Ten years. It seems long, and yet I know that it both is and isn’t. As I’ve been following commencements and graduation ceremonies all over the country, I’ve been thinking of what I knew – and didn’t – at age 17. If I could tell myself – and even my friends – five things about what the next four years would hold, what would they be? What should I have been warned about? Here goes:
1. The first thing is that college is short and life is long. For the past 17 years, everything has been building up to that one question that will seemingly shape your lives: where are you going to college? And because we took our PSATs at 13 years old and spent our summers at programs like Junior Statesman of America and Summer Institute for the Gifted, it was easy to think that the answer to that question was going to make or break our happiness in life. It won’t. At the end of the day, you will be the same person whether at Yale or at Princeton, Middlebury or the University of Virginia. Some places may make you happier than others, but in others you may learn how to make your own happiness. At the end of the day, you’re going to be fine wherever you go.
2. Study abroad. Even if you don’t end up liking the experience of being away from friends and family and the comforts of American life, there will be few other opportunities where it will be as easy or as simple to take the time to challenge your ability to engage with an alternative culture and community and way of life. Jobs, significant others, volunteer responsibilities – they’ll all make it much more challenging to ‘get away’ than you’d ever have thought. Do it now.
3. Keep up with your foreign language. You’ve already invested the equivalent of five years of study of French or Spanish – don’t make all of that time a waste. Take those classes all through college, and if you can study abroad in a country where you can attain fluency, do it. You never know when that perfect job you want will require it, or when it’ll come in handy for last minute travel or even just getting help from a stranger when you move to a new neighborhood.
4. Get to know your academic adviser. Well. You may think you know exactly what you want to study and what classes you want to take, but your adviser does more than that. Your adviser is your first real experience in professional networking – this person can connect you to opportunities you wouldn’t know about otherwise. Your adviser knows about fellowships and awards within your field that you’ll probably not randomly come across on your own. Develop this relationship and nurture it throughout your four years, and even beyond.
5. Don’t worry about trying out too many different things. You’ll be advised to jump right in and experience all that college life has to offer – as much of it as we can. This is good advice. But if you find something you genuinely love and enjoy – a club, or group, a professor, or a major that challenges and stimulates and rewards you, it’s ok to stick with it instead of abandoning it at the close of each semester so that you can try out for the badminton team, just to say you did. Besides, just like college admissions officers, future employers will like seeing your dedication to something you found you loved. It will also make you happier.
Four years is a chunk of time, whether in high school or in college, at the start of a career or in the middle of a long relationship. Many of you will experience death – up close – for the first time. A drunk driving accident after a night of partying, a friend’s parent whose long-term illness finally opened the door it had been knocking on for years. Many of you will fall in and out of love – heartache will come and then go and you’ll move on but never forget. You’ll try out internships and discover that being an unpaid intern in a law office is far less glamorous than you’d once thought, and you’ll embrace and discard a number of different “career paths” before you realize that there may not even be any such thing in real life.
You’ll promise your closest friends you’ll stay in touch – which for the most part you will, even ten years later – and reassure your parents that you’ll call and skype so that they can be reminded on a weekly basis that they raised you right.
But remember that just as the last four years were just four out of a lifetime of years, there will be four more after college. And four more after that. And soon you may discover that it wasn’t specifically where you went to school or what your major was or even what internship you took sophmore year that ended up having the sharpest impact on the person you spent all that time carving out.
Instead, it was the broader development of your character that had the most effect. Did you figure out whether you were most productive at night or in the morning? Did you learn to tell the difference between friends who were worth investing in and friends who weren’t? Did you come to determine that whether you’re introverted or extroverted, you may have changed over those years without your even realizing it? And you’ll discover that none of these questions are specific to college students, but instead, are ones you’ll probably be asking yourself for the rest of life.
In the meantime, celebrate your graduation and your successes. And know that you have many, many more ahead of you.