Dear College Student

A few years ago, I was walking on a New England college campus in spring and came upon a cherry tree in blossom which, upon closer examination, was decked out in tiny paper cranes. It was striking for its senselessness and beauty, two characteristics closely associated, in my mind at least, with college.

Now, as I drive through a college campus on a cold Tuesday morning in spring, I’m confronted by students who seem hardly present, just going through the motions. These students slump along, eyes on their phones, carelessly decked out in workout wear, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings.

And let me tell you: college is for many things, but most of all, college is for caring. So take risky fashion experiments (because whatever you think of your body, this is probably as good as it’s going to get). Stay up too late heatedly discussing politics with your suitemate (because someday serious discussions will be punctuated with your children’s interruptions). Throw yourself wholeheartedly into independent study under a professor who fascinates and inspires you (because it’s doubtful you’ll ever have a boss this interesting).

It seems to me, to this oldster observer, that athleisure as a dress code is an admission of apathy. At least I’m here, you seem to say, forgetting the incredible privilege of college. Don’t you remember all your high school classmates who aren’t sleepily filing into biology class right now, who will never have this four year opportunity with only the responsibilities to learn and think and grow?

You are here, and someone is paying quite a lot of money so you can be. So try. Care. Express enthusiasm. Follow up interests. Your phone will still be there when you’re on your long daily train commute to work, or when you’re nursing down a fussy baby or when, God forbid, you’re spending hours in tedium and anxiety in a hospital waiting room. That is what a phone is for. Not as a distraction or buffer between you and the world.

We should none of us live a life in which we are merely working for the weekend, but here is the crucial difference: if I am paid for labor I don’t especially enjoy, you, by contrast, are paying for the labor you may find uninteresting. So get interested.

Look, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you’re in joggers because your lungs are still burning from the spring air at the park as your sneakers slammed the gravel and your brain worked away at the Aristotelian idea of human flourishing. Maybe you’re in rumpled workout clothes because they’re the first thing you fished off the floor of your dorm after spending all night painting that banner for your sorority and talking to a beloved sister about the guy you think you might actually marry. Hell, maybe you really are just headed straight to the rec center after this next lab.

And maybe the phone to which you’re welded is pouring into your brain that transcendent music your professor introduced in the last lecture. Maybe you’re not flitting around Facebook (omg is Facebook obsolete among you youths?) but rather organizing a protest against gun violence or just your first half-baked dinner party.

What do I know?

But what if I’m right? That your phone is a blinder and your uniform of nondescript workout clothes a suit of armor, both of them signaling to the world around you: I’m not really here. I don’t care.

How much you would miss! With your ears stuffed with earbuds, you’d miss the clamor and chatter of the street where you study abroad in Italy. Eyes glued to the phone, you’d avoid looking vulnerable at the party but never get up the gumption to approach the girl from bio who’d turn your world upside down. In your sloppy comfort-driven wardrobe you’d miss out on that chance to wear the daring skirt you borrowed from your roommate (you’ll never live with someone the same size again), the crisp khakis and polos that show your professor you’re taking all this seriously, the beautiful, eccentric dress you found thrifting last weekend. And what a shame that would be. After all, you are only nineteen once.

Right now, you are probably busier than you’ve ever been, but I’m here to assure you that in almost every way, you’re less busy than you ever will be again. There will be, if you’re lucky in career or family, a time in your life for survival — for those stretchy pants and bleary looks and spacing out on your phone — though not, I hope, too much. There will, however, probably not be a time for this: for joining a Quidditch team because it’s hilarious, or driving to the Grand Canyon and back over spring break, fueled by food stolen from the school cafeteria, or yeah, folding a zillion delicate paper cranes and interweaving them in the boughs of the tree outside your residence hall.

So dye your hair purple. Make a capsule wardrobe of red and black and robins egg blue. Get principled and shop only fair trade. Ride a unicycle to class. Whatever.

But don’t waste it all in apathy.

Forget your phone in your apartment. (You’ll freak out your mom.) Let your eyes meet the person you encounter on the sidewalk, and squeak out a “hi” to the kid you’ve seen around your work-study program. Walk unprotected into the adult world, one vulnerable jaunt across the quad at a time.

Change your major three times. Go deep and take every class in the major. Or go broad and try to squeeze three concentrations into four years. Take a pottery class you’ll never use in the real world, just because you can and may never have the opportunity again. Walk to the gym in the hush of the morning, when everyone else is still asleep, or hungover, or both, and by all means, wear athleisure.

6 thoughts on “Dear College Student

  1. First of all, you write so well. Second, this is such a great message!! I sometimes think youth are tied to their phones because they are afraid of reality and vulnerability…but they miss out on so much as you so artfully expressed because of their avoidance of that very reality and vulnerability.


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