When I first started teaching, teachers often talked about all that we could learn from the students. That has been true and this recent lesson has been most profound.
My greatest piece of advice for students is to apply early. Early means way better odds of admissions, and early can mean having piece of mind…early. Many of my clients knew where they were headed in December and many are finding out now. Either way, they have until May 1st to make a decision.
When the admissions letters roll in, I find that to be the most inspiring. They cry; I cry. But I find the decision-making process to be the most interesting. If all went well, they have options and we’ve done enough to mitigate issues related to finances, academic and social fits.
When I was in high school, I was pretty sure that I would become a teacher but I also wanted to be an attorney. I ran track for some time by then and thought I would walk on to a team in college, but it wasn’t a huge priority. Somewhere along the way, West Point contacted me. Today I don’t remember how they knew about me, but I suspect I filled out some form. I liked the discipline, I liked to travel, and I would figure out the rest. “West Point would save me a ton of money compared to NYU, “ my dad once said.
“But what if they send me to Nicaragua and I have to figure out how to attack my cousins. I’m not sure I could get over that,” I said.
And off to Manhattan I went.
This year I worked with a student with awesome grades, fantastic times on the track, and probably one of the most motivated students that I know. I even catch her bringing her younger brother breakfast a few times a week. She could have gone anywhere and “anywhere” wanted her. Ultimately, she decided to go to West Point.
When we talked about her college applications the very first time, I asked if she wanted to use her athletic abilities to get her into a great school or if she wanted to be a professional athlete and use her athletics to get her a good fall back. She barely let me finish the question—working hard on the track was the same for her as working hard in the classroom. Learning would always come first.
“I think I need the discipline, the order, “ she said during our fourth or so conversation when West Point came up. I thought about the blue-haired pre-med pothead at one end of the hallway in my freshman year dorm, the two guys who watched porn full volume each night in the middle of the hallway, and the practicing Broadway tap dancer just across the hall from me. Discipline and order…Huh…
“I want to be a doctor too. The medical training would be great and I could travel. Be one of those sort of aid doctors.”
I nodded, thinking about all that meant. A few weeks later I went to Fleet Week in San Francisco. We went aboard a massive ship and watched the Blue Angels. While waiting in line, I talked to one of the naval officers. I asked about my student, not by name, but more what it meant to be an officer in academic terms.
“They strategize,” she explained. “There are a lot of PhDs on board including political scientists, and other specialties even medicine. But the ones who know about diplomacy are most revered.”
“Diplomacy?” I was curious, thinking back to my comment to my dad.
“Absolutely. How, when, and why to go into combat is better when your first solution isn’t combat. And we all trust that decision more.”
“It’s not like you’re Chris Kyle,” I joked weeks later. “I get it regardless. And I have a new respect for the military. Besides, maybe you’ll help with Ebola or our next international health crisis.”
Just to be clear, I have never not respected the military; but I admit to some level of indifference. I have a large number of veteran family members including my father. I think the story of my uncle volunteering to go to Vietnam from Nicaragua is fascinating. And I love the hum of “thank you for your service” when veterans walk the halls where I teach. But my family comes from countries that know US military intervention too well. My cousins talking about armed Contras in their elementary school classrooms and seeing the remnants of a post-invasion Panama have left profound impacts on me. As a public school employee, I work for the government. And as a Peace Corps volunteer, I definitely had some connection to the State Department. The use of weapons seemed to be the only thing setting me apart from the scenario my student described.
“And it wouldn’t be that much. Like, I’ll know how to use guns and stuff but I wouldn’t be in combat.”
“Sounds like you found the perfect fit. And you’ve taught me so much in the process.”
In many ways deciding where one will go will be the most important decision one makes in their lifetime. Aside from the obvious, the growth can be profound. In my mind, I see former students who are now in college posting pictures of their fists up in front of Sproul Hall, leading demonstrations for Immigrant Awareness Week, dancing folklorico in the Boston snow, inventing robot things that will change lives, running into their state senator in the halls of Capitol building during their internship, sporting well-worn flip flops that have made the trip down Sunset Blvd too many times, eating bread rolls in a piazza in Italy, and now donning a crisp uniform while in formation. And it all starts with that first question: so, where do you dream of going to college?