I just looked at the calendar and realized that May 1st just passed right on by me without notice. I worked in college admissions for a handful of years and this is my first National Decision Day, the day where universities should know who has committed to their incoming class, without a care in the world. We were a very personal staff and the relationships forged over applications, open houses, and FAFSAs were very real. So real that May 1st also meant some joyful celebrations and tough breakups. It’s like the season finale of the Bachelor, complete with lots of misleading hype, tears and the painfully awkward, “I still want to be friends with your university.”
It’s downright hilarious that I ended up helping anyone choose a college. My senior year Life & Death class began each day with 5 minutes of journal time. Page after page said the same thing. “I can’t decide where I want to go to college. How am I supposed to choose a school if I don’t know what I want to do? I HATE THIS!!!!!” I had no idea how to process the pressure I put on myself. My parents didn’t go and it was always a non-negotiable; my brother and I were going to college. And no matter how much of their life they had to sign away to do so, they were sending us where we felt we belonged. I knew how much it meant to them. The gift wasn’t missed on me, but I did mangle it into this dramatic irreversible decision all on my own. So when I was deciding between art and theater as a major and they didn’t bat an eyelash, didn’t redirect me into something more “stable”, I should have taken it as a sign that they were cool with whatever I chose. They knew I worked hard and that was enough of an indicator that things would work themselves out. I didn’t have as much faith in myself.
So in the spirit of National Decision Day, and all of those paralyzed by their own impending decisions, I’m writing a letter to the seventeen year old version of me. I’ve seen a few of these and I always love ’em.
First off, you made the right choice. Your first year will try to convince you otherwise, but you did. I’m sorry to say that you’re going to lose two of the most important people in your life by spring break. Being away from home during that time will shatter you in more pieces than you’ll be able to pick up for a while. But the same small town you can’t believe you left Chicago for is actually the softest place to land. You’ll get a call the night before finals that it’s time to come home. The plan is to take a bus to Milwaukee where Dad will pick you up and take you back to Chicago. Don’t freak out, but that bus never comes. After he finally calls Mom from a deserted bus station, Dad drives the rest of the way to come get you. You’ll panic that he’ll be mad, as will your roommates because in one short semester, his timeliness is legendary. Turns out, he’s just happy to see your face and heartbroken that he has to take you home to say goodbye to your grandma. The year gets worse, but you, my dear, do just fine.
Your laziness in transferring pays off because sophomore year is what college is all about! Your group of friends is real. And hysterical. And yours. It’s all kinds of fantastic. Classes are good, you start photography. Your bag starts to smell like the art building and the darkroom and you love it because it’s tough, but natural. You belong there, even if you constantly doubt your right to be there. There’s a formula emerging; the busier your hands are, the better you do in all of your classes.
It wouldn’t kill you to break a sweat once in a while. You think you’re being all cool and not caving in to society’s pressure to be thin. Except you’re just getting weak and squishy. Way to show society.
You get the chance to study and travel abroad junior year!! Thank God you don’t hesitate! You promise yourself to take any job that comes your way and you really mean it. You’ll feel better about dressing up as Barney for that kids’ birthday party when you’re tasting your first gelato in Florence. You might want to rethink the Power Ranger job. The other ranger is a grown man and he doesn’t change out of the spandex unitard after the show.
Your roommate gets to go too and the entire experience will be indescribable. Keep dragging your butts out of beds at ungodly hours to soak up every bit of Europe that you can. Your gray-haired self will still be grateful you did that. In each country you end up playing “8th grade games” like, “if you had to marry someone you know, right now, who would it be?” Boy, were we off. Thank God. Not only will she use her German skills to get you out of a Eurail pass pickle, but someday she introduce you to your husband. You owe her. Big time. You’ll be neighbors and your kids will fall head over heels in love with her. She’ll fill your home with gluten free, nut-free foods when you bring your new baby home. Yup, she’s that good to you. You’ll have to let her move away one day, but for this friend, you will go anywhere. You will be as happy on her wedding day as you are on your own.
By the way, you totally meet the Queen of England. I swear. Let’s not talk about your bumbling idiocy.
You come back better, more comfortable in your well-traveled skin. You get to laugh so hard you cry. Often. You’ll live in places that could crumble at any moment. Parts of them do. You don’t give a s#@% because of all the laughing.
Here’s a secret as you get ready to graduate. The working population sees college students and new grads as shmooshy little puppies. They expect you to be clumsy. Just show up and say, “please show me how” and get to work. Take some pressure off. Seriously, you’ve got it backwards. College is the starting line of your education, not the finish line.
Oh, no matter what your teacher says, you won’t get used to drawing nudes.
I know this in-between time is hard. But it’s not really about your college choice at all. You can’t picture it yet because it’s just that good. Your mom has been trying to tell you it will all be fine, hasn’t she? She’s so right. I promise.
So what about you? What would you say to your 17 year old self?