I looked forward to going to college because it would mean a chance to follow a course of study which really interested me. I was a history nut and the curriculum that I had signed on for was one that would satisfy even my seemingly insatiable interest in history. The bonus from taking all these history courses would of course be that when, in four years, I graduated from college I would feel more than ready to teach history at the high school level, my long term goal. That’s what I thought would happen at college. Years later it became more clear how college changed my life.
1. Making Choices I think that making my own decisions about what courses to take during four years of college was pretty exciting at the time. In high school the biggest choice one got to make was between taking Spanish or taking French. But it didn’t take me long to discover that there would be lots of other decisions that I would be making.
For example, going to school in Washington, D. C. meant living in a area where the legal drinking age was 18 . No one was going to judge me if I went out with friends to a bar and had a few beers or even quite a few beers. Going from a bar back to someone’s apartment, or staying overnight at someone else’s apartment was all of a sudden a choice I could make. Selecting friends, no longer meant getting along with other people who lived in the same small town and were all very much alike. It meant possibly becoming best friends with people from totally different faiths, races or ethnic backgrounds.
Quickly being 500 miles away from home meant facing decisions each day, and more significantly it meant living with the consequences of my own decisions. Going to college changed my life by forcing me into an arena of independence where all decisions from what to have for breakfast to how late to stay out, and theconsequences flowing from those decisions , belonged 100% to me.
2. My capacity for learning and personal growth. Going to college gave me the kind of academic benchmark I had never experienced before. In grammar school, middle school and even high school I just went along from one year to the next, changing teachers, changing textbooks but never really taking note of what or how much I was learning.
For me there was a reality check in college as I entered my final year. I began to see how much I was really being exposed to and how much I was changing and growing intellectually as a result of this exposure. I noticed it in the books I wanted to read, the conversations I wanted to pursue, even the movies and television I was drawn to. At the end of four years I saw myself as an intellectually mature person very different from the eighteen year old who had started out four years ago.
All of the things that a professor had told us he hoped we would accomplish while in college dramatically had come true for me. He said at the end of college we should be able to think clearly about problems, to write logically to address problems or explain ourselves and we should be able to speak reasonably. I found to my surprise and delight that somehow in four years I had grown in exactly those ways. But perhaps the real way in which going to college changed my life was that it taught me that what I was at 22 was very different from what I was at 18. My college experience encouraged me to continue my personal growth in the years to come.
3. The Importance of Friendship Going to college meant separating myself from the support system that had surrounded and nurtured me for 18 years. Parents, neighborhood adults, school teachers and young people I had grown up with had been instantaneously removed from my daily existence. Most every college student living away from home feels this loss. For some it is overpowering and long lasting in its effects, for others it manifests itself as occasional bouts of homesickness.
Going to college and having this separation experience changed my life because it helped me to see the real importance of forming and maintaining friendships. All the support that was left at home when I went to college had to be replaced somehow. New friends, made at school out of necessity, became my on site family. I became an adult with a network of adult friends. My family was still a treasure, but my friends were my community.
4. The Importance of Service My college was located in an urban area, something that was brand new to me. There were people living in that large metropolitan area who lacked good schools, health care, jobs, and decent housing. Learning about poverty and what it inflicts on families was a lesson as valuable as any I learned in the lecture halls. That people lived in such dire straits in America was mind boggling to me.
How going to college really changed my life, however, wasn’t just in the way it introduced me to the great inequalities in our nation. College changed my life by opening up opportunities for me to do something about that inequality through community service. College service activities demonstrated loud and clear that one person, one group of people, one college campus can make a difference in the way people live their lives. Giving just an hour a week as a big brother or big sister or spending just an hour tutoring at an inner city school were activities that I could enjoy and could sense were really making a difference in the life of one person. The lesson of service meanwhile was being learned.
Today, service is as important in my community as it was when I was a college student. When I think about how college changed my life, I know that it helped me to learn to make my own decisions. It helped me to recognize my ability to grow intellectually and taught me the importance of friendships. But most of all . college changed my life by opening my mind to the importance of service to others.