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Busy graduates made the most of their college experience

By : Momoji Furudate

Campus and local politics and theater were just some of the activities Joshua Oppenheimer pursued outside the classroom during his years at Binghamton University. Like other students who had active extracurricular lives, Oppenheimer said he learned as muc
Whether waking up at dawn or getting to bed at three in the morning, students have to juggle schoolwork, extracurricular activities and sometimes jobs in order to gain the most out of college life. At BU, some students have found endless ways to combine those activities with a sense of passion and innovation.

Athletics, campus politics, volunteerism and the arts all provide major outlets for students who want to expand their horizons, reduce stress or figure out a career. And some can’t seem to confine themselves to just one thing. While holding down full academic loads, they throw themselves into a variety of activities, emerging from college with not only a full résumé but a wealth of memory-making experiences.

What makes these super-achievers tick? As interviews with a number of them who are graduating indicates, their learning did not stop at the classroom door.

Patricia Benda, a senior majoring in French and minoring in linguistics, joined the BU Crew Club halfway through her freshman year. Having experience in soccer and speedskating, Benda challenged herself to train as the coxswain of the crew team, following in her sister’s footsteps.

In addition, she tutored and mentored seventh and eighth graders at Binghamton’s West Middle School at least five hours a week as part of the GEAR UP program. She spent five days a week at the Boys and Girls Club of Binghamton, giving swimming lessons as head lifeguard and aquatics director. Every Saturday, she volunteered as a Cub Scout leader at the Urban League in Binghamton, working with a pack of youngsters in the Scout Reach program who, under regular circumstances, could not afford to be in Scouting.

Benda plans to become a French teacher at a middle school. “I’ve always enjoyed being around kids and working with them,” she said.

Senior engineering major Stephen Neuman found his involvement with sports led to many opportunities to help others. It was, perhaps, the reason he was appointed captain of the soccer team his junior year. “My coach always said, ‘Treat others the way you want to be treated,’” he recalled. “It’s something I try to achieve. I enjoy helping develop other people and being a part of the team.”

As a leader in BASIC (Brothers and Sisters in Christ), a campus Christian fellowship, Neuman has dedicated much of his time to organizing teaching sessions and discussions of Christianity. “We try to find wisdom that can’t be provided by most people on campus, but [that is] hopefully from God,” he said. “We trust God to give us the answers, but we want to positively affect students, whether we are ‘right’ or not.”

During the spring semester, while soccer is off season, the team does volunteer work along with practice and weight training. Neuman and his teammates have helped physically and mentally challenged children ages 6-17 prepare for the Special Olympics.

“Doing what I can to help others shows the kids that they are cared about and that they have value in the world,” he said.

Pamela Szalavetz, a senior English major, also enjoyed helping others while managing a busy schedule. “Every day I have class, and then in the late afternoon, I have dance class for two hours, which I TA and stay after, helping to break down dance combinations for students.”

Szalavetz has also contributed to campus publications of both Hillel and Chabad House, and involved in public relations for the Purim Carnival. She has volunteered and interned for the Jewish Heritage Program, creating and implementing Jewish outreach programs and raising money for scholarships. This experience, she feels, gives her an edge in pursuing a job in public relations.

When she was not choreographing a new dance routine, Szalavetz wrote for the student paper Pipe Dream, Traffic Magazine, the University’s online arts and entertainment magazine, and even wrote a play that was staged last year, Free Beer, Hot Sex, and the Weight of Gravity, in which she had the starring role.

Last semester, Szalavetz took advantage of the semester-in-London program offered by the English Department.

“I learned a lot more outside of the classroom,” she said, recounting the cultural events that were a part of the program, such as weekly theatrical shows and four weekend trips to places like Bath and Stonehenge.

For Joshua Oppenheimer, a passion for politics motivated him to be involved in student organizations and take on leadership roles.

“Throughout my four years here at Binghamton, I have been involved in hall, area and campus-wide government,” he said. A political science major, he is a chief adviser to the president of the Student Association.

Oppenheimer has worked hard to promote voter awareness and raised funds for local and statewide campaigns. On campus, he has participated with College Democrats in organizing a visit by Carl McCall and worked on local area political races. In the second half of his junior year, he spent a semester as an intern for the New York State Assembly, living within minutes of the Capitol.

“During that time, I found out I truly do love state politics,” he said. “I learned more there working very hard than I could ever learn from reading a textbook. The experience was priceless.”

In addition to his political pursuits, Oppenheimer is also minoring in theater. He has worked off stage for the Theatre Department, Cider Mill Playhouse and the DC Players, Dickinson Community’s theater group. In the past two years, as production manager for DC Players, he has helped with production of The Vagina Monologues.

“We raised over $3,000 to go to charities raising awareness to stop violence against women and girls worldwide,” Oppenheimer said.

How did they get it all done? Time management was key. Neuman learned to be flexible with his schedule, and opted sometimes to go to soccer practice earlier so that he could make it to his 8:30 classes.

Szalavetz used in-between-class time to catch up on work, e-mails, job searches and lunches. Benda said the trick is to plan ahead, make out a schedule and try not to leave work till the last minute.

“A balance between work and fun needs to be kept, but if you can find a form of work that you enjoy, you will do even better,” said Oppenheimer.

“If you know where your inefficiencies are [in how you spend your time], you can try to consciously change that,” said Neuman.

Even though there have been times these students have had to rush to and from class in order to fit everything into their schedules, they all agree it is worth it.

“I’ve learned a lot of other stuff not in my major,” said Benda, reflecting on the variety of classes and activities she enjoyed.

Neuman plans to take his mechanical engineering degree to Pensacola, Fla., to start the naval officer candidate program. He would like to become a nuclear engineer on a submarine and, he said, maybe a chaplain. “It applies things I’ve learned here,” said Neuman. “The team aspect of soccer, engineering and even the fellowship.”

Said Oppenheimer, “I think the greatest thing about my time spent here at BU was getting to know so many people. I have made lifetime friendships with people that I might never have met if I didn’t participate in various classes and activities during my time here.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08