Two Words for College Freshmen

From a graduation speech by Kelly Corrigan, author of three New York Times bestsellers: The Middle Place, Lift and Glitter and Glue.

This is a big day — an epic day — and chances are, you won’t remember any of it. Personally, I have no idea who said what on the transformed football field behind Radnor High in June 1985. I couldn’t even say if it was man or woman.

I do remember that Lee Clough got to sit closer to Jeff Constable than I did, which wasn’t how I’d mapped it out. I also remember that I cut my hair that morning – a bit of a miscalculation — and that out of the blue, my grandmother gave me a check for $1,000 and with this generous endowment, I bought a hat that cost $212. Perhaps to cover my hair, perhaps to catch the eye of Jeff Constable.

That hat is all I have from that day. Well, that and a yearbook scribbled over with profundities like “I’ll never forget AP French and how Madame Paden’s grody bra strap was always showing!”

So it is both with all my heart and extremely low expectations that I offer up a single thought for you to carry off to college.

Stay loose.

You are not being shot out into the world of performance reviews and rent, car payments and insurance. In many ways, college, with its week-long orientation, frozen yogurt bars and team of advisors (academic, resident, Greek) is precisely the opposite direction from what is sometimes referred to as “reality”. Four years from now, maybe 4 ½ for some of you, the world awaits.

But not now. Not this year.

This year, you are going to the big crazy jumpy house known as college.

There’s nothing quite like it and it’d be a sin if you missed it by whipping yourself up into a state of nauseated stress over mid term exams or a collapsed romance or a coach who thinks you’d be better off playing defense.

So I say stay loose.

Starting with academics. The GPA race is over. You did it. Or you didn’t. Either way, the ink is dry on your transcript. You are now free to branch out, try unfamiliar subjects, risk Bs and Cs. If that gives you hives, then take a class, every semester, pass/fail just to be part of a regular discussion with smart people about matters far beyond your tiny world — roman architecture, biodiversity, the history of scientific knowledge — undistracted by the need to perform or prove or ask “Will this be on the test?”

Don’t cramp up about failing.

Failure is nothing but a sign. Failure means you’ve found the edge of yourself, that you’re pushing against your current limit. Failing is the only way you’ll ever really understand how little [just about everything] matters and how shockingly easy it is to bounce back.

A word about Majors. I say it’s okay, and actually often appropriate, to go in wildly undecided and stay that way. No doors are closing. Run from people who tell you otherwise. Sing the ABCs in your head if they try to dump their broken dreams all over you. I was 40 when I wrote my first book and it spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list (please forgive the humble brag). There’s always time to get where you want to go.


Speaking of where you want to go…you probably have no heavenly idea. Not to worry; much of everything will change anyway. Fact is, as my favorite Gabriel Garcia Marquez quote [everyone should have one] reminds me:

“Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mother gives birth to them. Rather, life obliges them over and over to give birth to themselves.”

I thought I wanted to go to law school so that I could become a public defender who wore white crepe power suits and drove a matching white jaguar (such was my distorted understanding of a public defender’s compensation). My first job was in nonprofits where I tried everything from corporate development to web design, then I went to grad school for a Masters in Literature, which led, sort of/not really, to a job as creative director for an educational software company. Then, a baby on my hip and another in the cooker, I took black and white photographs of babies and kids for several years and now I write and am launching a new digital series. I’m no exception; ask anyone over 40 and they’ll rattle off at least six jobs.

Maybe most of all, stay loose socially.

Your roommate’s a Chanel-wearing, triple-legacy Tri-Delt from Knoxville who never stops talking? Or a three-hundred pound hockey player from the Dakotas who eats chewing tobacco for breakfast? It’s ok. It’s better than ok. Knowing these people, hearing their stories, understanding the roads they came in on, gives you perspective and develops your empathy nerve, so critical to well-being. Knowing a variety of people—militant, crunchy, goth, spoiled, bored, brilliant— that’s hard to come by once you launch into your necessarily more specialized future.

Be open to everyone and relish the range.

You’ll be pleasantly surprised to see them pop up later in life. To this day, at every reading I give from Detroit to Tampa, there are always a few people from University of Richmond in the audience, folks like David P, who worked the cash register next to me at the school cafe, often in a dazzling beaded sweatshirt that had shoulder pads and a portrait of Marilyn Monroe. [And when you’ve worn hairnets together, well, let’s just say it’s a foxhole of sorts and you never forget the guys in the foxhole.]

While we’re talking social life, be very careful not to grow roots. You’ll be surprised how strong the gravitational pull towards the familiar will be. My friends and I have often lamented that our near-fanatical devotion to the brotherhood of Lambda Chi obscured other opportunities both on and off campus. Personally, although I’m a traveler at heart, I decided against a semester abroad because it was clear to me that should I pack up for Paris, a certain 6'5" hunk from Houston would quite likely be off the market upon my return. I’m not kidding. I gave up Paris to hang around a fraternity waiting for some dope to ask me if I wanted to be his beer pong partner. Don’t give up Paris. Not for anyone.

Unless you end up living on Times Square, never again in your life will you be walking distance to so much action. So go to the bird-calling contest, listen to the singing groups on the quad, march in the rallies for Hillary, or Haiti, or Hydro-electric energy. Play flag football, write an op-ed for your school paper, take a charcoal sketch class where you get to draw naked people.

Now, while your parents panic that you’re off to spend their life savings learning to spit Copenhagen, draw penises and play beer pong, [more likely, your dad is taking a closer look at my bio in the program and your mom is wondering who the hell put me behind the podium], I want to tell you something I hope you already know: those old people back there, they love you and they need to hear from you every so often, especially your mothers. Call home. Come home.

Now, off you go. Just remember: Stay loose. It’s only college. You’re gonna be okay.

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essays from the neighborhood project by New York Times bestselling author Kelly Corrigan

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    essays by Kelly Corrigan, editor-at-large of the neighborhood project and bestselling author of The Middle Place, Glitter and Glue and Tell Me More.

    the neighborhood project

    essays from the neighborhood project by New York Times bestselling author Kelly Corrigan

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