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Letter to Grads

(Yes, drawn to scale)

You’re calling the shots:  Who to live with, which classes to take, and what to do with your free time.  There are 24 hours in a day, but you will only be in class for about 2.4 hours a day.  Who else has this much free time?  The unemployed, retired, incarcerated, or seriously injured.  Unless you wind up on academic probation, or play a college sport, you get to decide how to spend all your free time.  This is a real glimpse into your character, and the sort of person you are shaping up to be.  Of course, I hope you to have lots of fun, but I thought I’d share my own reflections on college.  Don’t worry, I won’t tell you to follow your dreams or bring flip-flops for the shower.
Here are 3 things I’m glad I did in college:
1)      I learned to use all that free time to dive headfirst into lifelong hobbies.  I convinced my roommate, who had been golfing since age 6, to teach me how to golf.  I remember thinking it was too late to start.  2 roommates  down the hall had a Fender Stratocaster and a Gibson Les Paul.  When they were in class, I was in their room trying to learn to play guitar.  Fitness and nutrition became a lifestyle.  All these things took dedication and persistence, and many years later, they are still part of my life (and still no TV).  The free time in college set the stage for lifelong growth, exploration, and perpetually seeking out challenging (therefore, authentically gratifying) pursuits. 

2)    I took difficult classes.   If you leave the gym, and you’re not even sweating, then you didn’t really work out.  Your time and money are gone, but you’re not in any better shape.  In other words, do it right, or why bother?  Academically, I never tried to take the easy way out.  I wanted something to show for my 4 years of time and tuition.  Some people eschew the classes that are rumored to be hard, and try to "game the system".  Clever, yes.  But ultimately, I think you get out what you put in.  Some students would avoid a Friday 8am class just because people went out on Thursday nights.  Nice way to rule out a major.  You'll find there's plenty of time to hang out and take your classes seriously.

It is a choice to step up to the challenges of authentic rigor, and experience the satisfaction pushing yourself to your academic limit.  I hope you discover a subject that intrigues you.  Something that you enjoy researching and thinking about.  Something that transcends the "Is it on the test?" mentality.  If you finish school, and you haven’t been driven to the brink of (intellectual) exhaustion, or haven’t had at least a few frustrating moments, then you were probably using too many of those cute pink 3 lb. dumbbells. 

3)      I lived in a 20 bedroom house with 40 people.  Everyone needs "alone time", but your communal living situation is the defining backdrop of your college experience.  Instead of seeking apartment isolation off campus, I went to the other extreme, and immersed myself among people with wildly different hometowns, work ethics, talents, majors, ambitions, and personal interests.  Naturally, there were smaller cliques amidst the larger group, but at dinner, we all ate out of same giant trough.  At times, we shared ties, cars, CDs, class notes, showers, and protein powder. When you live with people, you are mainly judged on one thing:  your character.  Well, that, and your personal hygiene.  But certainly not your car (or lack thereof), or your parent’s connections or wealth, or your trendy clothing.  As such, it was a very honest bond.  Today, we all have different lives and careers:  journalists, doctors, scientists, politicians, teachers, bankers, professors, lawyers, accountants, business owners, technologists, and a kleptomaniac.  I wouldn’t otherwise meet or fraternize with such an eclectic group today, so I value the enduring connections we maintain.
Here are 3 things I regret about college:

1)      I didn’t push myself out of my comfort zone.  I had a core group of friends, I mainly studied alone, and my extracurricular interests were not based on large groups.  Ipso facto, by junior year, I didn’t socialize much outside of my established circle.  If you don’t mix things up, you’ll tread the same old ground.  Looking back, I should have been more proactive in occasionally breaking away and finding some activities and events that were out of my typical routine:  Seeing an art exhibit, attending a political lecture, going to a poetry reading, hearing the university chamber choir, etc.  Yea, I had little interest in these things, but that is exactly how you can expose yourself to new activities and new people (…while still maintaining your inner circle of friends) 

2)      I didn’t cut my hair for 2 whole years.  It was the grunge rock era.  Most pictures have been destroyed.

3)      I didn’t appreciate the difference between "career preparation" and "being educated"  (aka: "Go to a good college so you don’t end up in the gutter!")  Only in my 30s did I realize the purpose of a college education is actually bifurcated:  The duality of "Gestalt thinker" (look it up…) vs. "credentialed worker".  
I totally missed that first half.  This complicates the definition of what being "educated" even means today.  It also introduces the quandary of the working class student.  Do you have to choose between:  1) building an integrated perspective of the human condition (History, psychology, sociology, philosophy, political science, literature, foreign studies, arts, religion, music, etc) or 2) narrowly approaching college as a "professional school" for the sake of career skills and certification? (e.g.: healthcare, sciences, law, finance, engineering, math, business, technology, accounting, marketing, advertising, education, nursing, etc).  I was too young to see any value in the former, so I just loaded up on as many Math, Computer Science, and Economics courses as possible because "that’s what businesses want".  I dismissed any humanities and social science courses I was required to take as superfluous since they were not "career preparation".  Talk about tunnel vision! 

I don’t claim to have the answers, but certainly won’t be a hypocrite.  My "practical" majors certainly yielded in-demand qualifications that opened the door for employment in both of my careers, and this is just how I would do it again.  However, merely training for a career doesn’t necessarily mean you are wise or learned.  In fact, they are somewhat contradictory.  As I grew older, my gaps of knowledge became more apparent, and I realized I never got a balanced education.  Instead, my college experience had gone a mile deep and an inch wide.  Today, most of my personal learning now revolves around history, psychology, science, literature, and philosophy.  I regret not taking an interest in these areas earlier in my life.  They permeate your world regardless of how you make a living, and whether you "see" them or not. 

If I were back in college, I would find a way to still have my cake (practical career oriented major) and eat it too (electives for erudition, perspective, and cerebral cocktail party badinage).  Your major is only about 12 of your total 36 classes, so there is lots of room for exploration & enrichment.  Further, it now just takes an Internet connection or "$1.50 in late charges at your public library" and your five (count ‘em…five!) months of vacation to learn whatever you choose independently.  Quite frankly, college barely scratches the surface.  If you truly want to be educated (vs. "diploma-ed"), the onus is on you to become literate in the various disciplines.  This is no small order.  Back in college, we all used to joke about the "$80,000 piece of paper" and we’d ask, "Why do I need to learn this to get a job?"  Well, the simplest answer might have been, "You don’t".  Broad knowledge may just help you make sense of the world and people around you.

When I left the world of finance to teach High School, something funny happened.  People asked me what kind of drugs I was taking.  But, more importantly, people would share memories of their own educational experiences.
Here is an email written by someone with whom I reconnected with at my 20th high school reunion:
I wasn't ready to start my academic career at Clarkson.  I was too busy playing soccer and drinking.  I guess that's another reason I want to go back to school, since I am finally at that place in my life where I can embrace learning.  I was always lucky enough to be able to skate by with not much preparation or studying, but it didn't really make me that informed.  I'm so ready now to throw myself into it, but don't have the time or money.  Life's cruel joke.  Youth really is wasted on the young.  By the way, I'm going to check out that book you mentioned from the library today.  I'm pretty excited, because I’ve been looking for a good 'thinking' book for a while.
In contrast, here is an email written by another friend more than 15 years after we graduated college:
I still think it was the best course I took there. It gave me the satisfaction of rising to a difficult challenge, taught me that I could push out of my comfort zone and accomplish something worthwhile, and gave me the discipline to assimilate and distill massive amounts of information into something coherent and intelligent. And, I still love Mozart's operas to this day, and have almost instant recall whenever I hear part of one. (It's amazing how often the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro shows up in commercials, movies, etc.)
Wait.  Did he say Mozart ??  Yea, that caught me off guard too.  Perhaps you can substitute Mozart with anything deep and rigorous?  Navigating rigorous educational experiences subtly change the fabric of your being.  You may not notice it happening.  You develop a humble respect for knowledge and complexity.  You understand what Socrates meant when he said, "All I know is that I know nothing." 

In college, you merely lay the foundation and start down the path of becoming an informed, higher functioning, integrated, and actualized person.  That timeline up top is just the start of your education:  "Very often, just going deeply into one or two topics that you really care about lets you appreciate the awe of the world … once you learn to honor the mysteries of the world, you're kind of always willing to probe things … you can actually be joyful about discovering something you didn't know … and you can expect always to need to keep probing.  And so that sets the stage for lifelong inquiry.-JSB"1 Higher order thinking, deep attention span, strong work ethic, and quest for constant learning are not only job skills, but life enhancers.
Being a full-time student is a luxury, responsibility, and profound opportunity.  That won't hit you until it's long over, and you're in a different stage of your life.  I hope you have a blast while making the most of it.  If you don’t, I guess there’s always graduate school.
All the best,
-Mr. Soni
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