The Night Before College

Summer is coming to an end, and so last Sunday, I made the nine-hour drive from my parents’ home in Kansas to my home in eastern Iowa. As I drove back towards my college teaching job, I found myself remembering the night before I left for college as a freshmen, twelve years ago.

I didn’t sleep well. The college I chose to attend was half a country away from my parents’ home, out in one of the Southeast states. We drove for two and a half days to reach it. We crossed seven states. The entire journey was more than a thousand miles. And when I got there, I knew almost no one.

The night before we left, we packed everything we could into the car and set the rest by the door, so we’d be ready to go for the morning. We ate a good supper. And then, right before bed, I stood at my parents’ sliding glass door and looked out into the twilight, eastwards across the fields.

My cousin Rebecca, traveling with us as a company for my younger sister, came up and asked me how I was feeling, whether I was ready.

I don’t recall what I answered or even if I had a good answer. Still, I’ve been thinking about that night, and that question, recently, as we gear up for a new school year. This year, my cousin Hannah is starting college. She and her mom are staying with me tonight, then tomorrow they’re moving her into the dorms. Like me, she’s moving a long ways from family for college, and I imagine she’s as anxious and uncertain as I was.

Western culture lacks the coming of age ceremonies that, in older civilizations, marked the break between childhood and adulthood, but the night before college comes close. That night is literally the last spent as a child under your parents’ roof, the last before you move out, take up the responsibilities of adulthood, and seek to build your own life. 

The night before you move away to college is the night before, as the saying goes, the first day of the rest of your life.

No wonder we’re anxious!

So if you’re moving away to college, a few words of encouragement:

You are going to change. You will develop new interests and new skills. When I left for college, I had just started reading fantasy novels; now I’ve taught a course on science fiction. When I left for college, I considered myself uncraftsy, and now I knit and bake bread. I considered myself unfashionable, and I probably was, judging from my hairstyle in the old photographs! But (thanks to my sister’s good taste!) I wear cute clothing now.

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Me in college (I’m on the right.). See what I mean about unfashionable hairstyles?

You’re going to become a much more interesting person, with a much richer life.

You will also become a better person.

The night before I left for college, I was pretty unaware of some of my personal flaws. I discovered those flaws pretty quickly at college. I was intolerant of other people’s messes and judgmental. I was naive and antisocial, preferring to study for tests two weeks in advance than spend time with other people. Now, twelve years in the future, I’m aware of those flaws and working on correcting them.

You will discover your flaws at college, but through the guidance of your new friends and your professors, and your parents’ advice (even over the phone), you will overcome them.

You will have to overcome a lot of other challenges too.

During college, I coped with the stress of bad roommates. During graduate school, I discovered I was a horrible teacher and taught myself to teach well. Since leaving graduate school, I’ve dealt with tight finances and with job rejections. I’m learning to keep a budget.

Adulting is hard, but you’ll learn. Regardless of what challenges you face, whether they be health challenges or money challenges or work challenges, you will get through them.

And you’ll have a lot of fun along the way. 

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International Talk Like a Pirate Day

As I’ve been writing this post, I’ve been looking through old photographs and recalling some of the memories I made on my own, after I moved away to college. I spent a summer in China and another one in Germany, and later I lived in the Czech Republic for six months. I visited the Kansas City Renaissance Festival with friends from graduate school, and with friends from Iowa, I visited Chicago and Madison and the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk. I discovered that International Talk Like a Pirate Day is a thing and started dressing up in a piratical costume for class once a year.

So yes, adult life is hard. But don’t let your anxiety get the best of you, because adult life is a lot of fun, too! You have so many good memories to make. 

And most importantly, you will see God’s grace at work.

In my experience, grace is not something I see working in the moment. Grace is best seen from a distance.

When I think back to college, to give just one example, I realize how reclusive I was, how snotty; only in the years since then have I become more patient, more kind, and generous. (Please don’t think I’m praising myself! The truth is, I have a long ways still to go.) But the point is, when I compare the person I am now to the person I was in college, I can see that I’ve changed, even if I wasn’t aware of the change happening in the moment. I chalk this up to grace: God, behind the scenes, working patiently with me over a long period of time.

And perhaps this is the most encouraging thing of all: that God is indeed patient, and will always be gracious.

A lot will change when you start college. You will change. You will face scary things. But through everything, God will be with you, patiently working with you, making you like Him.

Welcome to adulthood.

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