Congratulations class of 2010! Welcome to the real world. Or almost the real world. It’s been almost 25 years since I was where you were, standing on the precipice, ready to start my life—what an exciting time! There is probably no other time in your life when there are so many paths in front of you that you can choose, so many options, so many decisions to be made. This is truly your first experience with being an adult. Each year I have at least three or four 12th graders coming to see me in my practice, all nervous about making the right decision about college, all anxious about where to go and what to do, as if this is the biggest decision they will ever make. But this is not the biggest decision you will ever make, it is simply the first big decision you will ever make.
Some of you are going to go to work after graduation, but most of you are going to college. College is not quite the real world yet either, but it’s a step in that direction. Despite our proximity to Manhattan, Westchester is full of small towns, and Sleepy Hollow High School is a relatively small school where mostly everyone knows everyone. As you move on to college, where there will be thousands of kids, or on to a job, you will be meeting all new people, people who haven’t known you since kindergarten like your friends at SHHS. People who aren’t going to cut you the breaks that your teachers have over the years – and now the guidelines are stricter. Maybe a favorite teacher turned a blind eye to the fact that you were often late to class, but a boss won’t do the same. In college you will get a syllabus at the beginning of the semester detailing the expectations and the schedule of when things are due, but you won’t be reminded on a regular basis to complete the work, like you might be in high school. It is now your responsibility to keep track of deadlines and manage your time wisely. If you are going to work and are given tasks to do, again, it is your responsibility to make sure they get done, even if that means staying later than you thought you’d have to. Going home early and leaving work for someone else to finish is a no-no.
And don’t think about handing in schoolwork late….with e-mail and various other technologies, “I left it on my kitchen table” won’t fly anymore. I was able to buy myself a few days with that excuse, but today, if I am teaching a class and a student tells me that, I simply say, “OK, e-mail it to me later today.” Professors generally start taking off points once an assignment is late. You might get a few extra hours by coming in empty handed and then e-mailing it later on, but it’s not really enough to make a difference. Either the work is good or it’s not. Those few hours aren’t going to make a difference. Oh, and speaking of e-mail and technology—don’t plagiarize. It’s a lot easier to catch today. I once caught a student by Googling the first line of his paper. I found the original paper, where he bought it, and how much he paid for it. This was not the first time he had shown his lack of integrity as a student and he was expelled from the college.
It has been my opinion for a long time that brains only get you so far, that it’s the people who work hard and show that they can go the extra mile that succeed in life. The smartest person in the world, if lazy, will get nowhere. I’ve seen firsthand people who were not “good” students, or who seemed to always be struggling to understand and learn new things, rise above expectations because they were willing to work harder than the next guy, were willing to put in the effort to learn something, and demonstrated qualities such as loyalty, curiosity, eagerness, and tenaciousness. Not everyone finds school easy, and not everyone will succeed at a four year college, and that’s OK, but you need not remain at your entry level job unless you are unwilling to put in the effort to rise up. Degree or no degree, unless your uncle owns the company, no one is going to put you in the corner office simply because you are likeable. You have to work hard to get to the top.
For those of you who have done well and have been the stars of the town through academics, athletics, community service, whatever, that’s all wonderful. Keep working hard and doing the right thing and challenging yourselves, but don’t expect it to be the same once you leave the confines of the small town. If you are going to a challenging school, understand that you will be mixed among MANY kids who were academic stars in their high schools. If you are going to play sports at your college, remember that there will be many other great athletes on the team as well. You may not shine as brightly outside of the microcosm that is Westchester County, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find your place among the other stars. The cream, I believe, truly rises to the top, and if you have talent and you work hard, you will find success.
Most of all, remember that you will make some mistakes. That may mean something as small as messing up one class or making a few bad decisions socially. It may mean you change your major because you realize that what you first thought you wanted to study isn’t a good fit for you. (I did this and turned out fine!) You may transfer schools (did this too!). You may come home and go to community college for a year or so while you figure things out. You may change jobs, get a job, quit a job, increase your hours at a job…….now is the time to wear these different hats and figure things out. These next few years are for that type of trial and error. You are starting to build your resumé, get experience, learn new things, build a career. As any kid who has struggled with this in my office will tell you, I hand out many little bits of what I hope is wisdom, and here is one of them: there is no decision you make that can’t be reversed or changed, except for giving birth to a baby. You don’t like your major — change it. You don’t like your school — transfer. People move, change jobs, begin and end relationships, dye their hair different colors. Most of what we decide to do we can change our minds about if it doesn’t feel right. The only thing I would say is that if you are not ready to explore the world, don’t waste your parents’ money. Get a job, stay home and go to a local school, take a couple of classes at WCC and see what interests you. When you are ready to move ahead you will know, and if it takes some of you a little longer than others, that’s fine, as long as you are actually moving forward and not backwards.
Best of luck, graduates! Oh, the places you’ll go…..
[blockquote class=blue]Barbara Kapetanakes, PsyD., practices child, adult, and family psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow.[/blockquote]