When something terrifies you to the bottoms of your socks, it's difficult to regard the experience as a privilege.
One of the best kids I've ever met just recently started college, and she's scared. Well, duh, of course she's scared: she's been thrown into an alien environment, separated from everyone and every place she's ever known, and she's expected to hit the ground running. (In her case this is literal: she's on the track team.)
But we keep thinking, those of us who love her, that she knows she'll do wonderfully because we all know she'll do wonderfully.
We repeatedly reassure her that she'll be fine. In a chorus, we admonish her to consider herself "lucky" because she is at a terrific college. "This college has everything you could possibly need!" we trumpeted, as we moved her into a small, shared dorm room, where she met (for the first time) the three other young women with whom she is living. "You'll meet amazing people!" we yip, as she tried to recall the names of the 30 folks she's been introduced to during the first 15 minutes on campus. "We wish we were going here!" we chirp, as we get into our cars and wave good-bye.
She doesn't think of herself as lucky; she thinks of herself as set adrift in the middle of the ocean in a rowboat without a paddle. The rest of us are on the shore saying "Have a great time! Don't forget to write! Don't spend too much money! And remember how privileged you are!" Sure, there are safety nets; yes, there are advisors and mentors and tutors available. There are maps and lighthouses.
But there's also that vast sea to be crossed -- there's that whole first semester, first year, stretched out to an apparently limitless horizon.
What makes it tough to navigate? Lots of it is the dark certainty, hidden in the heart of every beginning student, that she or he is the only person who shouldn't be there. New students -- from those entering high schools to those entering graduate programs -- usually have a moment when they are struck by one thought: "How come the admissions process did such a wonderful job choosing everyone else and yet made such a terrible mistake by admitting me? Everybody else is skilled and smart. Everybody else is self-disciplined and self-confident. I'm the only fraud here. How long will it take before it becomes obvious that I can't live up to what they expect?" The new student wonders: "Should I even bother to unpack?"
H., a friend I've known since her college days ten years ago, remembers herself at 18 thinking "Boy, this is really different from high school. It's: Here's what's demanded of you in this course and good luck, honey. Whether I pass or fail is up to me."
How long did it take to feel comfortable? "About a month," she replies, smiling at the recollection. "At first I woke up in the mornings wondering how on earth I was ever going to manage all that information and all those assignments." Not to mention figuring out the campus. "I knew every inch of my high school before I left, but getting around the grounds of my college made me think of a mouse running around a maze. And all that was eclipsed by the daunting prospect of making new friends."
What changed? Understanding that there's an awesome amount of responsibility attached to all that freedom. For lots of us, going to college presents the first adult choices in life: you're free to choose your classes, when to go to bed, what to eat and when to eat (or else get stuck making yourself dinner in a hot-pot).
Now a mother of two little girls, H. offers the best sign of how positive the experience of a college education can be -- she hopes her daughters will go through the same process. That wish even includes paying for their own educations. "I want them to see education as a privilege, not as an entitlement," she said.
So I picture H. in a few years waving good-bye from the car window, shouting happily at her daughters, "Remember how privileged you are!" while they, wide-eyed, face the future.
Sometimes we forget how much courage it takes to accept a gift when it comes at an expensive emotional cost. Privilege has a price. Maybe instead of offering hearty waves, we should offer the new kids on the block -- at whatever age -- wildly enthusiastic applause as they set out on their journey.
Article by Regina Barreca
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