Day 122 – A gift and armor

Someone asked a question today that got me thinking–What HS graduation/going to college gift would you recommend for a first-gen student?

The question took me back to my graduation day.

We had a party at the house after the ceremony. Family and friends to come over and eat sandwiches and potato salad and cake. I got an address book and stationary and a dozen cards with cash tucked inside.

I had no idea that day, but the best graduation gift I received was a brown leather portfolio.

It was a gift from one of my Mom’s coworkers. I remember opening it and thinking how professional it looked. I tucked it carefully into my bag and took it to college with me. I was afraid to carry it at first. I didn’t want to scuff it, ruin it. But after awhile, it went everywhere with me.

And as my college graduation approached, I would use it especially for interviews and important meetings. I feel silly admitting it, but carrying that portfolio was sort of like putting on armor. It gave me confidence. It helped keep that nagging Imposter Syndrome in check.

It’s nearing the end of its life, beginning to show signs of wear. But it has served me well, helped propel me forward. I’ve written thousands of pages of notes, earned degrees, negotiated contracts, attended conferences, received promotions.

Twenty years later, it’s sitting here on my desk.

Day 121 – Beautiful wreckage

Another semester is ending, so yeah, I’m probably feeling extra sentimental. Students have been dropping in to check in as the year wraps up. Some are sharing exciting news–they’re graduating this weekend, going onto grad school, starting new jobs, taking a break from the studying to go on much-needed vacations. Others are facing uncertainty–grades aren’t where they need to be, financial aid is in jeopardy, family issues are making things complicated. I love that they feel comfortable coming in to my office, sharing their news, asking for advice, just wanting to touch base one more time before they scatter for the summer.

You know, when I look back on the whole of my own college days, it was the best time of my life.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. My life is pretty great now. I’ve got an awesome husband, two fantastic kiddos, a sweet hound dog, a loving family, an incredible group of friends, and a job that I absolutely love going to every day. But not one bit of this would be possible without the time I spent in college, without the connections I made, the lessons I learned, and the foundation I built there.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. I soared higher than I ever thought possible. And I crashed, burned, tried to get up, stumbled, fell back down, and had pick up the pieces and build something brand new there too.

And you know what? It was all worth it. Every. Beautiful. Painful. Moment.

And the best part of it is that it led me here, to this place, where I get to spend my days working with college students, helping them navigate this crazy transition, helping them begin to understand that our mistakes don’t define us–they give us perspective. I get to help them learn that failure is not a dirty word as long as you own it and learn from it and use it to make better choices tomorrow. I get to be the person I needed (the person I found) when I was young and scared and confused and looking for someone to walk with me on my journey.

So don’t be afraid of the wreckage. It’s an important part of the story too.

Day 64 – Real life happens outside the highlight reel

Tonight was a late night at work so I could chat with a group of student leaders about the things we do in my office and all the ways we try to support students on campus. Great group. Great energy. And we ended up having a really great conversation about how we can help students be successful in college and in the world beyond.

As we were wrapping up, one girl asked how to help students who might be struggling but aren’t reaching out for help because they don’t want to admit that college is not turning out the way they thought it would be. And my response was this.

College is hard.

Hell, life is hard.

And everyone struggles at some point. There are always things that challenge us. There will always be obstacles and issues and stumbling blocks. But so often, all we get to see from others is the good moments. What we see is the highlight reel. Those are the moments people post on Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat.

What we need to start sharing and talking about all the moments outside the highlight reel, because that’s where real life happens. The highlight reel is great and fun. It’s filled with the moments that make us feel good. But it’s those in-between moments that are most important because they’re the moments where we’re challenged, the moments where we learn and grow.

I’m certainly guilty of sharing a majority of highlight reel moments on my social media. For a lot of folks it’s the default. You’re so excited for those moments that it’s natural to want to shout them from the rooftops. But if there is one thing this blog and some of my personal writing projects have been good for (my memoir-in-progress and my growing pile of journals and personal essays), it’s diving into a lot of my in-between moments and, quite frankly, some of the most dark and difficult moments of my life. And when I take a step back and look at my life as a whole, it really is those struggles that shaped who I am and who I want to be.

Because nothing that is really worth it is ever easy.

So get comfortable with your struggles. Own your mistakes. And show us more of your in-between moments. Embrace all those things that didn’t make your highlight reel, because that’s where the real magic happens.

Here’s just one of my MANY in-between moments.

This is the last time we attempted to take a Christmas card photo (note how little Henry is, because this was taken THREE YEARS AGO!) Let’s just say everyone’s patience was running thin before Electra pulled too hard on her collar and started hyperventilating.

Good times.

These ended up being “Happy New Year” cards that barely arrived in people’s mailboxes before Valentine’s Day.

Christmas card fail. It’s not the first time and probably won’t be the last. And you know what? I’ve made peace with it. And there’s a whole lot more where that came from:-)

So what about you? What are some of the moments that didn’t make your highlight reel?

Day 60 – Be the person you needed

This week has been a time of deep reflection for me. It happens sometimes, when the universe aligns in a way that demands my attention. And while I tend to keep this blog separate from my work life, sometimes it’s just not possible because so many of the things that I’m passionate about overall–learning, connecting with people, serving and supporting others–are things that I actually get to do as part of my job.

I spend a lot of time wondering how I get to be so lucky.

I know part of the reason I’ve been feeling so nostalgic lately is because Stevie and I have been talking about planning a trip back to New York this summer. Yep, that always gets me, thinking about getting to go to the place that will always feel like home.

But there have been other things the past few weeks too:

  • attending a first-gen book reading where memories of my own early college days came flooding back, and receiving a long, lovely email from Dr. Nakhai as I was walking out of the building and back to my car
  • going to a meeting of the First Gen RSO (student club) I serve as an advisor for and having a great conversation with the attendees about why we all chose to go to college and the different ways our families supported our dreams
  • getting my memoir manuscript back from my friend Tammy with her thoughts and notations jotted all over the pages that smell like campfire smoke from all of the late nights spent reading–the story of my adoption and reunion and the years I spent in college trying to figure out exactly who I was and who I wanted to be

I fell in love with the idea of college in my high school guidance counselor’s office. There were bookshelves filled with college catalogs, and on really slow days when there weren’t a lot of notes to deliver during the period I worked there in the middle of the day, I spent my time thumbing through the books and trying to imagine myself in the pictures taken on beautiful campuses, sitting in the classes that, from the descriptions, sounded a helluva lot more interesting than any classes I’d ever had the chance to take in high school.

I fell in love with college the minute I stepped on campus and walked into my first class. And it wasn’t just because of the class content or the independence of being away from home or the beautiful campus from the bustle and excitement of New York City…it was the people.

I saw a quote floating around that said, “Be who you needed when you were younger.” And it struck me that one of the reasons I love my job so much (working with college students and helping them transition from high school to college, from adolescence to adulthood) is because of the incredible people that I met during this exact time in my own life–the leaders, the mentors, the friends, the people who taught me some of the most difficult lessons in my life, the people who answered my questions and helped me get back up when I stumbled, the people who cared about me and believed in me and pushed me so much farther than I ever thought I could go.

Be who you needed when you were younger.

I was fortunate enough to find all of the people I needed, to still have them in my life today. And one of the reasons that I eventually made my way back to work in higher ed was because I know, without a doubt, I am supposed to take all the love and support I was given and pay it forward. And I feel so incredibly blessed that I get an opportunity to do that every single day.

And I hope you’ll forgive the indulgence because I just have to share…UNL does a really great thing where parents can write in and nominate a faculty or staff member on campus who has made an impact on the lives of their students. I have so many amazing colleagues all across campus who are helping students and changing lives in the way mine was changed and wow, that is such a cool thing! And I was so incredibly humbled to be nominated again this year and to read the comments submitted from the parents.

I can only hope these families know how honored I am to have an opportunity to work with their children and to be the person I needed (and found!) when I was once there too. ❤

 

Day 44 – Fear of success

I was leading a workshop tonight, and at one point the discussion turned to the fact that people can lose motivation and start to procrastinate because they fear success.

That’s the point where most of the students in the room look at me like I’ve lost my damn mind.

Fear of failure? Now that makes sense. Failing sucks. It feels icky. No one likes to miss the mark have have to own up to a mistake. But fear of success? Who the hell would be afraid of being successful? How does that even work?

Trust me, I’ve got this one. And it can honestly feel every bit as icky as failing. See, fearing success comes from those moments when you start strong. You’re feeling good, firing on all cylinders. But then you hit a point where you start wondering if maybe you set that bar a little high. You start to question whether the pace and expectations you’ve set for yourself just might not be sustainable.

It happened to me in college. I hit the ground running when I arrived at Concordia. First semester, 18 credit hours and a 4.0. Second semester, 17 credit hours and a 3.9. I was making new friends. I was accepted into the Honors Program. I got a job tutoring in the Writing Center. I got an essay published in a national magazine. Life was good…but somehow all the great things happening on the outside just didn’t quite match up with the way I felt about myself. I’d always struggled with self-esteem and not quite feeling like I belonged, and soon that Imposter Syndrome started to take over and I suddenly felt like I was trying to maintain my balance on a very wobbly pedestal.

So, I did what any rational person would do when faced with the shame of admitting that they’re not perfect–I started to self-sabotage, because somehow that seemed a helluva lot less difficult than having to let my guard down and let somebody see that I was just a scared kid who couldn’t for the life of me understand what anyone else saw in me. I started withdrawing from classes, watching my grades slowly dip. I made bad decisions. I even got an F in one of my major classes because I didn’t complete the coursework in time after the professor gave me an Incomplete.

It took me a long time (and a whole lot of therapy) to finally reconcile my expectations of myself, to finally begin to understand that I am smart and capable, that I deserve to take pride in my accomplishments because I worked really fucking hard to earn them. I still managed to graduate with Honors, go onto grad school, build a good life and a successful career.

And I am so grateful for every minute of it.

But still, there are days even now (especially now) when my Imposter Syndrome still whispers, persistently, making me question whether I really have what it takes, whether I really belong.

I guess we’re all just works in progress, aren’t we?

Day 10 – Like coming home

I spend a lot of time reflecting on my college days, partly because I spend my days working with college students and partly because I tend to start feeling a little sentimental every time Stevie and I have been away from New York too long and I start itching to spend time with the people I miss every moment of every single day since we left the east coast ten-and-a-half years ago.

It’s hard to explain the connection I feel to this place without sounding overly nostalgic, but I always feel the need to try. I guess that’s just the writer in me–unable to deny that urge to try and put the giant surge of emotions down on paper and arrange the words in a way that might explain the way this place calls to me and why I remain so firmly tethered to the people we met and the connections I made there.

Going to college was my first step (a giant 1,500-mile step) away from my family and out on my own, and with that heady rush of newfound freedom and adventure came an almost paralyzing sense of self-doubt and isolation. Yet the first time I ever stepped foot on Concordia’s campus, I got the distinct feeling that I was coming home.

The families we come from are our default. They teach us how to love, how to fight, how to forgive. They give us our first sense of the world–its beauty and its chaos. The families we leave when we set out on our own will always be with us. They will always be part of us. But it’s the families we create for ourselves that truly reflect who we are and give shape to who we will become. The people we connect with, the people we return to and invest our time in are the people who reflect the very best of who we are, the very best of who we hope to be.

People matter. Connections matter. Kindness matters. Honesty matters. Love matters.

Everything else is just noise.