This is the time of year when many high school juniors begin their college campus visits. It’s an exciting time, but it can also be stressful, which reminds me of a moment I had with one teenager, in particular, a few years back.
This young man was about to head off to college for his freshman year. We met at an event, and he didn’t know me personally. I think that’s what made this little exchange possible. He began by emphasizing his stress and apprehension about starting college. He hadn’t told his parents his feelings, because he was afraid he’d disappoint or worry them unnecessarily. He hadn’t told his friends, because he thought they would make fun of him or think less of him for it.
He went on to say he was basically a “slightly” above-average student. He admitted that when it came time his junior year to begin looking at colleges, he was both excited and scared at the same time. He explained, during those campus trips and after reading all the information on colleges, he was mainly afraid he wouldn’t be able to get in. He knew his grades were okay, but not outstanding, as were some of the examples he saw along the tours. Even though the counselors also recommended “safety school” choices, he wasn’t even sure that was a certainty, especially looking at what his peers had accomplished already, and what the incoming freshman applicants looked like.
Ultimately, he made it through the process, applied at a number of colleges and, sure enough, was accepted at one that he liked (although not his first choice). He indicated he thought it was because both his parents were alumni and had some influence on his admission. I told him, the point is, he got in, and that’s all that matters. Unfortunately, he didn’t see it that way, and that’s when he began explaining his current fear.
I remember, he paused for a moment—probably contemplating whether to continue the conversation. Then he told me he wasn’t sure he was smart enough to make it in college. With just those few words, I could tell he was really stressing over it.
I thought about it, and then I began telling him this story about myself long ago, standing in the parking lot at college, just days before classes were to begin my freshman year. It was just my older brother and me at the time. I remember telling my brother a similar story about how I was a bit (I didn’t want to sound too weak) scared about whether or not I had what it takes to get through college and get my degree. My brother was standing on the other side of the car with his arms folded across the roof and he just laughed at me, not sarcastically, but empathetically. Then he told me he had all the confidence in the world I could do this. It was a brief statement and just what I needed at the time. It really resonated with me, and it worked!
I looked at the young man again and gave him my own personal advice. I said I’ve learned that when it comes to education, you get out of it what you put into it. It certainly helps if you’re a smart person to begin with; however, it’s absolutely not a requirement. After all, most “smart” people get that way by reading, studying, researching and experiencing events in life that provide the opportunity for learning new things. As long as he put in the work, maintained his motivation and commitment to obtaining his goal, the odds were heavily in his favor. Finally, I said I couldn’t give him an ironclad guarantee, because life can throw curve balls sometimes, but if I was a betting man, I think this would be a good bet to make.
After staring at the ground the whole time, he finally looked up at me, smiled and uttered one simple word that said it all, “Thanks.” I nodded and said, “Good Luck” and with that, we ended our brief conversation and went our separate ways. I haven’t seen that young man since, but I like to think he eventually got his degree, and for that I’m grateful.
Just as my brother didn’t realize the impact his enthusiasm had on that fateful evening, our words can have a powerful influence on others. It doesn’t take much, and maybe, just maybe, it’ll help get them back on track toward where they need to be, with renewed confidence. If it worked for this young man, it was well worth it.