Advice for College

Letter to my niece, Andrea, on her way to study drama at NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

Discussing college with my niece, Andrea

Off to the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts. Wow! To Be Or Not To Be? That is the question. Here is how I would answer it.

BE the best actress you can be. Study hard and apply yourself to your craft. Develop a set of competencies that will make you inherently valuable and sought after, so that you will not have to depend on privileged contacts or relationships for your future success.

DON’T BE too narrowly focused on just drama and acting when it comes to your education. Tio Vic has an expression — -“huge under the hood” — -to describe people like you who possess a good deal of natural intelligence. Take advantage as much as possible of what NYU has to offer outside your major. Challenge the impressive intellect that you have been given, and seek to develop it inside and outside the curriculum.

BE a good Boricua. Wear it proudly at all times, wherever you are. Puerto Rico’s culture, language, and customs enrich people, places, and situations with its presence, and you are an attractive conduit to accomplish just that. NYU had the good sense to snatch you for its student body. The school and its students will be better off for having you as a member and for having the opportunity to get to know you.

DON’T BE insular. Resolve yourself to making a variety of friends and acquaintances across various races, nationalities, and cultures, some or many of whom may be gringos and gringas. You have the enviable capacity to move effortlessly between the Latin and American cultures. Use that to your advantage but also to the advantage of others so that they may benefit from it as well. Introduce them to your culture and take part in theirs.

BE aware that there is a God or higher Being with you on campus. You don’t have to be religious or a follower of traditions to avail yourself of His grace and kindness. A college with thousands of kids can, every so often, be a lonely place. When you are going through a challenging moment or tough patch, ask for His help. You might be surprised by the comfort and results it may bring.

DON’T BE turned off to God by the humans who are meant to represent him. By nature they are imperfect, sometimes appallingly so, but the presence of these flaws in no way invalidates God’s existence and willingness to help you.

BE conscious of the importance of a healthy body to go along with a healthy mind, and the link between the two. Stress, and there will be plenty of it, is often best relieved by vigorous activity, so

DON’T BE lazy. Find out where the gym is and make your regular, weekly attendance there mandatory!

BE open-minded. Consider all aspects of an issue before you develop a point of view. Always carry with you a healthy sense of skepticism. In this regard, human nature often conspires against us, making a simple four-word question the hardest one to ask yet the easiest one to answer: Could I be wrong (about this person, this issue, this situation)? The answer is always yes. Here we can learn from the great scientist, Charles Darwin, who, as a matter of discipline, challenged with greater vigor those hypotheses with which he felt most comfortable. Let me make another observation. Here in Puerto Rico, the extreme polarity of political viewpoints driven by the status issue, SOME times causes SOME people (even some intelligent ones) to suspend a measure of judgment and adopt a degree of certitude which I believe is unhealthy and unwarranted. The world is no more simply Red and Blue than it is simply Black and White. Despite the extra effort required, I encourage you to deal with the inevitable, ubiquitous “shades of gray,” and promise yourself that you will give an appropriate amount of open-minded, objective thought to every viewpoint and opinion you adopt. And when confronted with absolute certitude from others, be suitably skeptical.

BE a doer. Look for extracurricular activities. Join a club or two. Volunteer. You have an impressive track record of community service work. Keep it up; think about adding to it.

DON’T BE complacent. It is too easy to hang around the dorm, watch a little TV, plan the weekend. Your sister and cousins can tell you about how all that works because they have all had to fight it. Resolve yourself to leave NYU a little bit better off than you found it. Try to make a difference.

BE mindful of not only the support you can receive from your cousins, but also of the support that you might provide to them. I am not sure why the thought keeps popping into my head, perhaps it is the apparent shared interest in drama/acting, but I sense that there might be a valuable role for you to play in helping your cousin, Conchita. I believe she needs mentors, and you could be just that — -unselfishly passing along your acting techniques, making her feel special, and helping her develop competencies which will enhance her sense of self-worth. Maybe a long shot. In any event, this project will not fall into your lap; you will have to go out of your way to “go get it”.

DON’T BE limited to focusing on supporting only your cousins. I am sure that you will be quite successful with acting at NYU as you have been with everything else to which you have set your mind. Look around and spot a fellow student, perhaps less talented than you, who is struggling, and provide him or her with some pointers and encouragement.

DON’T BE fooled by “false gods.” In my view, the impulse to search for heroes and heroines is a natural and healthy one. While it shouldn’t be suppressed, it does require some degree of control and perspective on your part to prevent it from mutating into hero-worship. I remember some of my early experiences. Thirty-eight years ago, I became a member of the business world for the first time. Wearing garish, flared-bottom suits, with my naivete and degrees from Queens College and Baruch College (are those junior colleges?) in tow, I entered the button-down, cuffed world of a major international company, its senior management populated with relatively young men and women with MBAs and PhDs from Harvard, Wharton, and Columbia. Young, brilliant, titans of finance! I was enthralled, star-struck. These were my heroes! As it turned out, over the next 25 years, because I enjoyed a modicum of success of my own, I got to know and work closely with many of them, and observed all of them. I am guilty of generalizing here, but they didn’t turn out to be quite as smart or competent or honest as I initially expected, and most of them had trouble controlling both their egos and their zippers. Not a single hero in the bunch. More often than not, genuine heroes are least likely found amongst the glitterati but are present in more ordinary places. My father was a humble man; never gave speeches, never served on a Board of Directors, never did a business deal. In fact, professionally, he never made it out of the mailroom. However, he led a life noteworthy for its unwavering devotion, generosity, and kindness to his wife and children. Funny, neither he nor I knew it while it was happening, but he gave me the most valuable gift I have received in my lifetime: he taught me how to be a father. In things that mattered, he was a giant of a man; made those bankers look puny and pathetic by comparison.

BE suitably skeptical. I am repeating a point from before, but made here with a different emphasis. In my view, you, perhaps more than the rest of us, need to develop a jeweler’s eye for spotting flaws in people’s characters, for identifying misguided intentions, for separating the genuine from the contrived. After all, many of the individuals in the world you are entering are trained (or being trained) in the art of pretense. On top of this, many of these same people, I believe, have difficulty recognizing and accepting the boundary between stage/screen life and real life. As a result, what you are seeing, may not be what you will be getting. Avoid the temptation to acquire trophy friends, and when success comes your way, as we are so certain it will, be wary of those seeking you as a trophy of their own. Lastly,

BE successful, study hard, learn a lot, have fun, “break a leg,” and

DON’T BE hesitant to ask for help or advice from those of us “back home” whenever you need it.

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