As we approach graduation there’s a word that pops up a lot. College.
Just the sound of it often inspires an anxious cringe for teens. I can’t tell you how my heart sinks when I get an eighth-grader in my office who is already stressed about college, with a sense that their entire future rests on just a few short years of adolescence.
Don’t get me wrong, college is a big step and a long term goal that many teens aspire to, and with good reason. A college education is pretty much par for the course these days and it’s a hefty investment.
However, it is also still a privilege. When did “I get to go to college!” turn into, “Oh my goodness, I have to go to college. Which one? The rest of my life’s happiness depends on this decision and I’m paralyzed with dread…”
Teens, you get a lot of pressure from adults and society to have your whole life figured out. We adults tend to unknowingly and unintentionally crush kids with questions and expectations about their looming (or even far distant) futures, inadvertently adding to their worries about being good enough.
What we should be doing more of is encouraging you to do your best, stay curious about what life brings you and most importantly we should be applauding who you are! College is important, it does open doors and being a critically thinking, educated person helps you live a better life and help others live a better life, but it is definitely not the end all be all!
The important thing is not necessarily that you attend an Ivy League school, but that you work hard at whatever you choose and, though it sounds cheesy, follow your heart. In fact your next step might not even be college! It might be vocational school or taking a gap year and finding a way to travel or serving a social program. There are lots of options and we have to remember that there is always more than one way to get to the end point and an infinite combination of journeys and destinations.
Adults, let’s give teens a bit of a break from having to be so future oriented and maybe ask questions that are more geared towards understanding who they are and less about who they will become or what they will do. They’re already accomplished and interesting people! A simple, “How are you?” or, “What are you looking forward to?” is enough to replace the dreaded college question.
For those of us just genuinely curious about a soon to be graduate’s post high school plans you could say something like, “Do you know what your next adventure is yet or are you taking some time to think about it?” It’s a less urgent and oppressive way of being curious that doesn’t impose a cookie cutter definition of success. Remind them that being open is part of being resilient, being in a space of “not knowing” is part of life and, that really, they can always change their mind about their path if they want to. Life plans are really not as rigid as we tend to make them out to be.
Teens, paralyzing yourself with worry doesn’t help! If you’re on the college track, it is about working hard and getting a good education, but is also a wonderful time. You get to experience a new place, more independence, long lasting relationships and have access to great minds and ideas and none of that is contingent upon being perfect. Don’t rob yourself of the fun of it (and of high school) by being hyper focused on “success.” Lean in to that open space of possibility and if you don’t know what you want to do, that’s OK! The process of figuring that out is 75 percent of the fun, and takes some time. All you can do is get as acquainted with yourself as possible so that you learn to trust your gut and make good decisions for yourself that are considerate of others and honor who you are.
The ultimate goal is not to be cranking out Harvard grads left and right, but to help the next generation live fulfilled, meaningful lives. I am consistently awed by the lovely people that the teens on this island are, let’s take some time as the school year comes to a close to appreciate and celebrate that regardless of their future plans.
Tara Murphy is a counselor with Bainbridge Youth Services, a 50-year organization that provides community youth (ages 12-19) with no-cost, confidential and high quality professional counseling. For information, call 206-842-9675.