New grads: What made you happy in high school will make you happy in college

May 5, 2023 3:33 am
From left, Samantha Kagdis and Margaret Kagdis take photos in front of their alma mater in Wamego

From left, Samantha Kagdis and Margaret Kagdis take photos in front of their alma mater in Wamego, Kansas, on April 16. Margaret graduated from Wamego High School in 2019 and will graduate from the University of Kansas this May; Samantha is graduating from high school this May and plans to attend KU in the fall. (Julia Irminger)

To my daughter Ella:

As you near your high school graduation, beware of the upcoming tsunami of well-worn advice from us, your elders. 

Every graduation envelope, starting with the first one you got last night, threatens a dose of this. The Hallmark sentiments might come in the carefully kerned corporate typography — safe and focus-group tested.

“Go out and do great things.”

Or the words might come in the bumpy handwriting of an uncle who penned the message at a stoplight on the way to your graduation party using the armrest of his Jeep Cherokee as his desk.

“Live life to the fullest.”

Regardless, the wisdom that fills graduation cards always comes from older people.

“Seize the day.”

We shovel cliches at you, hoping a phrase or two will inspire you in some vague way to do the specific things we never did after high school.

The Alaskan road trip during college spring break that we passed up to instead work a few weeks at our hometown mall. The absurdly difficult major in the university’s course catalog (“You want to study pre-med?”) that quietly lured us, before we U-turned toward that safety of a Thursday 10 a.m. marketing lecture. The financial gamble of going on a full Ramen diet to buy the camera that we wanted.

“The world is yours.” 

In each sentiment like this, there is a little bit of adult regret at gambles not wagered.

From the aged balconies of our marriages, our life insurance premiums and hazy undergrad memories, we wonder why we didn’t take those risks. Why didn’t we lash out into the brisk campus night air? 

If we didn’t, then surely you should. 

That’s the psychic weight that goes into every adult’s regurgitation of “Oh, the Places You’ll Go.” We nudge you toward ecstatic danger from the comfort of our rocking chairs, seesawing on the porch.

From my vantage point, I see this moment of graduation slightly differently. I have spent almost equal time on each side of the high school-college divide: 12 years teaching high school and nine years in college.

My biggest worry for you — and for all students graduating high school — is that the enormity of your new freedoms will distract you from doing the familiar things that you love. They can distract you from the things that make you happy.

– Eric Thomas

My biggest worry for you — and for all students graduating high school — is that the enormity of your new freedoms will distract you from doing the familiar things that you love. They can distract you from the things that make you happy.

The last four years have been filled with a sport that you love. You sit down for healthy family dinners. You sleep on a normal schedule. You study a wide variety of subjects. And you surround yourself with people who love you.

The closer that you have steered to this consistent and healthy routine, the happier you have been. 

College can obliterate that structure. The days are open. The nights are blank. The weekends are free.

I have seen so many students fill those open hours with garbage or  — even worse — nothing at all. So many people we love have spent their post-college decades shaking addictions that found full bloom during college years. And many of my students retreat from even basic attendance in class, which high school attendance policies make impossible. In these ways, the freedom of college serves up risks.

Of course, my advice here could be followed too closely. High school is not college. A high school freshman and a college senior are wildly different. It’s equally risky to freeze your 18-year-old self in amber — to avoid new experiences or cloister yourself from new people.

It comes down to a balance between the new and the familiar.

Reach out for the new experiences that you actively want: the Alaskan road trip, the ambitious major, the new camera. 

But beware of the new experiences that are mindlessly handed to you: the metaphorical red Solo cup filled with a mystery drink prepared by a mystery man at a tailgate. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it will make you happy. 

Instead, give names to those things that have made you most happy. Do those things as much as your newly liberated schedule will allow. 

Balance the new with the familiar. For you, familiar has meant days at the barn, hours of work on a student publication and late nights with loyal friends. I guarantee that those “high school” things — or things that are very similar — will make you happy on a college campus and beyond. 

As your dad, am I trying to pump the brakes with all of this talk of what’s familiar? For sure, and mostly because I am frozen by equal parts nostalgia and fear.

When you were just a few days old, the hospital told us that we could load you into the car seat and drive home. More carefully than ever, we put our turn signal on and eased out into traffic, looking in the rearview mirror at you bobbing in the backseat. You were safe.

This moment is the inverse of that. High school graduation is confirmation that your move-out day is coming in August: the day on campus when we will look in the rearview mirror to see you receding in the distance rather than swaddled up within reach. 

And in that moment, it will not just be you who will be seeking a new routine of what is new and familiar. We will be, too. 

So, like everything else up until this point, we will do it together — if from a distance. 

Love, Dad

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.