An open letter to grads heading to college
To the class of 2019:
Two years ago, a mustard taxi pulled through iron gates and onto a road lined by sky blue and white balloons. I ducked out the side door and onto Columbia University’s college walk sandwiched between towering buildings with domes and columns that felt grandiose. Two veteran students sat behind a check-in desk; everyone else rolled large azure bins down ramps and up dorm elevators. They smiled warmly, genuinely. I still couldn’t stop shaking.
When I shipped off to college, I was terrified. That I wasn’t smart enough. That I wasn’t pretty enough. That I wouldn’t make friends and would fail my classes. Disaster lurked in my mind as a likely outcome, and I couldn’t evade the ghosts that whispered about how I might have made a mistake moving thousands of miles from my family in Texas for a school with a culture that was like Greek to me.
Now, Columbia is my home — not only where I rest my head during all-nighters, but where I find peace and comfort in the glow of the library’s lights and sit on steps for hours chatting with colleagues about what could have been, what is, and what could be. The fear has washed away and has been replaced by a complex relationship that harbors both sentimentality and constructive criticism. I’m well aware that my college is imperfect; it’s an institution, after all, comprised of a student body that is human and thus flawed. Indeed, I am part of that flawed and human student body and contribute to its issues as well as its solutions.
Perhaps that’s the most important lesson I’ve learned at university: the institution doesn’t make you; you make the institution. Anywhere can be pure bliss or absolute hell depending on your contouring of the situation. Your college should play host to an environment that supports an individual’s simultaneous development and well-being, but it’s up to you to hold tight to the reigns and brace yourself for a bumpy ride. Most anyone can finish problem sets and spend the rest of her hours binge-watching Netflix in self-imposed nonage, a state of dependence and ignorance. It’s easy to follow, to give into the culture industry that drives our actions in the 21st century. It’s much harder to challenge yourself — to seek out escapades and find time to reflect. In short, the greatest trial we face as college students, and the goal we should most pursue, is to live.
As a teenager, I was often told that college would be the best four years of my life. I certainly hope that’s not true, as I’d hate to think that my next decades would find me nostalgic for frat parties and shoebox dorm rooms. But college does present a unique opportunity to discover yourself and what makes you tick. Please note that I didn’t write to “redefine” yourself: too many kids traipse off to a campus and eschew their previous personalities for a new “version” of themselves, losing their specialness on the way. I don’t want you to lose your specialness; I’d like you to amplify it. You’re not going to do that by pretending to be someone you’re not just to win a popularity contest based on Facebook likes or Snapchat contacts (or whatever it is the kids use as a quantifier these days).
Instead of succumbing to the reinvention game, rebranding yourself to be everything you weren’t in high school, I suggest accepting yourself and moving on from there. Your institution selected you for a reason; the administration likes you for you, not the cool-as-a-cucumber façade that you might be tempted to project. So appreciate your idiosyncrasies. Then launch.
Go to an event that you would typically never attend. Speak to people from all over the world or from your backyard, and ask them more than their name, their major, and their hometown. Take classes in philosophy as a history major and literature as an engineer. During your first finals season, forgo last minute studying for a midnight milkshake to catch up with friends after a stressful week. You won’t look back and regret that one “B” you got in a course, but you might torture yourself over missed connections or a “possibility that wasn’t,” as a peer once put it.
Also, be open to the mental and emotional journeys you may take. College should make you ask questions; if professors aren’t provoking deep, somewhat disturbing thoughts, they’re not doing their jobs. Physics classes should have you consider the implications of an expanding universe. Seminars on the classics should stir opinions on what signifies the good life and how you might attain it for yourself. And 3 a.m. discussions with kids on your hall about what it means to be mortal should leave you perplexed and puzzled. You might come up with frightening notions about who you are and who you will become, and you might begin to see both the beauty and the pain around us. That kind of growth isn’t easy, but nothing good is, anyway. And would you rather stay stagnant? Of course not.
I suppose this long-winded essay is to tell you, based on my own humble experience, to not be afraid, but to be prepared. You are about to embark on one of the most wonderful, exhilarating, flying, crashing, running, creeping, heartbreaking, mind-blowing adventures of your young life. I envy you for all the lessons that lie ahead. As your class arrives at campuses around the country this August and September, I can’t wait to continue to learn with and from you.
Class of 2019: congratulations on high school graduation, and welcome to college! Here’s to being yourself and making your institution the best it can be.
Image via here.