There is a lot to learn during your college career, but the lessons I found to be the most meaningful took place outside of the classroom.
As a senior less than a month away from graduation, my life is currently fraught with unpredictability. I don’t know where the next chapter of my life is going to take me, and I don’t have any prior knowledge or experience to get me there. I have been a student for the last 17 years of my life; it is all I know how to do.
However, over my last three years at Stevenson, I have learned three valuable life lessons that I believe will carry me – and you – through the next chapter, no matter where life might take us.
1. You can do anything
It sounds cliché, but it’s true. The old adage that adults told you when you were young and dreamed of growing up and becoming famous is still relevant. But there was a time when I believed I would never be able to achieve regular life milestones, such as make it to college or have a career.
When I was 13 years old, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and that disease took me down a journey of 11 other diagnoses that wreaked havoc on my life. During my junior year of high school, I was forced to visit hospitals instead of classrooms, to trade my pens and books for pills and needles. The doctors did not know how to help me. I was weak and exhausted. It took everything I had just to pull myself out of bed in the morning. Some days, I even needed assistance with that.
Despite this, I was determined. Academia had always been my best skill, and with permission from my high school, I was able to enroll at my local community college for my senior year of schooling instead of attending regular classes. That way, I could create a schedule that worked around my doctors’ appointments and complete nearly all of my work at home. It proved to be difficult, but it was doable.
Applying for college and leaving home was scarier. I was unable to receive accommodations that fit my needs, so I spent my first year away from home living alone in an apartment off campus. It felt isolating. The strict schedule of my illness kept me from making friends at school, so I spent much of my time in that apartment by myself.
But my perseverance paid off. The pills began to work, and soon, I no longer needed them. I became more active; the more active I was, the healthier I became. I began to spend more time with friends and family, and I found another old adage still holds true – laughter and love are the best forms of medicine.
My message to you is this: Do not give up. Things may seem bleak, but there are always better days ahead. Do not let your current circumstances stop you from working toward your goals and dreams. Find people who you can lean on when you need a push, and then keep pushing yourself forward. You will look back on some of the worst days of your life being the ones that brought you to the very best ones.
2. Everyone has something bringing them down
Year one was a lesson of perseverance. Year two was a lesson of empathy. I had been so focused on my own recovery that I had been blind to the struggles of others around me. With my health stable, I was able to realize that life is sometimes cruel to everyone.
Everyone has a burden that they keep hidden. Everyone is dealing with something that makes it difficult for him or her to perform at their best. It was frustrating for me when group members did not come through on a project, or when someone cancelled plans that I had been looking forward to, but then I remembered that, once, people had made allowances for me in similar situations.
Take time to get to know people, and remember that everyone has a story to share. When you are hurt by someone, use the opportunity to learn and grow. Try to understand what is happening in their life, and you might just make a connection that leads to the best relationships you have ever had.
3. Find fulfillment through service
I persevered through one of my life’s greatest challenges, and I realized the hurt that plagued others. In my third year, I learned that these experiences create the perfect opportunity to do some good in the world.
For me, there is no better feeling than using what I have to help others. I never thought that I had anything useful to offer. I don’t have the skills or knowledge to build houses for the homeless or the resources to feed the hungry; I would not know where to start to solve big world problems like disease and genocide. But I found that any skill, literally any skill, can be used to make a difference in this world. And it doesn’t have to be huge to affect someone’s life in a big way.
Personally, I have a passion for running. It was one of the first things that made me feel healthy after being sick for so long. After a run, I felt like I could do anything. I felt strong and capable. I still feel that way today. When I found out that there was a cross-country run for young adults with cancer, it sounded like the perfect fit for me. I applied to the Ulman Foundation, and within a month, I became a 4K for Cancer runner and trainer.
So, the summer after I graduate, I will not be job hunting like the typical post-undergraduate student. Instead, I will be running across the country with team members I have met only through text, fundraising and serving at local cancer centers and hospitals along the way.
Use your talents and skills, whatever they may be, to make a difference in this world. Start small – pay for someone’s groceries, leave a happy note for someone to read, or just smile and say hello to a stranger. You can use your degree to help others, or just make it something you do in your spare time. It is so fulfilling to know that you have made a difference in just one person’s day, that you have brought a smile to just one person’s face. Service, I have discovered, is not just for others; it is for your own heart as well.
These are the three lessons that, I believe, will keep me, and you, successful in the coming years. True success is not measured by trophies and promotions and fancy certificates; it’s measured by the number of lives we touch, and the depth with which we affect them. It is measured by the amount of empathy and understanding we are able to show, and by the difference, no matter how large or small, that we make in this world.
I may not know anything about having a career, filing for taxes, or buying a home, but I do know how to be human. I know how to be authentically myself no matter where I go, how to persevere through challenges that try to block my path, and how to empathically reach out to others in need along the way.
And that, I believe, is all we ever need to achieve.