When Choosing a School, Listen to Your Heart

This is the time of year when most twelfth graders are getting college applications ready and the anxiety can be palpable. In a place like Westchester, many kids are coming from homes of the professional class and feel pressured to go immediately to a “good” college and get a “good” job, maybe after a “good” graduate degree, so they can live in a “good” school district, after they find a “good” spouse and spawn “good” kids. And the cycle continues.   

I’m not quite sure what constitutes “good” in these scenarios, and kids just know they must succeed without being entirely clear what success means. In affluent suburbs like ours, as with much of the United States, success includes professional and financial success. A lot of kids see the only way to reach those goals starts with getting into a “good” college, whatever that means (See the problem here?).   

Most of the kids I work with are not looking at Ivy Leagues, per se. They know they are not Ivy material, or they can’t afford those schools, and are shooting lower than that. But they often still turn their noses up at public colleges, community colleges, or other paths after high school. I’ve taught many students at WCC who see it as the 13th grade, for sure, but I’ve also taught many who are taking their educations very seriously and laying groundwork at community college, often for financial reasons, before applying to four-year colleges and universities to complete their educations. Even many of the “13th graders” just need time to grow up and learn to take college seriously before they end up getting degrees from excellent schools in the nottoodistant future.   

In addition, many kids may be artistic or creative in some way but feel that pursuing a career outside of the mainstream is not an option. Truth is, in the nearly thirty-five years since my father steered me away from an art career because it would be too risky, pushing instead for the professions where I’d have more job security, that very corporate job security has become a thing of the past. Companies downsize, outsource, send jobs overseas, and people are left unemployed, often multiple times throughout their careers. A good education doesn’t inoculate anyone from the disease of the layoff. I’m glad to be self-employed when I see what goes on in corporate America. To think, I came so close to my plan of an engineering degree, an MBA, and a corner office (well, not SO close, I changed my major after my freshman year…but I had a PLAN!).   

Which brings me to my first word of advice, dear seniors: Make plans, then throw them out the window.   

As for pursuing what is practical rather than what you love—if you can put food on the table and live comfortably doing what you love, then do it. Some artists become art teachers, illustrate children’s books, or do web design. Some musicians play weddings, write jingles, or work as session musicians. My high school art teacher, one of the wisest people I have ever known, and with whom I still keep in touch, taught by day and painted all evening. Yes, he lived paycheck to paycheck, waiting to sell some avant-garde abstract painting, but he lived his passion, married a woman who ended up with a thriving photography career, and was able to live a little more comfortably thanks to her magazine work.   

Second word of advice, to quote Joseph Campbell, follow your bliss. Again, we do have to be practical and feed ourselves, but if you are good at what you do and love it, you should be able to make a living, whether you become Lady Gaga or Andy Warhol or not.   

Education is important, whatever you are doing. Whether that is the traditional route of college and a profession, or the arts, or a trade. The more you learn, the more degrees or certificates you have, the more diverse your talents, the more you can do. I happen to have gone the education route and have two post-doctoral degrees. This allows me to build up parts of my practice if I have to diversify. My blue-collar patients continue to get more certificates. My executive patients get more education. Medical providers and lawyers go for more continuing education. If you are a musician, practice outside your comfort zone so when someone needs a thrash metal guitarist you can meet that need, even if you usually play folk.   

So, number three…never stop learning.   

Ultimately, deciding on a college and path of study is the first real big decision you will make as a young adult. Yes, it’s a big decision, but it’s not the end of the world if you make a wrong decision and choose something that ends up being a bad fit. Just try another path. Don’t waste too much energy being anxious about application season. What’s done is done; show the colleges your best face and hope for the best. You’ll land where you’re supposed to land. Most of us end up self-sufficient adults and not living on our parents’ couches. You’ll manage.   

Onwards and upwards!  

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About the Author: Barbara Kapetanakes Psy.D.