"England mornings are a bit chilly," I thought to myself as I walked through Cambridge's campus with a small group of American students. This was our first full day, and we made our way across the lawn to the dining hall, blinking with sleepy eyes into the rising sun. We headed to the breakfast buffet — our plates brimming with England's famous beans, ham, eggs and fried toast — and sat at the tables running the length of the dining hall, Harry Potter style. Several students sat at one table; we decided to set down our trays several feet away.
I could feel the glances of other Cambridge students, staring at us curiously. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary to me, but five minutes into our meal, a pair of students I didn't recognize came and slid into the seats right next to us. There were other available benches everywhere. My friends and I hid our surprised glances. I swallowed some coffee and hesitantly began some small talk with our new seatmates. In PCB, or in a normal American cafeteria, students usually go to a dining hall with friends, eat and leave. Most people don't just join a random group of strangers and dig into a slice of pizza.
Before long, I realized why we received such strange looks for sitting in a group by ourselves, instead of in the seats closest to the group already sitting down. The founders of the university system, several hundred years ago, created mealtimes to be a sort of "coming together" time where students filed into the dining hall and sat next to the nearest available person, and were constantly forced to speak to somebody with a different personality, background and intelligence type. Education truly has very little to do with a classroom.
Facts, analysis and interpretation are obviously extremely important. I think the fathers of the whole "university" idea in England were definitely onto something; though I've learned important knowledge from my professors and textbooks, my most viable, important knowledge comes from beyond the blackboard and online quizzes. The true magic of any university lies in the living, breathing mosaic of people who walk all over campus. Every person on campus is incredibly unique; each has a different background, different passions and a different story.
Oscar Wilde once said, "Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught."
Our best resource, over the years of college, are the people we interact with—and our choice to learn from other people can be an endless resource that carries on in unforeseeable ways. Many people harbor a personal bias toward their areas of academic or social expertise, understandably. Having like-minded people is a very important part of anyone's life, but I could easily gain more insight in one conversation with a nuclear physicist than I have in 50 conversations with someone from my major. Despite the awkwardness that I felt when joined by random strangers in Cambridge that morning – and many mornings after – I learned that simply asking people about their lives can be one of the most valuable things I've ever done. At a British pub, I met a creative writing student from Columbia University; he'd come to study at the creative writing program at Cambridge. His brilliance was offset by his casual, friendly conversation and I loved meeting a fellow American who loved to write. In Amsterdam, I met a young South African girl, who came from a family of Dutch Boers. She dreamed of becoming an engineer in South Africa like her father one day. An Australian chef (of desserts, no less) stayed in the same hostel with me and some classmates and told his tales of moving about Europe and working at high-end restaurants.
And one doesn't have to move to Europe to meet interesting people. From computer science majors to aspiring artists to unbelievably gifted athletes, Tennessee's campus is full of intricate, intriguing people with a unique aspect on life.
College simply isn't complete without students, and a wealth of knowledge is potentially at your fingertips — better yet, it can start with a simple hello at breakfast.
Sarah Hagaman is a sophomore in English. She can be reached at email@example.com.