The Purpose of College
Naturally, as my daughter is finishing her junior year in high school, college talk has been dominating much of the conversation in our house, which of course, brings me back to my own college experience, nearly one quarter of a century ago. I know I sound ancient, and even though my memory of much of it has been skewed over time, I still consider those four years to be one of my biggest metamorphoses.
As I reflect on my college days, there are certain things I wish I could do over, if only I had a crystal ball and knew where my life would take me. I remember having to choose a major, even though I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation. Having been interested in politics, I chose political science, an area of study that did nothing for me as far as pursuing a career. At seventeen, my daughter is expected to get a sense of what she wants to focus on when she gets to college, but does she really know? The idea is to pick a good liberal arts school, and from there, she can figure out what she wants to major in. But again, will she ever really know? I didn’t. Like me, so many people who thought they knew what they wanted in college ended up in jobs totally unrelated to their majors. If you’re one of the lucky ones who knew exactly what you wanted to study and have used what you learned from your undergraduate degree to help your career, then kudos to you––I’m jealous.
I think Israel does this college thing right. Following high school graduation, there is a mandatory draft into the military for eighteen-year-olds. After serving their country for a few years, these young men and women sometimes wait another year or two before applying to college. By then, their brains are fully developed, and they might be better equipped at choosing a course of study that will serve them well in their future careers. What if, instead of sending American students into the armed forces after high school, they head to a community service program similar to the Peace Corps, where they are assigned a station somewhere in the United States or abroad to help communities in need? This type of learning would be invaluable, giving young adults an opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge about human nature, cultural differences, education, the environment, agriculture, and so much more. Upon completing their two- to four-year assignments, these twenty-year-olds might have a better sense of themselves and what kind of career they might want to pursue. From there, they can apply to college, which would hopefully serve as a stepping stone to what they want to do after earning their degree. Instead of rushing to college after high school, with all the mental and financial stress that goes with it before and after, my radical proposal would give students an opportunity to grow as people, connect with the world around them, become more compassionate along the way, and then use that to propel them into their next phase of life.
I know I sound idealistic, and some may think even ridiculously unrealistic, but as I reflect on what I gained most from college, it had more to do with the person I became rather than the subjects I studied. I spent those four years as an undergraduate questioning life, who I was, my greater purpose, what I liked, and who I wanted to be. Even though contemplating the meaning of life was never answered, it was the act of questioning, experimenting, occasionally pushing the limits, and the philosophical discussions I had with my friends that led me to a better understanding of myself. At twenty-one, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science, but more importantly, I left school sure of myself and more comfortable in my skin than I was when I started.
To this day, two of my college roommates are like sisters to me. Together, we grew up during those four years, and like clay, we softly molded into our future selves, while leaving plenty of room to manipulate our sculpted persona through the years. I am blessed––not everyone remains this close to their college friends so many years later. Unfortunately, since we live in different parts of the country, we don’t get to see each other as often as we’d like, but thankfully, distance has not impacted our friendship. We’ve stood by each other through every major milestone––marriages, childbirths, and family deaths, offering advice during difficult times and cheering for our children’s successes––and we’ll continue to remain in those same roles until the end.
So, wherever my daughter ends up in college, and whatever she decides to study, whether, or not it helps her in her chosen career is irrelevant. In the grand scheme of things, those friendships that I made in college laid the foundation for all my future relationships, teaching me the importance of rooting for the people you care about, always having their backs, accepting and embracing their differences, loving them for who they are, and allowing their individuality to complement who they are. If there’s one thing I would like to be remembered for when my time on Earth has expired, it will have nothing to do with what I studied in college or the careers I’ve had, but rather, it will be that I led an abundant life, filled with long-lasting, beautiful, and loving connections.