We’re Not Where We Went to College – And That’s Okay

I don’t talk much about my passions and interests on my blog, for two reasons: firstly, I don’t like to harp on things I’m doing because it almost always sounds braggy, and secondly, I like to tell stories about daily life more than about long-term goals and suchlike. I am working toward things in my life and pursuing my interests on a daily basis, certainly, it’s just a pretty boring thing to talk about. But, for the sake of this story, I will talk about something about which I am most passionate in my life, and that thing is this: writing poetry.

Obviously I am passionate about writing in general, but poetry is the thing I write most often and with most dedication in my life. In college I won poetry awards and was published in student publications and the school newspaper. After college I continued writing and my voice grew and changed. Recently, I heard about an opportunity to be a part of a poetry feature on my undergraduate institution’s website. Poets would have their poems featured on the page along with a bio about who they are and what they have achieved poetically. So, I figured, “Why not send them some of my work? After all, I started writing poetry while I was there.” And I sent it out.

A few days later I heard back from the people in charge of the page. They said the bio looked good, but “would I be able to offer them something more similar to the genres in which the other poets wrote?” I was instructed to read the other poems that they posted on the page, and they were as I predicted they would be: well-written, formed poems that Tennyson would have been proud of. They were good poems, but they were absolutely nothing (I repeat, nothing) like the poetry I write today. I have written poems in many forms, but my best poetry is in open form, or, essentially, no form at all. I appreciate poetic forms, but I have always thought that meaning should come first, so I didn’t have much to offer by way of structure. I am, in fact, unstructured.

But I didn’t used to be. Like I said, my poetry used to actually be pretty popular at my alma matter. So I dug around to see if I could find something I had written after graduating that maintained some of those more traditional elements. I found some and sent them over. And of course, several days later, I got a response with some sort of “we just don’t have the time to put it up” excuse. Look, I don’t know a lot about web design, so maybe they really didn’t have the time. But I get the strong sense that I wasn’t what they were looking for as a poet. I wasn’t brag-worthy among their graduates.

So I felt sad. Like, I actually beat myself up over it for a few days. I wasn’t what they were looking for. And that stung more than many other times I haven’t been what someone was looking for. But I wasn’t sure why. This rejection started to cloud the fact that my writing was ever what someone had been looking for. It almost made me forget the fact that those same poems that I sent to them were the reason I had been accepted into the Yale University Writers’ Conference last summer. They were the same poems that were lauded by many people I truly respected. So why did I care? Why was I getting so down on myself for this one hiccup?

Well, I suppose I got down on myself for not being what I used to be. I got down on myself for changing since my college years. I got down on myself for progressing.

Let me say that again: I got down on myself for progressing.

That’s when you know you are doing it wrong.

After much thought, I realized three very important things. Firstly, I realized that my poetry is better now than it used to be. I focus much more on my poetry now, and don’t just try to mimic poets I love. I only recently started to develop my own voice, something that was seriously lacking in my previous poems. Secondly, I realized that I am better now than I used to be. For instance, I would never have had the courage to start up my own writers’ group and host meetings while I was in college, but I recently did just that with many of my local writer friends. Furthermore, I didn’t even have the confidence to call myself a poet when I attended college, because I felt I wasn’t as good as everyone else and that I should be focusing my efforts on my schoolwork instead. Now I know that I am a poet and I don’t need other people to praise my work for it to be so. Thirdly, I realized that exactly zero of the poets I love and admire most would have been published on the website of one of the most conservative colleges in the country. So that made me feel a little better.

I had gotten so down on myself because I had too closely associated myself with the school I attended and I thought that, by getting further from that lifestyle, I was getting further from myself.

Now, I’m not trying to bash Hillsdale. I’m really proud to have gone to such a prestigious college, where the strong majority of my experiences were and continue to be inspiring ones. I’m really glad I went there for many reasons, though perhaps they aren’t the same reasons others are glad they went there. For example, I am proud that I got a great education, was challenged, learned from some wonderful mentors, and met my amazing husband while there. But there are several reasons I am not proud that I went there, and this experience highlights many of them. I am often saddened to see that they are stuck so far in the past that, not only do they play a miniscule role in most presents, but most people haven’t even heard of them in the first place. Their unwillingness to allow for change (even in their own students, as they progress beyond college) is also one of the characteristics that makes me not so proud.

But we all know how it feels to be unfairly placed into a group of people of which we don’t feel we are a part. So it’s important that we all understand the need to view college as what college is supposed to be: a part (and not a whole) of us; a tool for preparing us for the real world (and not a replacement for it).

So I want to encourage two things in my fellow recent graduates. The first is that we don’t associate the things that make us good with the place where we lived for four years. It’s incredibly easy to be the person you were in college for the rest of your life. You can let your collegiate pride and lifestyle be a huge part of who you are forever and you will probably be just fine. They were the best years of your life, after all, so why not hold onto them? But truly, when we all get right down to it, where went to college means next to nothing in the grand scheme of our lives. Sure, I’m glad I went to Hillsdale (and others will say the same about their universities), but the reasons I listed above for why I am glad I went there are things that can be found in many other places. Ultimately, there are great educators everywhere if one puts in the effort to look hard enough, and if one isn’t challenged in one’s life, it’s their own fault. As for my husband, I like to think that God would have given me my husband no matter where our tuition money was going. The college we attended did not define the goodness in our lives. College is college is college, and it’s college all the way down.

A greater mistake still than thanking college for all that is good in our lives is our tendency to let it define what comes next. We are quick to use those qualities that make our college unique to also make ourselves unique (possibly more often with some schools than others). Whether it’s a sports team, a diverse student body, or a foundational mission statement, we cling to those things which made our college great as things that now have become a part of who we are. We have the option of maintaining those qualities as our best ones for the rest of our lives or trying always to attain more and better ones. And I truly believe we should always go for the second option.

I encourage my friends to step back from the tendency to associate themselves and others with institutions of higher learning. While plenty of good things come out of every university, plenty of bad things do too, and it’s not fair for us to be viewed through the lens of an institution whose walls only contained us for four years.

So how can you be proud of your institution while also accepting the fact that they might not always like who you have become since you left? The answer to that is easy. And NECESSARY: You take your college years, and, like those old wool sweaters in your closet, you grow out of them. You bow to them, saying, “thank you for that part of my life,” and you pas de bourree the heck out of there. You keep your momentum after graduation and let yourself learn now from experience itself instead of dusty books. Then you reflect on who you are and instead of asking, “Am I making my college proud after graduation?” ask, “Am I making myself proud after graduation?” If the answer is yes, don’t think twice.

It’s easy to leave your college years behind. And in my case, I actually do it all the time without even thinking. In fact, some of the things I am happiest about in my life are things that my college doesn’t really support or like. I have never been politically Conservative, for example, and don’t think I will be anytime soon. I don’t think literature went to shit after the Renaissance. I use “shit” in passing in my writing and it’s an okay thing. I like living in the present world and am not constantly trying to make it more like the past. I could go on and on. But a huge part of me still knows that if I did everything possible to make the people from my college proud of me, I would be half the person I am today. And I would be far less happy than I am now too.

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