On The College Courtship

Another summer, another reminder that 365 days have gone by and I’m growing old.

It’s July 2nd and this post is long overdue. Hundreds of thousands of students across the United States (and beyond) have responded to their college admissions offers and begun to contemplate their lives for the next few years.

As a nascent high school graduate, I’m delightfully terrified of moving on to this next stage of my life. However, instead of mulling over my life in a not-altogether-different environment from the one I grew up in, my tuition bill, and all the activities I hope to join once on campus — I've decided to take a sliver of time to reflect on the college process.

Initial Thoughts

Yes, I admit: I’ve lived a sheltered life in a burgeoning town that epitomizes suburbia. Immaculate lawns? Check. Cul-de-sacs galore? Check. Transportation to do anything? Yep. Heck, even my high school was an impressionistic replica of an olde schoolhouse.

So how did this cultural atmosphere shape my initial expectations?

For one, I had a narrow scope of the diversity beyond my bucolic bubble. Few outliers existed in the mechanistic premise of the school system. We were taught to do X in order to reach Y to beget Z. No detours on the express train to whatever the general consensus of success was. Thus, when it came time to sit and ‘differentiate myself from the crowd,’ I was at a loss for words — literally. (I’m looking at you, Common Application.) Maybe I’d been too passive in the past — opportunities presented themselves, and my parents and instructors pushed me to act on them. Of course, my own fascinations were scattered in between. ‘So why shouldn’t this come easily to me?’ I thought.

Simply, I hadn’t primed my mind for the idea of college; I hadn’t thought beyond what I’d do after graduating, attending university and beyond.

Sigh. I took a breath and grimaced underneath feigned optimism. There was much work to be done.

The Process

Applying to college is merely a repetition of the old adage to ‘apply oneself.’ I’d known that the application process was a loose culmination of my education and life experiences up to that point. I just hadn’t realized how difficult it could be to project my own character into 650 words.

Essays were drafted, then edited for solecisms and clarity by peers and instructors. Perhaps one of the larger lessons I learned was accepting feedback, and turning it into something constructive rather than begrudgingly listening with a hmmph in mind.

Concurrently, I learned that taking mental breaks to ruminate over my writings helped drastically. And ultimately, my best essays were born out of creative bursts following periods of respite.

Afterthoughts

Retrospectively, wow. What a journey a single year has been. Yes, I mean the college process, but also the shared experiences of my senior class — from our spontaneous senior prank, to witnessing the expansion and interactions of my friend group. From *almost* falling asleep in classes, to befriending the teachers of those classes. From the novelty of autumn as if it were our first first day of school, to frosted winters huddled indoors, to our maturation in the springtime — to graduation in the long summer (fortunately accompanied by a light breeze and drizzle).

At the heart of the whole application process, and once you receive decisions (which you will — don’t panic like I did), is the challenge of choosing a university, a potential home in essence, that fits you. You’re not necessarily looking at where you’d feel the most comfortable. You’re looking for a place that’ll force you to grow and mature — to shake your prior beliefs and stir up bold ideas. Someplace dynamic.

But let’s examine this from the perspective of a relationship, a courtship if you will. Like any good relationship, there’s a level of reciprocity required. Yes, you’re looking for the school that best fits you. Simultaneously, colleges are looking for students that fit their core ideals.

As for me: I’ve loved, I’ve lusted, I’ve lost, and loved all over again.

You may yearn for that one, seemingly perfect college for you, but realize others would seamlessly adapt to your needs as well. To use a cliche: yes, relationships are all about give-and-take. And yes, feelings are complex and at times, random (just like college decisions!). To this extent, time shouldn’t be spent on unrequited feelings and mourning over lost efforts. Give the school a chance; get to his/her (forgive my political incorrectness) nuances. What seemed cumbersome idiosyncrasies may become delightfully nostalgic keystones of your college experience. You may discover that the pebble that had been an afterthought was really a fully-functioning, new Pebble (which you could sell if you didn’t like it) — it’s your job to uncover whatever is underneath the Surface.

[Alright, I’ll stop with the puns.]

An Alternate Path & Thoughts

A while back, I listened to the following TEDx Talk by Stanford gap-year student Jean Fan:

She espouses the importance of self-direction as the trait de rigueur. I couldn’t help but bobble my head in agreement. Anyone can follow prescribed instructions, provided the correct skill set and environment. What really drives innovation and self-fulfillment is the ability to gauge your own foibles and fascinations, draft SMART goals, and work towards them. Self-direction requires a level of maturity, capacity for creativity, and unflinching spunk.

Christopher Gardner muses in The Pursuit of Happyness, “…I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking how did he know to put the pursuit part in there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can actually never have it. No matter what.”

I disagree. And he, too, realizes: “The future was uncertain, absolutely, and there were many hurdles, twists, and turns to come, but as long as I kept moving forward, one foot in front of the other, the voices of fear and shame, the messages from those who wanted me to believe that I wasn’t good enough, would be stilled.”

The true beauty in Gardner’s philosophy lies in its universality. Jean Fan would agree that those who pursue an alternative path would seem to have more to prove to the common masses — who’ve been primed to tout the importance of an education, yet overlooked the means and methods of a sound education — but that they’ve already shown an unparalleled sense of self by their own volition. And even beyond those who forego a formal education for their own ventures, Gardner’s sagacity serves as a motivational reminder of what any of our potential can amount to.

The End is the Beginning

Now that 4 years of high school have blurred past like a bittersweet smudge, but college is still a bit in the distance, I’m left wandering in the sweltering purgatory of summer. (The last “lazy, relaxed summer” I’ll have, according to friends.) Come autumn, I’ll relocate to my new home in a fast-paced metropolis and hundreds of thousands of others will load their own station wagons to their new residences in a “White Noise”-esque display of jitters and pride.

To those heading off to university, let’s congratulates ourselves on surviving this college application cycle. Lessons were learned, egos humbled, tears shed of joy and disappointment. But we continue to hold our heads with poise.

To future applicants, best of luck. But do realize that your college decision is not the end-all-be-all of your life. Rather than being herded as an “excellent sheep,” seek to define success for yourself, and work hard towards that definition.

To those choosing another path altogether, kudos to your intrepid will. Whatever the circumstances and thoughts that led you to that path, keep your determination and it will lead you far. In fact, that latter part applies to all of us.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Like what you read? Give Ivy Chen a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.