Works and Days

Anatomy of Success at Reed: Conversations with Reedies Past and Present

Lydia Kerns, class of 2016

Reedies: Intellectuals in a purified form, dedicated to study and learning for its own internal value, blissfully segregating education from career, and proud to scoff when asked to justify their investment in learning with some claim to its practical application. For four years, Reedies live in a sanctuary where the transcendent value from the sharing of ideas is reward enough, and any mundane outcome of education beyond the pleasure of pursuing knowledge is of secondary importance. That’s the stereotype, at least.

The question, often posed by parents, “But what are you going to DO with that major?” may be met with a shrug or a sigh, but the undertones of the question carry the notes of a larger question, one that lives in the minds of Reedies and uncertain friends and family alike: How are you going to be successful?

The question is complex and subjective but also universal, held by a majority of Reedies and associated parties. What does it mean to be a successful Reedie? How can we make the most of our scholarship at Reed, staying true to our love of “learning for the sake of learning,” while also growing into individuals who can consider ourselves successful in the world beyond Reed?

The typical conception of a Reedie tends to emphasize those traits notably reminiscent of Socrates’ vision of the ideal intellectual, with Reedies as brilliant but distant, tucked away in ivory towers, minds loftily unconcerned by earthly pressures.

However, upon inspection, successful Reedies prove to adhere more to Aristotle’s instructions for living than Socrates'. Aristotle insisted that life was meaningless unless one engaged with a community. For Aristotle, intelligence and inquiry gained worth only upon conscious interaction with others and the world. Fulfillment of purpose cannot, according to Aristotle, be achieved in isolation. One’s knowledge must be applied to and within society. To fail to do so is to fail the ultimate function of what it means to be human. 

Reedies are strange and complex beasts. While we take pride in upholding our reputation as students perched atop tall, shimmering-white tower walls, engaging in some form of ascended intellectualism, exposing the successful Reedie reveals an individual committed to hard work, willing to dive into the nitty-gritty and navigate the earthly plane, to sweat and toil, to fall in the dirt and rise again, encrusted with experience that could never be acquired from a life spent in the clouds. Successful Reedies explore and engage, seek and assist, give back and give more, building and innovating and enriching and altering our local and global community for the better.

Voices of students past and present weave together, diverse veins of thought looping and arcing around one another to produce an intricate, interacting network of experience and perspective and wisdom with emergent common themes that combine as a whole to sketch of the internal anatomy of a successful Reedie.

That which is valued and conducive to success at Reed is sometimes perceived as intrinsically in conflict with that which contributes to success in the real world. Reed is about learning what you love, while the world demands you learn what is employable. However, it is a mistake to consider these characteristics as diametrically opposed. Becoming equipped with that which the real world values does not require the sacrifice of joyful inquiry while at Reed.

“Reed is not a preparatory school,” cautions Maya Edelstein,’12, a history major and current intake coordinator of the Kartini Clinic for treatment of pediatric eating disorders. “It’s not that it should be — we came to Reed to learn. But in terms of life after Reed, it’s not about the major; it’s about the experience you had. Choose a major that you are truly excited about, and then you can translate that interest into a career. Intellectual curiosity… continues to matter. Maybe it will not look the same after graduation, but it’s still so meaningful and I’m glad for the training I had at Reed.”

Melissa Feineman Suzuno, a general literature major who graduated in 2002, expresses a similar sentiment. “I approached my studies with the idea that I would pursue things that were interesting to me, while challenging myself within those disciplines.” She says, “I wasn’t going to force myself to delve into entire subjects that I felt I had no aptitude for, but I did push myself within my chosen discipline… since college, I’ve adopted a similar approach to life and my career.”

The pre-grad and post-grad worlds are not fated to clash, but this is not to say that the transition from one to the next is easy. How can students build a bridge to transport the passions they fostered and experiences they gained at Reed into life beyond? It isn’t a project that can be undertaken alone.

“There’s nothing wrong with asking for help,” Melissa promises. “We’re lucky at Reed to have such a small community, and it’s a shame to let that go to waste.”

“Reed is an unusually stressful place, and it’s critical that people are understanding and compassionate with themselves, and are able to ask for support when it is needed,” Maya emphasizes.

“You have to be willing to ask, and seek what you need,” insists Zoë Troxell Whitman, a current sophomore. “Knowing how to find resources and talk about what you need are skills necessary to becoming a successful Reedie. Sometimes it isn’t immediately obvious the help is there, but when you ask, resources will emerge. I think the best way to make resources helpful is to be okay with asking for what you need. Like me: I need tutoring. So I sought it out.”Zoe Troxell Whitman

The DoJo tutoring center, The Center for Life Beyond Reed, faculty members, and the Health and Counseling Center were all mentioned again and again as vital resources for the successful student. Students who engaged with these resources, and who made efforts to forge meaningful relationships with professors and alumni found these connections to be critical to both a richer Reed experience and an easier transition into a successful life after laurels. These networks and associations created internship opportunities, assisted in earning grants and scholarships for exploration of opportunities outside Reed, and gave Reedies “ins” when it came to applying for jobs in their fields of interest. Maya has found, “You can connect with Reedies and alumni for life, because you’ve had this shared experience.”  

In a single line, Maya sums up in words what successful Reedies demonstrate in practice. She states simply, “Success at Reed is taking advantage of opportunities.” This proves overwhelmingly true. Lydia Kerns, who describes her major as “vacillating,” is a sophomore who is certified to work at Reed's nuclear reactor, a Residence Life representative, a housing adviser, and a volunteer with the Science Outreach program. She also attends the 7:45am yoga PE class, participates in the excursions sponsored by the Gray Fund and Reed Outing Club, and makes “a concerted effort to get to know people.”

Engagement with a diverse array of opportunities is important not just because they provide skills and open up long-term channels facilitating future opportunities, but also because they create that which is mistakenly considered an impossibility given the demands of Reed: Balance. It seems paradoxical: Students seek out Reed because of its reputation for intense academics, yet Reedies agree above all else that balance may be the most crucial component to success.

“It’s about learning to give yourself permission to take a moment away from academics,” Maya stresses.

“The school isn’t going to produce the balance,” warns Zoë. “You have to seek it out. You have to actively battle the intensity of academics, and put effort into finding balance. It won’t necessarily be easy.”

The school may not set up a personalized schedule of balance for each student, but the resources are there for students to customize their own balanced lifestyle. Zoë suggests creating a schedule. “If you want to achieve balance and success, you have to consciously think about it— it has to be strategic,” she says.

According to Lydia, “Someone who is a successful student… is someone who is engaged and excited about the classes they are taking and what they are learning academically, and is also able to find other things than the academics in which to participate.” She recognizes the stereotypes that exist regarding Reedies' lifestyles, and diffuses them with her own beliefs and observations. One of the biggest setbacks for Reedies in achieving their goals, she says, is “feeling like you have to approach things in an unbalanced, unhealthy way. You don’t have to be crazy about things. You can go to sleep at 11:00pm, and then get up in the morning and get things done. You don’t have to stay up every night and drink Red Bull.”

At the end? “Find work and an approach to life that lets you achieve the balance you want that will resonate with you personally,” Maya urges.

There is a beautiful relief that comes from examining the physiology of a successful Reedie. The first relief comes in acknowledging that such a creature exists, that it’s possible for success as a Reed student to translate into success as a human operating beyond Reed. But better yet, the anatomy of a successful Reedie is not the anatomy of a body beat down by stress, veins pumping more caffeine than blood, and a brain muscled disproportionately in the area of classroom academics while atrophied in arena of social engagement — the body of a successful Reedie is one that is balanced and engaged in such a way that the diverse intricacies vital to one’s identity are given plenty of oxygen and allowed to flourish. 

Pictured: Lydia Kerns (top) and Zoë Troxell Whitman (middle)

Full individual interviews will be made available soon. 

Tags: success, student voices, alumni, student life, resources, internships, grants, opportunities , health, life of the mind, balance, students, students