Art of Fencing, Art of Life

How Fencing is Like a College Degree

How Fencing is Like a College Degree

What’s the point of going to college?

There is a great debate about the merits of going to college, whether all of the money and time is worth the piece of paper that you get at the end. Is a degree really worth all of that? This might even be a conversation that you’re having in your house right now if you’ve got a child who wants to take a gap year or who even doesn’t want to go to college at all. And this discussion might be even more urgent now when the schools modify their curriculums.

It’s true that going to a university is expensive. It’s true that it takes a long time and costs a lot of money. It’s also true that by and large it’s worth it. 

What does all of this have to do with fencing?

Podiums and Diplomas

We talk constantly here on the blog about how fencing is not about medals and podium finishes, it’s about the growth that the fencer finds along the way to those accolades. What those things do is to give us a goal to reach for and a path to get there.

A diploma is very much the same way! Getting the diploma after many years of hard work is not what you’re going to school for. You are going to school for the growth, knowledge, and skills that you get on the way to the diploma. College provides a roadmap for that growth.

It is a major challenge to face in both fencing and in the pursuit of higher education to put the focus on the process and not the outcome. The rewards for changing the focus are truly wonderful though, and they can help both parents and young people to become better.  

Time is not of the essence

Winning in fencing takes a long time. It takes a long time of training and a whole lot of hard work. College is a long game, one that takes many years to complete and requires a good deal of diligence. We want to keep moving forward, but the pace is not the essential part. 

We all know that we live in a society that focuses on instant success. It’s why there are universities out there promising fast degrees and why infomercials offer superfast results. We get frustrated when our movies take a few seconds too long to load on Netflix or the internet goes out. Too often we see kids who think that they should have what they want when they want it. If we’re being honest, we see this in adults as well.

Things always take longer than we want them to. That’s ok. Pushing through the discomfort of hard work is what diligence is all about. It’s what grit is all about. Learning the lessons of being patient with oneself and with the process helps fencers to become more than what they are. This is one reason that fencing can help kids when they do get to college. You learn in fencing that there are long term goals that are achievable. The difference in fencing and college is that there are lots of other wins along the way. Going to a university does not have those same wins along the way, though there are milestones. College is much more of a long game, and it’s obviously stressful in a different way and on a different level.

It’s also true with college that it’s ok for it to take some time. While we of course want to go ahead and get that four year degree in four years, it’s ok if it takes five. If you had a plan to make it to Fencing Summer Nationals this year but they were cancelled because of the pandemic, it’s ok if you work again for it next year. The point is not to pound yourself down with tons of pressure. Instead, the goal is to learn along the way and to make those mistakes, even the ones that slow you down, because you will grow so much from it.  

Paper and medals are not success

This clarification is important – a win is not the same as finding success. If you want a university degree, it’ll take years and lots of study to get it. 

There aren’t any shortcuts in life. It takes a long time for things to wind their way through and for us to find success. It’s much more satisfying to walk across the stage after years of diligence than to get a diploma in the mail. If what really mattered was the piece of paper, well technically I could print one out that said anything. If what mattered was the medal, well you could have one made that said anything you wanted on it.

Just as you cannot buy the end result, you can’t buy the process either. We saw this in a striking way with the college admissions scandal of the last couple of years. Wealthy parents bought their kids into top universities instead of making them work for it. That’s an extreme example, but we see it in smaller and not-so-illegal ways all the time. This is a parent buying very expensive gear when it’s not needed or moving their child from fencing club to fencing club. It’s also the parent that buys their kids lots of computers or sends them to an expensive private school. 

This is not to say that giving kids every advantage is a bad thing. Fencing is a financial commitment. Good gear is important.Access to technology helps kids to get ahead. Tutoring is a good thing and helps kids to do better. When it becomes a problem is when parents make the assumption that if they give their kid just the right thing that it will make them a winning fencer or it will get them into a top school. That’s not how it works. Success has to be earned.  

What’s missing with the idea of more money buying a way to success is that it defines success wrongly. Success is not the medal or the diploma! Success is the personal growth that is experienced on the way to the medal or the diploma. Would you want a surgeon who had a diploma but didn’t know how to properly operate? Of course not! What was valuable in that person’s medical training was the knowledge and skill gained along the way, not the diploma. The diploma is something we take as proof of that knowledge and skill.

This relates to fencing as well. The medal is not what we are going for, it is only proof that we did the work along the way. The point of going to college is not to get a diploma or even to get a job after it’s all over, it’s to change the way that a person thinks and to teach them skills. 

What is so satisfying at the end is to know that you earned it. Whether it is a fencing medal or a college diploma. Knowing that you worked hard for and deserve the thing you got at the end, it is one of the sweetest feelings possible. There is nothing like it. 


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  1. R

    You wrote “get that four year degree in four years, it’s ok if it takes five.” Employers don’t want workers who believe deadlines are flexible. In my collegiate era, American men were granted four-year draft deferments to complete a degree. If you did, you were commissioned and fought in Viet Nam as a military officer. If you didn’t, you were drafted as an enlisted person with a lower survival chance. That was incentive to complete in time! When my female cousin ventured to her dad that she might need an extra collegiate year, he told her that she would pay for it herself. Enabling otherwise results with 20somethings remaining in their parents’ homes.

    • Igor Chirashnya

      Hi R., I believe you missed the point of the post. Deadlines are important, when they are important. Shipping a holidays’ product in March wouldn’t work. And having college degree in 4 years during the Vietnam war maybe was important too (which I didn’t know until now). But more often than not, quality goes first. And companies push deadline further if the product isn’t ready. We can delay Space-X launch when the whole world is glued to screens watching it, to guarantee its success, because the process and quality were more important than self imposed deadline. Hope it clarifies my point.

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