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From June 24th to June 26th, while an estimated 75,000 people danced and sang along to the musicians of the Dave Matthews Band Caravan in Atlantic City, NJ, I did about 75,000 squats picking up garbage. Plastic cups, aluminum cans,  paper plates, and more. I felt a little like Templeton from Charlotte’s Web (except I didn’t dare eat any of the remains) and a lot like Servo, the maid-robot in the Sims computer game, picking up every piece of trash within my reach.

I was among seven people volunteering with Clean Vibes, the North Carolina-based company that recycles and disposes of trash for outdoor festivals like Bonaroo, the four-day-long music festival in Tennessee, and the three-day-long Dave Matthews Band Caravan. The idea was to help improve Atlantic City’s Bader Field and the environment, but really, my friends and I were willing to do anything for a free concert (the reward of volunteering with Clean Vibes).

I learned a few lessons during my trip—and none of them had to do with garbage. A lot of the “follow your heart” advice friends, parents, and teachers give to students like myself came to life for me while volunteering on the 143 acres of Bader Field during those three hot summer days. With a garbage bag around my waist and latex gloves on my hands, I walked around the garbage-ridden land, observing the people that surrounded me. The concert-goers. The security guards. The food vendors. The volunteers. And, of course, the band members. I wasn’t so philosophical at the time, considering I was covered in dirt and sweat and tired from lunging all day, but I noticed how many different types of people made their way to the Dave Matthews concert that weekend and began to finally understand two concepts I’ve been hearing from people for years: 1) You should only do what you’re passionate about and 2) It is OK to not know what your passion is just yet.

1. You should only do what you’re passionate about. Having finished my first year of college without coming any closer to deciding a major (something I have to do by the end of next year), this idea means a lot to me. And if you’re a college-bound student, it probably means a lot to you, too. While big-time newspapers and businesses around the world continue to roll out lists of “The Most-Wanted Degrees for 2011” and “The Top-Paying Jobs of the Future,” it is important to keep in mind that the facts and statistics these articles contain cannot pressure, prevent, or prescribe your dreams. Though I usually devour these articles the second they come out, looking for signs that I will not be poor and unemployed when I get out of school, from now on, I will be slower to ingest these stories and instead contemplate how I can fit myself into this predicted success—whether I see my potential major or job on the list or not.

After seeing how dedicated Clean Vibes is about taking care of the earth, how moved by their music the Carolina Chocolate Drops are, and how committed the security and health officials are to keeping people safe, I know that passion is what makes the difference between picking a can up or leaving it there, putting feeling into a song or faking it, and providing quality care to other–or simply not caring enough.

2) It is OK to not know what your passion is just yet. While sayings like “Do what you love” and “Don’t settle for anything less” are helpful in steering many people in the right direction, they do almost nothing for the people who are unsure of their passions. While I smiled and squatted wholeheartedly for the entire length of my five-hour shift at the Dave Matthews Caravan, many of my co-volunteers hid, or tried to hide, their contempt towards working the night shift (from 6 to 11 P.M.) when The Flaming Lips and the Dave Matthews Band were set to perform. These people had come for the music—that was what they loved and that was what helped dictate their summer plans. I, on the other hand, knew none of the 41 bands save for Dave Matthews, and agreed to this volunteer gig with the hopes of finding new music, meeting new people, and contributing to a cause–and deciding what I thought about all of the above at a later date.

Did I love music the way these concert-goers, volunteers, and bands did? Did I love Clean Vibes’s mission to “actively encourage and promote… proper waste disposal” as much as the Clean Vibes employees? Did I see myself as fitting into any of the job classifications I noticed on site? I’m not entirely sure, but I saw myself as a volunteer. And for now, that is all I know.

While I did not enjoy the music as much as my friends, or share the same experiences many of the Clean Vibes employees and volunteers had, hopping from state to state and even country to country, following bands and trash-dumping people, I did enjoy spending my weekend in a way I had never done before. I got to reunite with my college friends and camp out at Mays Landing, the family-friendly camp ground just along the Egg Harbor River, complete with pool and shower house. I got to build a fire and help my fellow campers start their own since they were having some difficulty. And I got to sit around the fire and in my car, covered in dirt, and later, much cleaner, at my desk, reflecting on my summer experience and planning for the future.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” That is what Howard Thurman, famous author, educator, and civil rights leader said. It is the quote I was introduced to during my Freshman Orientation at Boston University last year and it is a quote that right now means more to me than “follow your heart.”  Whether or not you know your passion, I think it is a quote that anyone who is trying to glean the treasures from the trash during their college search, their college experience, and then the post-college years can understand.

–Alivia Ashenfarb will be starting her sophomore year at Boston University this fall.

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