I spend time almost every day reflecting on my experiences at Illinois. As I'm walking back to my apartment, or after giving a tour to prospective freshmen, I remember what it was like on my first day on campus. I was so timid, as most freshmen are, and it's hard to believe how far I’ve come. This semester I am participating in the LENS Diversity Certificate through the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations (which you should definitely participate in if you're interested). We discuss many things during our meetings, but a recurring theme is how so many conversations are not held because they can be uncomfortable.
Although we focus on topics of diversity, other topics such as relationships, academics, and campus climate are no exception. I am not exempt from this observation, and have definitely avoided many conversations because I am afraid of the outcome, but I have tried to make a more conscious effort in embracing the vulnerability. It's encouraged for students to share their opinions inside and outside of the classroom—from talking about class material in discussion sections to campus-climate in Student Senate Meetings. I have seen this go very well, and sometimes not so well, but it's still a unique opportunity that should not be taken for granted. If I could talk to freshman year Mariah, I would tell her to speak up!
There may not be another opportunity for you to share your opinion and have people agree, challenge you, and really force you to understand your opinions and be able to accurately defend them. I think these opportunities to speak up have been invaluable in helping me understand what my own values and viewpoints are, and how to convey those without faulting the opposing party. I am by no means a master, and will continue to push myself to have "uncomfortable" conversations, but for first-year students and even adults that may be reading this, take the time to speak up; you never know what your reward could be.