Life in high school comes fraught with challenges and hardships along with memories that seem to last a lifetime, for better or for worse. The challenges of an American student transitioning into college open up new opportunities and expectations. Today, the transition between the two institutions is flooded with college invitation letters and school loan "opportunities," events to cap off the end of an era and the beginning of another such as prom and homecoming festivities, and finally, the big move. It may come in the crossing of a city, a country, or perhaps only in the mind’s eye where the high school senior must finally be considered an adult. Whatever the challenges that lie ahead, greater risk and reward remain for the taking. The transition from high school to college begins the passage into adulthood.
I remember walking down the hallways of my high school during my senior year in amazement of how quickly the time had passed. Everything seemed to pass from one big party to another, informal and formal gatherings among friends with much cheering and enthusiasm. Everything was the "last" moment, the last football game, the last jazz band concert, the last dance with my high school sweetheart. The time was sweet and beautiful in so many ways, representing the completion of four hard-earned years of study and discipline. Naturally, with another grade passed came a higher standard to follow in the course of study, and my teachers never let me breathe too lightly with assignments that left me delving into The Grapes of Wrath and reviewing the Pythagorean Theorem while working to build a foreign language I never seriously considered necessary.
Only the ignorant fool or the farcically fortunate would honestly contend that high school brings only one shining glory after the next. High school brings plenty of awkward moments worthy of a reality show. The world seems so small while the cliques between nerds, babes, jocks, and band kids become nearly impossible to break through over time. Add that to the pregnant inquiries from quizzical acquaintances you barely know as distant relatives or friends of your parents, yes, the pressure frustrates even the strongest of dispositions. Everyone seems fascinated to know the next big step in life, where to go, and what to major in (has anyone really had their life figured out at 18?). To add fuel to the fire, the end of high school features the pinnacle of the ESSA and No Child Left Behind policies in the fruition of ACT and SAT exams where aptitude is prodded, poked, and formally measured. Score well and your future education could come for free. Score poorly and expect to obtain to take the lower track to the completion of the undergraduate degree.
For all its benefits and drawbacks, high school seems like preschool after moving on to college. Although the time rings of the nostalgic, epitomized in Hollywood and musicals, the words of the apostle Paul bring the greatest paradox of all: "The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (English Standard Version, 2 Cor. 5:17). Few young people, having finished their high school careers, ever want to go back again.
With college comes a time to definitively progress career development. Counselors guide and encourage you to engage in useful practices and courses that actually contribute to completing a formal degree that will lead to a successful career. They, once again, evaluate and assess your strengths and weakness with Meyers-Briggs personality testing, but this time with an added degree of distance. They recognize you as an adult fit to be tried and developed beyond the scope of the protective cocoon administered by parents. Classes demand more in college than ever before with teachers expecting judicious use of time, quick eyes to read, and clever minds to grasp new concepts in order to score high grades. The size of the classroom can multiply up to a factor of ten in lectures of sociology fit for the ears of hundreds of students at a time. More than ever before, the student gets to see firsthand that they bring their own voice to the table out of many others. Having ideas alone will no longer suffice; students must package, present, and tailor their work to its audience if they expect to find receptive ears—no longer will people hold their hands, and that just might be a good thing.
Equally importantly, college brings with it the opportunity for identity searching. People find themselves at certain universities for a variety of reasons: the final throes of parents' last-ditch attempts at control, financial scholarship incentives, the benefits of a certain program, or the draw of a preferred mascot, or even just to follow friends for familiar faces along with a new chapter in life. Whatever the reason, college does one thing quite well: it dishes up life in its sweetest form. In college, people find structure without obligation, responsibility alongside freedom, and passion without reserve coupled with heightened stress. Ultimately, college is an opportunity to discover yourself (whatever that means), lose yourself, be yourself, and treat yourself to whatever kind of imaginative possibilities you can conjure, all with the support of a student body and university tailored to maximize your achievement—and so the party begins.
No doubt, popular culture fantasizes about college to an even greater extreme than high school years with movies such as American Pie (1999) and Old School (2003). Here, idealistic minds find a sliver of reality for many college students: sex, drinking, and partying Thursday-Sunday followed by (maybe) focused work Monday-Wednesday - definitely not having full-time employment. The result makes for an overall fantasy world where exultation can abound in the books, the booze, and the bed.
Transitioning into college does not always come easily for young people. At times, students bottom out and get depressed, feeling too far away from the comforts of a consistent meal and basic needs like "laundry" and "gas money." They run back closer to home, seeking shelter like cats caught in the rain, only happy when doted over and comforted, content to remain as big fish in small ponds within their previous social structure. Others eat their way through school, taking the "freshman fifteen" to infinity and beyond. Others, if they have not already found it in high school, run into drugs and the myriad of other counter-productive activities that come with greater independence. Ultimately, the college provides an excellent opportunity for star-studded success and a slap of reality. Many students finish their education only to realize their hard work and focus have little substantive value in the modern workforce. They must either innovate to make something of their visions or switch their career track altogether. Whatever the student encounters upon meeting college life, bored does not fit into the equation.
How does one effectively bridge the gap between high school and college? What steps can they take to keep the road less bumpy yet challenging enough to deserve their time and energy? What questions can they face head-on in pursuing their goals? Today, American culture revolves around pushing products and buying the next advancement in technology in a continual effort to stay ahead of the others. For the freshly minted college student, I propose something far simpler: decide to be the master of your own happiness. Do not seek it in the approval of others or in a special bond with another human being. Many would prefer that people find their happiness in a certain faith or even political view, but the miserable and elated remain on all sides. No, dear friend, happiness must come from within.
Choosing to be content with status and position does not come by the process of following simple formulas and internet memes. It is, however, the ingredient from which talents and abilities find their opportunity for recognition and connection with others. All of this begins with gratitude, the conscious act of being thankful for a place in life. It does not have to be Thanksgiving to find an excuse for this practice but can come each day in conceiving a list of three things one is thankful for from a hot shower to a meal to eat to a good joke shared between friends. Happy people also look for opportunities to exercise—those who make a point of moving around and engaging the body often find themselves with more energy and a greater ability to focus when the time comes for studying or otherwise engaging with others. If the body is the temple of the mind, exercise is the custodian who keeps the temple in order and in balance.
As stated before, happiness comes with no formula. Happy people make certain habits, which I continue to outline. In a world ringing with busyness and distractions nearly from the point of waking to the last gasps of the day, self-reflection is essential. Take time to write a few sentences or paragraphs at the end of the day and ponder what went well, what went poorly, and all the things in between. Dreams allow the unconscious mind to process events but writing allows the conscious mind to the process of life, taking account of daily challenges. Meditating also allows the mind to relax and prepare itself for the day to come. Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians often build a form of meditation into their spiritual life where they seek guidance from a supernatural being as they begin their day. Even if someone does not hold to a particular belief, they can still benefit from meditation by actively planning some moments for silence, alone with their thoughts. The power of silence can focus and heal the mind by placing it solely by itself and allowing a moment to be blank or focused on the beautiful and the abstract before tackling chores to come.
Once upon a time, a man and his friends were sitting around an old synagogue where people were giving their dues for the upkeep of the building and the salaries of its workers. Some rich people gave large sums of money, while the small group watched in great amazement. Finally, a poor old widow came to the synagogue and dropped two pennies in the box. Presumptuous minds may have scoffed. Perhaps members of the group asked, "Is this the best she can do?" Their leader reflected otherwise, "this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing . . . for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she . . . put in everything she had . . ." (Mark 12:43-44). Giving plays the most important role in happiness because it connects us with other people. It does not necessarily mean money or time. Rather, giving constitutes the conferring of something that has value to another person with an attitude of desire. If someone gives grudgingly, they may impress others, but they cannot fool their own hearts. The act of giving frees the spirit to walk in peace with itself.
Transitioning from high school to college comes with certain rights, privileges, and responsibilities. Each person has their own unique story and experience to navigate, but, in the course of searching for agreeable results along the way, it is the happy people who manage to obtain their goals and dreams. Some people prefer to cast happiness far into the future once the correct salary, spouse, or public recognition arrives in life after the conferring of a college diploma. But the equation is backward; success in all of its many baccalaureate forms arrives upon the individual decision to stay happy regardless of the current position, especially in the evolution between the teenage years and twenties. With the unending demands of twenty-first-century life, the clever young college student will learn to seek first within themselves before leaning on others as they move into college life. With the old way of high school gone, the new joy of college life may begin with gratitude for education and optimism for things to come.
ESV: Study Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Bibles, 2007. Print.