Principles of a Health-First College Search: Love the places that love you
I remember the first time I was fired.
It was a door slamming in my face, with a deep thud I felt in my chest for years. I was a graduate assistant, not even nine months removed from graduating from college. I had secured a position in the Office of Student Activities, one of the most sought after graduate assistantships at The Ohio State University, was dating my future-wife, and was starting out on this grand adventure of helping students professionally. It was a dream, until it wasn’t.
Growing up I was fortunate to have a mentor who believed in me, even in times when I didn’t. Carlton Davis was my tennis coach for much of my youth, teaching me the game I grew to love, while also pushing me to excel academically (we had to show him our report cards every semester) and personally (he gave me my first job).
During that first semester at Ohio State, Carlton became sick from complications from food poisoning and died. I was gutted, and took time off from classes and work to attend his funeral back home in Atlanta. Two days later I was fired. To this day, It remains the most heartless thing I have ever experienced.
I felt foolish, like I had picked the wrong path for my life and the world was laughing at my feeble attempts at adulthood. Worse still, without a graduate assistantship, I would not have been able to stay enrolled the next fall as an out of state student. I went to work connecting with my professors and conducting informational interviews with professionals across campus to learn about available opportunities.
I was able to leverage these relationships to land a position with the division of the university responsible for advising undecided students. For the remainder of my master’s degree program, I learned the art of helping “chronically undecided” students find their way to meaningful and exciting work, which coincidentally, would become my life’s work. In fact, the art of informational interviews is something we now teach to our students. I treasure that professional learning experience and it has become my life’s mission. But getting there - and finding a fit with people who really valued me, my knowledge and expertise - was not easy.
Was I wrong to have started my journey in student activities? Was it a misstep?
Absolutely not. The opposite in fact.
I imagined a future for myself, complete with rewarding work surrounded by amazing people who get me and love me fully, and that’s exactly what I found. But along that pathway, I had to clarify what I wanted in ways I couldn’t have foreseen.
Most importantly, I learned, in very harsh terms, that there will always be people who simply do not get you, for whatever reason. I had joined a team led by individuals who did not understand or value me. It was a toxic fit, but it took separation and time for me to realize it.
In her book We Bereaved, Helen Keller wrote, "When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us."
Fast forward twenty plus years and I am working with a student who has been awarded the most prestigious scholarship available from one of the top public universities in the country. But she is thinking of turning it down because she has also been waitlisted at an Ivy League institution - a college at which she had previously thought was a good fit. She is staring at the closed door Keller was talking about.
I advised her to “love the school that loves you.”
The college that had offered her this amazing scholarship opportunity was telling her, in no uncertain terms, that they believed in her. So much so that they were willing to provide her with tremendous resources to achieve her dreams. She had asked these two prestigious universities a question: “This is me and this is what I want to accomplish, what do you think?”
She received two starkly different answers.
One said, “Hell yeah, let’s go!” and the other said, effectively, “We’ll think about it and get back to you.”
I advised her to “not spend even one second wasting your time with a school who does not value you.” She accepted that scholarship and hasn’t looked back since.
Whenever I talk with groups of high-achieving high school students, I always ask them what their greatest fear is in the admissions process.
“I won’t be admitted to the college I want to go to,” is the standard response.
To which I tell them, no, that’s not what you should be afraid of. Be afraid of being admitted to a college that treats you like crap, in which you are minimally happy, hanging around just long enough to receive a diploma you’re kind of excited about in one hand and a job offer from a mid employer in the other hand where you will go and start the process all over again. “That should terrify you,” I say.
Do you ever wonder why, according to a recent Gallup poll, sixty percent of U.S. workers feel emotionally detached at work? Is it because those workers compromised their standards because at some point they set a goal of getting a “good job” at a “good company?”
I think about that every time I hear someone say they want their child to go to a “good college.”
I don’t want that for our students.
I want our students to attend colleges that adore them, that appreciate them, that believe in them, and value them enough to surround them with resources and care. I want our students to attend colleges that make them come alive. They deserve that.
I have learned the hard way that sharing your gifts in an environment that values you is empowering in ways you cannot imagine. This is why we preach “love the places that love you” as a core principle with our students. Throughout our students' lives, they will be making decisions about the groups of people to which they wish to invest their time and talents. Likewise, those groups will make decisions about who they value, and why. We must teach our young people how to properly and routinely assess the fit between themselves and the organization.
At the same time, we must teach our students to hold high standards in how those organizations treat them. This is a fixed point for them, never to be compromised.
Value me, or let me go. Otherwise, I’m out of here.
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