I loved college. If I could go back and relive any period of my past, I’d head back to Philadelphia as quickly as the Amtrak could take me, and set up camp in the squirrel-infested dilapidated house on Spruce Street that I shared with seven friends during my junior and senior years. I’d go back to three hours of classes a day, evenings studying in the library, and nights with friends testing out our fake IDs at the local bar. Okay, maybe I’d opt for an upgrade on the housing.
Luckily for me, I recently had the chance to go back to college. Well, at least back to my 20th college reunion. It was a wonderful weekend to reconnect in person with some of my best friends whom, because we live in different cities, I normally only “speak” to by phone or email, and to catch up with those classmates who were a big part of my college years but from whom I’ve since drifted apart. Sometime between the parade of classes, the alumni picnic, and the shopping trip at the campus bookstore to purchase souvenirs for the kids and husband I had left at home, one of my friends posed the question, “If you could go back to college is there anything you’d do differently?”
Yes. There is.
I wish I could back to college, this time with the confidence and inspiration and passion to get truly involved in something. Anything. I now understand that the more you put into something, the more you get out and looking back, I think I could have gotten a lot more out of my college years–personal achievement, self-assuredness, leadership skills, an even larger network of friends, and more–by taking on a larger role in campus life.
My college had much to offer students outside the classroom and I definitely took advantage of lots of it. I listened to wonderful speakers. I visited museums both on and off campus. I attended too many acapella concerts to count. But when it came to my own involvement–to actively participating in an extracurricular–I was more of a dabbler. I tried to follow my interest in the arts but with limited success. I auditioned for one of the dance troupes and didn’t make it. For a few months I worked on a TV show on the campus station, but the seniors in charge had me acting, not writing, and I didn’t enjoy the experience at all (though I would later go on to work in marketing at a cable network after graduation). I was made the assistant producer of a campus play–I am sure because no one else expressed interest in it. The director had offered me the producer’s job but I was too scared to take on that role having no idea what the producer would actually do. Turns out the assistant producer was mostly in charge of buying food for the cast party, a role I was able to handle.
In some ways college is, of course, the best time to try out many different activities, to test the waters and discover your calling. But, with 20 years of hindsight and experience behind me, I look back at college and wish I then had the conviction to insist that I not be put in front of that television camera, but be allowed to write the scripts. I wish I had had the confidence to be a first-time producer. I wish I had worried less about missing out on Thursday night happy hours, and instead had gone to the weekly meetings for the school’s entertainment magazine to try my hand at writing for it.
And now, as a mother, I wish I had the key to sharing these life lessons with my children, now. How can I make them understand that life is not meant to be lived on the sidelines? That it is a gift to find something you love to do, and then go out and do it? That you should try new activities, sample new interests, seek out new ideas, and then when you discover one that you like, you should invest your time, your energy, and your heart into it? That you should not worry about what other people will think of your choices, but only question if it is something you feel is worth the effort? How as a parent can I impact these lessons that I have learned over the 20 years since I graduated?
This is, of course, one of the great challenges of parenting. We are forever trying to teach our children, allowing them to reap the benefits of our experience, while also giving them the room to wander, discover, and learn on their own. Whether it’s trying to get a toddler to understand that eating the entire bucket of ice cream will give him a tummy ache, or trying to get your grade schooler to realize that the only way to get better at guitar is to sit and practice, as parents we can only offer our advice, our hard-won wisdom, our lessons. It is up to our kids to take our offerings and then go live their own lives, preferably not on the sidelines.