Because the largest percentage of my practice is focused on teenagers and, in particular, twelfth graders, this is an exciting time of year for me. I feel like I relive my own choices and my own experiences every May and June as "my kids" are getting ready for prom and graduation, dealing with the anxieties of going to college, and thinking about their futures.
As I see prom pictures, a lucky few are entertained with a mid-80’s snapshot of a 17-year-old girl dressed for the prom, full of life and promise. Most of them chuckle at my old picture, but at least they usually tell me how cute I was at that age.
All my teenagers have different issues to deal with when it comes to decisions about college. Financial constraints, family issues, grades, interests, distance, size of the school, location…these are just a few of the factors that go into choosing a college. Most of our high school seniors are way more nervous about this decision than they let on. I am honored, literally honored, to be part of the process with them and to be let into this corner of their worlds, to hear about the anxieties, fear, joy, sadness, and all the other feelings that go with this time of life. I have had the pleasure of being part of the decision making, and I have to send a shout-out to the young lady who opened her acceptance letter in my office, making me the first person, even before her parents, to know that she got into the program of her choice. I got choked up as she opened the packet. I took her for a celebratory soda after. Thank you for letting me in on that, Darlin’, you know who you are…..
At this time of year, our kids hear tons of speeches, advice and words of wisdom from all the adults around them, and this is no exception. My job today is to use what I have learned to give this year’s graduates a few words of wisdom which come from a couple decades more life experience, and also from the wisdom and experience of the teenagers who have graced my couch.
First of all, as any of my young patients can tell you, my mantra is, "There is one decision that once made, you can’t take back. If you give birth to a baby, well, there it is. There is no putting it back where it came from. Every other decision you make is fixable and reversible." I believe my kids take this statement with at least a pinch of humor but, when you think about it, it’s true. People transfer colleges and change majors. I did — having started in engineering school and realizing I hated it. People change jobs. You put down roots and decide you don’t like your city, you can move. You want to go back to school and change careers at forty-five years old, it can be done. People get divorced when they are unhappy; they make bad decisions about life that they have to fix and get away from; they navigate paths sometimes with no maps or guidance. You make the best decision you can at the time, and you hope it works out. If it doesn’t, you fix it and move on. If you get to college in the fall and you realize along the way that you’d rather be somewhere else or study some other subject, the beauty of freedom is that you can change your life to suit yourself.
Second, college is going to be an AWESOME experience. You will make the closest friends of your life, and many of them will remain friends for the next fifty years. You will learn about different people from different places. You will study subjects that interest you, not be forced to study what all the other 12th graders are studying. Yes, there will be core requirements but, even there, you can pick from many classes to find the ones that suit you. Your mind will be opened in ways you can’t imagine. You will have professors that you will never forget. You are going to FIND YOURSELF. It is NOTHING like high school. It is a million times better.
It is not a disgrace if you go to Community College for a year or two and figure out your next step. It is also not a disgrace if you go away, return, and end up at Community College for awhile as you contemplate your next step. In these affluent suburbs it is seen as practically a mortal sin to stay home and study at WCC rather than some big fancy university. It is also no sin if you graduate from a public college, particularly if you want to go to graduate school and save money on your Bachelor’s degree. Colin Powell is a CUNY graduate. Jerry Seinfeld is as well, and Woody Allen. I, myself, am a CUNY graduate, and I consider my practically free, public education to have been excellent. Yeah, after leaving a prestigious engineering school, I finished at Brooklyn College…you got a problem wit dat?
It is also no disgrace if you choose to go to work. Yes, a college education increases your earning potential tremendously. But not everyone is ready to go to college right away, and not everyone is cut out for college in general. If you choose another path, at least choose one without a dead end. I recently paid a plumber almost twice as much per hour as most of the insurance companies pay me. Not a bad road to take if that’s your choice. If you want to go to work rather than college, that’s fine, just LEARN SOMETHING. Learn a trade. Become a plumber. Get a good union job. Take appropriate classes to move ahead. Do your best. And if you decide, down the road, that you would like to go to school and study something different and move in a different direction, it is never too late.
If you want to go to college but have no clue what you want to study, that’s fine. Take whatever classes interest you and see what turns you on. You’ll figure it out. Some kids take longer than others, but the vast majority finds their way.
Another truth that many in my office have heard: there is nothing worse than going to work day after day to a job or career you hate. Crying before work is no fun. But there is not a lot that’s better than going to a job you love. I will not pretend that there aren’t a few gorgeous sunny days that I am thinking I’d rather be on a bike than working, but I certainly don’t drag myself out of bed to reluctantly go into the office. I genuinely love what I do for a living. Make sure you love what you choose to do. Listen to your own voice.
If you do decide along the way that maybe you made a bad choice, at least give yourself some time to contemplate it and make a better one. I am forever grateful that I listened to my father, who so badly wanted me to be an engineer, when he advised me not to give up too quickly, to stay in my program for one solid year, allow myself to adjust to college, allow myself to start to understand this impossible math they were throwing at me, the computer language I had to learn to write, and THEN decide, once I was more comfortable with the subject matter, if I still disliked it. As I walked home from the subway day in and day out, feeling wiped out, stopping at Baskin Robbins for a huge sundae if the day was particularly bad, I knew he was right, that I couldn’t give in to that frustration before I had given myself a chance to sink or swim. My dad gave me my height, my nose, and my off-beat sense of humor (with the huge laugh that goes with it). He taught me the joys of the Mallomar (YUM!), but advising me to wait before giving up was probably the best advice he ever gave me because then I was more certain of my decision. I never wondered if I should have ended up designing integrated circuits; I was sure at the end of that year that I needed to change my path, even though the 38 on my first calculus test was certainly the first clue that this might have been a bad decision. Don’t let your initial experience drive you to a hasty decision.
Adjusting to college can be hard, I won’t lie. You will be in the real world, where no one is going to give you special treatment. You will not be coddled, and no one will know or care where Sleepy Hollow is. You may feel homesick. You may feel like you don’t know how to make new friends. You may feel like you can’t organize the work. Allow yourself the time to adjust before freaking out since, once the adjustment period is over, you may find you made exactly the right choice for you, and if it’s not the right choice, you still may gain something from it. I don’t regret my foray into the hard sciences, because I made some great friends that are still friends today, and I don’t regret giving myself the time to figure out my path, because I actually learned some things while sitting in calculus.
Onwards and upwards, Class of 2009. Oh, the places you will go…..send me a postcard when you get there!
Barbara Kapetanakes, PsyD., practices child, adult, and family psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow.