Letter to My College-Lady Self

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I went to a smallish college in the corner of Missouri. I joked with my friends that I was living in the State of Misery. But really, that school was exactly where I needed to be.

My high school had more than 5,000 students, and even with good grades, graduating in the top 10% of my class took a lot in an environment where the valedictorian and salutatorian battled it out over hundredths of a grade-point. I made my way through the crowd, earning a school paper byline and parts in the senior plays. But I still felt lost, and needed my own space.

I sensed it immediately at this “Harvard of the Midwest” school my parents and I picked out of a book called How to Get an Ivy-League Education at a State School. There were just about the same number of students as my high school, but somehow it felt manageable, comfortable, calling to me. I wouldn’t have to bristle at the lecture halls filled to capacity with 800 freshmen, work for three years just to get an interview to possibly write for the school paper, or cross my fingers I’d get a spot in any dorm. There was a room waiting, a roommate chosen, and opportunities in the campus newsroom as soon as I said yes.

I packed up my parents’ van and cried all of the eight hours from Chicago to Kirksville, Missouri. I was shell-shocked when I arrived to realize all I hadn’t seen on my visits and in my research, things you cannot know when you are filling out applications, thumbing through books, and talking to teenaged tour guides. There were very few students of color. My ripped Guess jeans shorts and all-black clothing were mocked for being “too fancy.” No one had heard of Depeche Mode. Hours in, I felt very, very far away from everything I’d been.

Still, I was equally close to becoming who I was. It would take years to see. More to fully understand. Thankfully, that scared girl in the granny boots kept going, far out of her comfort zone, in for a bumpy ride, and sometimes in the center of a state of real misery. In the noise of southern accents and wild fraternity parties in barns and Algebra for Social Science Majors and raucous roommates and newsroom mayhem, she still heard the whisper of a call that said, “This is where you are supposed to be. For now.”

To that girl becoming a woman, I have much to say. Now 40, back in Chicago, and running a virtual newsroom from the comfort of my own living room, here it is:

Dear college-lady Jessica,

Own your uniform. Your goth-girl clothes, depressing club music, and city-kid ways may not be at home where you are, but they are reminders of where you grew up. Use them as a shield against the pressure to wrap your hair in scrunchies, pull on Greek-lettered t-shirts, and scream silly chants at a sorority rush event. Wear them as a badge of street smarts on dance floors sticky with beer and tracking down hidden periodicals in the library. Wrap them around you as protection when your TV professor calls you a stupid bitch even though you have 100% in his class, and your journalism advisor laughs and calls you silly because you want to write for a men’s magazine, not be boxed in writing only to women.

And when it is time to try on other outfits, to see how it feels to look and be some other way, remember that no clothing can hide the brazen, shivering, fiery, shivering girl inside.

Second, save yourself first. You will not be able to rescue the roommates with bulimia, the friends beaten down in parking lots by their boyfriends, the tender-hearted boys on the newspaper whose crushes you do not return. You will not convince the lazy, redshirted boyfriend to go to class, to finish a final paper, to save his football scholarship. You won’t keep all of your high school friends, or even remember all of their names. You will have to release many relationships with men with bad timing, poor manners, overwhelming needs, sad stories, propensity for badness and rebellion and awful lite beer. It’s okay to tend to them, for a time. But get yourself to dry land, and be willing to give their boats one big shove away from the safe island of you.

Letter to my College Lady Self

Third, you are enough. Your good grades will be a fine entry to where you need to go next. That sociology prof is wrong. One C won’t ruin your chances of getting into grad school. Your consecutive jobs as the campus TV producer, yearbook editor, radio DJ and news reporter do count. Those many all-nighters will serve you well and teach you how far you can push a deadline. Don’t give yourself a hard time that all of that work didn’t pay -- what you learned there came back to you with riches better than a stipend or scholarship. Your dreams are enough. Your plan is enough. Your fear is enough. And even when your roommate stops talking to you or that beautiful boy from Ireland breaks your heart or you put yourself in a precarious situation or you make some big mistakes, hold tight to this: You know enough, feel enough, find enough, have enough and are enough to make it through.

Fourth, it will be glorious in ways you never see coming. You know those nerds hoarding the PCs in the computer lounge for an eyerolling thing called “email” and “list-servs”? Yeah, you will be one of them in a decade. And how insistent you were that you didn’t want to write for a women’s publication? Yup, you will write for many. That you would marry someone fascinating and fabulous? He didn’t turn out to be. And have many kids running wild in your home? Just one. What you inhale sharply, feel fearful to say aloud that you dream? Some of that will explode into thousands more fire-lit moments than you could know. You will make a movie on your own. See your byline on screens every single day. Hold a baby boy who makes all the world fall into place. Find a high school love you secretly hoped you’d meet up with again. Be stronger and more daring and quieter and more reverent than you can see today. Love the surprise of it all.

Jess in Paris

Finally, there is much more to come. A book? A bigger job? A trip to remote corners of the world you studied wide-eyed in Anthropology 314? We go on studying, taking note of beautiful passages, making notes in the margins. We keep embracing and ignoring roommates. We are always graduating, continually raising our hands hoping to be called on, ever putting in an application for new opportunities. We move in and out of states of bliss and misery. We don’t stop crying in the car on the way to some magnificent adventure. Keep on going.

Lace up those granny boots and keep stepping closer to you.

This post is part of BlogHer's Success Tips For My Younger Self editorial series, made possible by Kaplan.

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