Sunday, December 10, 2023

The Dream School

             We were holding a brief assembly for our 12th-grade class, supporting them with whatever college-related information they still need at this point in the application process. In the assembly, our counseling department included a video clip of New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, who wrote an influential book a few years ago titled Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be. The book, which I have referenced many times with parents and students, addresses the degree to which characteristics such as character and work ethic end up meaning more to success in life than the specific college we attend.

            I believe that my life has lived out that premise, and I believe most of us would say the same. But so many of our seniors and their parents have their eyes set on a specific dream school, and they often find themselves feeling as though their goals will only be met by gaining acceptance to that school.

            As Bruni was just starting to make his point in the assembly, the sound cut out on the video. I was the one working the projector, so it must have been my fault somehow. Having read the book and talked about it frequently, I figured I should try and summarize Bruni’s point. I took the microphone and did just that, then added my own personal experience.

            I shared with the students that in the spring of 1989, I was valedictorian of my high school class and applied to many elite universities. I assumed that with my grades being what they were, I’d receive many acceptances. And yet, none of my top five choices accepted me. I “settled” for my sixth choice, an outstanding state school, one that many students – including some of my friends – had tagged as their dream school.

            I shared that when I arrived at this college, it quickly became clear that this was a better fit for me than any of those top five choices. I told the students that six months into my freshman year, I would have definitely turned down an offer to attend any of those “top” choices. I recognized that this school was the place for me, and that my senior-year dreams had been grounded more in illusion than in reality.

            My college, nestled in the dreamy town of Chapel Hill, N.C., was inviting me to study really hard, but also to stroll the downtown area and shop for CDs and cool T-shirts. This campus was providing me with superb classes but also with tons of extracurricular activities. I joined the school newspaper, and journalism quickly became the focus of my undergraduate years. The school wanted me to be a student who could excel on a final exam, while also contributing to the greater good of the town and the world around me. I was expected to work into the night on a research paper, yet also wait in line all night to get Duke-UNC basketball tickets.

            I told my story, and the students heard me, I guess. One colleague told me that when she asked students later how the assembly was, one student shared that Dr. Hynes had told a really depressing story about getting rejected by all of his colleges. {Sigh.} I am sure I did the best I could in the moment, especially considering there had been no plans for me to speak at that moment. I have shared this story of my college rejections many times with students, and it usually goes over well and leads them to feel less anxious about the process. I’m sure it did on this day as well. But I reflected afterward about some ways I might tell it a bit differently.

            I think I would start with the metaphor of life as a marathon. Because, after all, some students do not find their ideal fit in the first semester of college. My story speaks to the idea that we can find that fit even when we don’t think we have it. But in reality, it might take awhile for that to happen. Some students transfer, some find a better fit in their graduate school than in their undergraduate school, some need a gap year before going anywhere, and some find that not attending college at all is the best fit for now. The larger theme here is that our lives do not typically unfold exactly as we thought they would in December of our senior year. But it may take some patience and perseverance before we find the right track for us.

            I have two daughters who are commuting to college right now. Neither would tell you that these schools are the perfect spots they were dreaming of in senior year. But they would likely tell you that these are the schools they need right now, and they are grateful that they can drive 30 minutes from their home and attend a world-class university. The words “dream school” or “best fit” would not come up in their conversation with you, but they would tell you that they’re narrowing down their interests within their majors and they are growing as learners and as citizens of the world.

            They’re still early on in the marathon, with so much more ahead of them. Like the students I spoke with last week, they’re still figuring it all out. And our Gen Z students do not need anyone to tell them that everything works out perfectly, as per plan. They’ve witnessed enough horror in their short time on this earth to debunk that myth.

            Like most of us, they’re going to respond to the opportunity to listen, learn, share and grow. They’re in search of hope for their own lives and for the greater good. They want some fun, some joy, and some intellectual challenges. They might like a cool college logo on their sweatshirts as well, but that logo represents more than cachet. It symbolizes the fulfillment they hope to gain in this life, at this stage of the marathon and in the stages to come.

            So yeah, I would go a little deeper if given another crack at speaking to the seniors. Even so, I think they got the point in my shortened version. Hang in there, and don’t fret if your perceived dream doesn’t pan out. There are more possibilities out there than any of us can count. Where we go as human beings – that’s how we figure out who we’ll be.