head to the investment from their state. They play if-I-can’t-see-it-it’s-not-there with thousands of state dollars. There is no difference; the return on investment in the first example is a spectacular symposium, the return at this academy is individual drive, devotion to service and scholarship, and commitment to the progression of human knowledge.
In nuce, I urge you all – myself included – to ask yourself everyday if you are making good on your investment. Will this return be positive, or am I throwing away gifts offered at my feet? Robert Arnott once wrote that “In investing, what is comfortable is rarely profitable.” Three years is shorter than you think. What will your ROI be?