Friday, July 26, 2013

who we are and not what we do

Summer for this rising senior means college apps (and, okay, lots of fun besides), and college apps mean actually figuring out where I'm applying and where I might want to go once I (hopefully) get in someplace. And so I hit up several people on Facebook--friends currently studying at places I'm interested in, like UC Berkeley, UMich, and Williams--to get firsthand advice.

With the most immaculately written "rant" I've ever known: "What makes Berkeley stand out a lot is definitely our activism--it's not exactly the 60s anymore, but there is definitely a sense that you can believe in anything here. There are plenty of hippies, a zillion Christian fellowship groups, pro-Israel and pro-Palestine activists, College Democrats and College Republicans, etc. You can join a sorority or you can join a co-op. You can be a part of a professional pre-med fraternity or an intramural soccer team or Colleges Against Cancer or you can teach a student-run class ("De-Cals") or you can be a lobbyist for women's rights in Sacramento." Progressivism, the chance to be anything, lobbying for women's rights in Sacramento?!?!? ...okay, I'm sold, I thought immediately.

And then I had an enlightening Skype chat with my friend Allison Wu--she's a sophomore at Williams. As someone who knows college admissions like the back of her hand she was probably the bane of her friends' senior year existences by being that-infinitely-more-prepared-girl (or not, because we high school students never get green with envy when other people aren't procrastinating and unprepared like us, riiiiiiight?) Of course, in her role as the sage college student giving me, the clueless senior, advice, she is anything but the bane of anyone's existence.

I could hardly do Allison's incredible summaries of Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, Wellesley, and countless other colleges justice, but what does stick out: weekly storytimes at Williams, where a randomly selected student is given 45 minutes to tell any story from their life, sparking insights as provocative and poignant as a boy coming out to his strict Catholic family to a guy eating rotten food and getting diarrhea on a hike in the Arctic. Parties where you can walk in not knowing anyone and get introduced to friendly students within minutes. "Entries," the freshman living situation where you're paired with juniors and people from diverse backgrounds and intended majors. To paraphrase a bit more: Amherst has a crappy sexual assault policy, Swarthmore is super super super (x500) intellectual, Middlebury has more of a hookup scene than Williams, Phillips Exeter/Andover rivalries still hold strong in college, and alumni networks at women's colleges are the strongest.

and the rest...
But what really really sticks out, even more than all these relevant facts, even more than the West Coast/East Coast contrast (I heard very little about Exeter vs. Andover on the Berkeley side, needless to say), even more than student groups or weekend snack time traditions, was something Allison and I briefly touched upon. She was telling me about Williams and noted that there, she feels valued "for who I am, not what I do."

I blinked, dazed for a moment.

I'd said that exact same thing in so many angsty teenage girl journal entries, I said to her. That in a life where I'd often been described in crass shorthands for accomplishments--even to this day some high school acquaintances call me "the prodigy"--what I wanted most of all, sometimes, was just to be known/liked/loved as me in life who breathes with breath instead of the me that breathes in the flutter of a printed-out resume. Isn't that what everyone wants?

And yet so many people go to colleges where they are what they do--the football star, the freshman with the cool internship, the business creator--and where their college becomes just another definition of them. There's nothing wrong with being the Harvard kid who has done incredible things X Y and Z. But you are more than the Harvard kid who did X Y and Z, and there's something wrong if no one ever took the time to find what that "more" was. If no one ever valued you enough to have a conversation with you till the sun came up about something that had nothing to do with how you make money or a project due in school. If no one has ever given you moments where you forget your company, your school, and maybe even your schedule, because those things don't matter in the strange illumination of life that is discovering a person.

After my blog post about getting 520 on math the lovely Charity Sunshine Tillemann-Dick wrote me this: "The good news is that scores mean LITERALLY nothing. What we do with our lives is what matters. I didn't end up at Yale like 6 of my other siblings, but I never expected my degree to do the work for me. So all I want to tell you is ... you're more than enough. The college brand with which you're associated matters so much less than what you create from your experience."

So, fellow seniors who are getting stressed out right now (or whenever it hits you, maybe when September or October or November or December comes), this is for you. Let's remember that where we go isn't who we are; and let's go places where who we are isn't just what we do, either.


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