College: Identity struggles, part 1

*Disclaimer*: What I’m about to share may cause you to roll your eyes. Yes, it’s touchy-feely. I may be the only one who’s ever felt this (though I highly doubt it), but I’m gonna write it nonetheless, because it’s been weighing on my heart lately.

One of my favorite songs is “Mr. Wendal” by the ’90s  band Arrested Development. One of the lines from the song say “and to think Blacks spend all their money on big colleges , still most of you come out confused”.

I remember my first day at Cornell. I had kept in touch with people I met when I visited, during my senior year in high school. I had friend-ed many on Facebook. I had also joined the Facebook groups. You know the ones I’m talking about: “Cornell: where your best hasn’t been good since 1868”, “You know you go to Cornell if..”

In an auditorium of about 500 people, I raised my hand and asked the administration sitting up front, what ways they would recommend for us to deal with the pressures that these Facebook groups say that we would face at Cornell. There was a commotion in the room, as everyone started to talk amongst themselves,  because turns out, most of the other students were thinking the exact same thing. We were all scared of “mighty Cornell”.

One member of the administration told us about the advising office and the story about a young man who chose to leave Cornell because in his own words, “he had lost his compass”. He ended the story about telling us that leaving was an option. Sometimes, taking time off to recover your compass is the best thing you can do for yourself, he told us.

Fast forward to 4 years later. I go back to read things I wrote my freshman year and I’m amazed at how optimistic, how idealistic, how hopeful I was. Like most people, I expected college to be a place that would enhance my personal development. Indeed, it has done that, but i’m not sure if the direction is what I thought it would be. I used to get so angry when professors would listen to students  and say almost condescendingly, “so young, so naive, so idealistic. Good for you!” But, I’m starting to understand what they mean. Freshman year, I looked forward to knowing as much as college Seniors seemed to know. They all looked so put together, so down-to-earth, so intellectually sophisticated. As a college senior, I’m beginning to realize that I know nothing about life.

I was talking with a friend the other day about our ambitions when we were in high school. We spoke with conviction. We took classes, raised our hands in class and dared others to call us ‘nerds’. We reveled in our ability to absorb, our ability to grasp things and our seemingly never-ending curiosity. Our college essays spoke about our ambitions to change the world, by starting with ourselves and our “backyard”. Whether it was working with others towards finding a cure for HIV, building cost-effective housing so that more and more people could have a place to call “home” or going into law so that we could help the thousands of our families (close and distant) navigate the mazes that Immigration laws sometimes seem to be.  we voiced our dreams, and dared others to challenge them.

Now, we’ve been thought to analyze everything, to be realistic. Through my studies, I’ve learned to distrust statistics and know that you can tell the same story in 12 different ways and get 12 different responses. I’ve learned that public policy is more about compromise than about doing what is best for the people, as a whole. I’ve learned about why the rich stays rich and the poor stays poor. I’ve learned about institutionalized this or that and why it’s not going away. My experiences have taught me to say “most” and “some” instead of “all” and to preface everything I say with “in my opinion”. I say “maybe” a lot. I’m constantly think about the pros and cons and whether or not I have enough information to make decisions in life. We’ve realized that, we can’t change the world. The best we can hope for is a chance to change one person, or rather to influence that person’s decision to make a change in their own lives. We’ve come to see our childhood heroes as nothing but human beings, with faults which are side effects of being human.

So, where does that leave us? I wonder about people whom I know, have met or have read about,  that  have been able to keep Hope, Positivity, Optimism alive well into their 60s and 70s. What makes them wake up every morning to say, “Another day, another chance to live. another chance to be the best me i’ve yet to be”? Is it possible to be an optimistic…realist? Maybe, college is not a place that helps you find yourself. Maybe, it’s a place that helps you add more pieces to you, and post-college life is to help you put all the pieces together.

I think back to the story about the guy and his compass, every time I’m asked “So, what are your plans for after graduation?”  and I want to say that “I used to know. I used to be so sure of those plans. Now…, now I’m more…realistic”. Now, I think “fake it till you make it”. Now, I say “Act confident till you become confident”. I hadn’t lost my compass in college. It’s just that I fiddled with it so many times to fit other people’s descriptions of where North is, that the all letters are smudged, and the needle is shifty.

I wonder if I can trade it in for a new compass.

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2 Responses to College: Identity struggles, part 1

  1. tchefor says:

    Very interesting read … what immediately comes to mind has something to do with the phrase “then reality struck”. I think as long as we can be real with our ambitions and aspirations we should be okay. But then that is just it … how do we know what is real? Cause before long we all become jaded … it is a natural cycle. And this is not unique to seniors only.

    I believe you get only one compass in this life. A shifty needle, IN MY OPINION :), means you are moving in all sort of directions. MAYBE a case of “many minds” ?

    • That African Girl says:

      you’re right. I tend to define “many minds” as “listening to (too) many minds”. But, I’ve also heard that this indecisiveness has to do with having too many options in life.

      That’s the trouble, I usually have with ambitions and dreams…finding the balance between idealism and realism. I aim to one day, be a realist, with both feet planted, who can still dream and motivate others with what COULD be, not only what IS.

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