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As fish in the pond

| Monday, October 5, 2015

One of the most relevant lessons I learned about animal biology over my years in college did not, oddly enough, come from a biology class as a science major at the University of Notre Dame. Rather, this learning moment was delivered by one of the 10-year-old little buddies I met through College Mentors for Kids my sophomore year. As strangely specific as it sounds, her all-time favorite animal was the Japanese koi fish; upon further inquiry as to exactly why she held this conviction, she gushed about a recent trip to an aquarium where she was captivated by the vibrant, colorful patterns of the fish she saw in the tanks. The aspect that most intrigued me, though, was the lesson the marine biologist imparted during their visit about the growth patterns of the fish. Apparently, when the fish is hatched and raised in a traditional fish bowl, it can grow to be about three inches long. When raised in a koi pond or similarly sized pool, the fish can grow to be around a foot long. However, if the koi is allowed to spend its life in a larger body of water — say, a small pond — it can grow to be nearly three feet or longer.

From this example and many others in animal biology, it is a generally accepted principle that the qualities of an animal’s environment have profound impacts on its future outcomes. From young primates whose physical development is stunted due to being socially ostracized to the example of the koi fish having more room to grow and thrive, it is evident that the environmental conditions to which the individual animal is exposed have massive implications for how it will develop over time. It doesn’t take much extrapolation from this example to ask the question, “What about us?”

The medical school application is inherently reflective, so the past several months have involved an awful lot of introspection, reflection and self-assessment. Part of that process has involved me looking at the environment in which I have been able to learn and grow — specifically, how my undergraduate years have shaped and influenced who I am. Another part has been trying to articulate to others how meaningful this environment has been to me in terms of my personal and professional development. Just as a koi fish does not notice the water it lives in, though, it is difficult to really grasp the extent to which this place has shaped me (because it has, and in so many different ways).

For me, one of the most fascinating parts about the environment that exists here at Notre Dame is the fact that, unlike the static pond or bowl in which the koi fish is confined, we have the ability to shape and develop this place each and every day. That is precisely why I find weeks such the one before us — Energy Week, Mental Illness Awareness Week, Respect Life Week and the others I am probably missing — to be so exciting. Whether you share the stances being advocated by the various groups or not, you are witnessing the manifestation of our ability to mold and shape the metaphorical pond within which we live to an extent that no other creatures can. We have the ability to seek out and isolate problems and issues we experience in the communities we are a part of, raise awareness of those ills, and work together to make the environment that we learn and live in better than it was before. We are able to work toward the goal that this home we share together is a place where everyone has the space and support to grow and develop into citizens ready to go out in to the “real world” and make similar meaningful changes. As stewards of the campus community, we have the exciting opportunity to leave this place as a different — and hopefully better — place than when we first embraced it.

And, frankly, that is some pretty powerful stuff.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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