“Have fun being mediocre.”
Those words scrolled across the screen on August 19, 2011 around 1 a.m. The volume was set at the highest level on my phone and woke me up from a short, unintentional nap, but I quickly threw the phone across the bed after my tired eyes peered at the content of the message. It was the text message that ended a long-term friendship that had gone sour over the previous two weeks.
I frustratingly sunk my head back into a pillow hoping time would somehow slow down and morning wouldn’t arrive anytime soon. I was exhausted from a rough end to the summer, and for the first time in my college career, I was not excited to go back to school — far from it.
Sitting in the backseat of the car the next day as my dad made the familiar drive from suburban Philadelphia to State College, all I could think about was the text message. The four words constantly danced around my head like an annoying fly that refused to go away, and whenever I opened my phone, it was staring back at me.
I suddenly started to think back to my first two years in Happy Valley. As they were in progress, I thought I was doing alright. I loved Penn State. I went to class — most of the time, received pretty good grades, joined a few random clubs, participated in THON, and went to some parties. For someone who can be extremely shy around new people, I thought I was fitting in well, but that was part of the problem. I felt a little too much like a number mixed in with 40,000 other students and not enough like Drew Balis.
There was no exact plan. I was unsure of what I was going to do, but I was determined to change this. My sad mood carried over to the first few days back though. I was not very talkative, spent most of the day sitting on Twitter, and only left my room to make dinner. My roommates quickly took notice. They would soon learn that spending countless hours on Twitter was just the social media, news obsessed nerd in me, but the other parts were real. No matter what I tried, I struggled to snap out of it.
On the first day of class, I read something about Onward State taking applications for writers. At this point, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted writing to be a potential career or just a hobby, but I had started reading the site that summer and had always been a pretty good writer, so I decided to give it a shot. I applied, attached a few writing samples, and then forgot about it for a few days, trying to settle back into a typical routine.
About a week later, I received the most important email during my time at Penn State — from site founder Davis Shaver. I was in.
Over the next two years, I would meet some of my best friends through Onward State. What was supposed to be a fun Valentine’s Day Date with Ally Greer at Cafe turned into #OS210 and a great friendship that continues even with her in San Francisco. Greg Pickel became one of my good friends from covering sports (Seriously, remember that name, he’s going to make it big one day). Kevin Horne and I became friends while desperately trying to keep each other awake driving back from Harrisburg on the Friday of Finals Week last December. We survived and the friendship has only grown since. Ryan Beckler and I have spent many nights at bars discussing sports, the website, how the last two years do not feel real and are going by way too fast, and anything else that comes up in conversation. I knew that my job would be easier on seven fall Saturdays at Beaver Stadium due to Dave Cole’s awesome photography.
I cannot write this column without briefly mentioning covering the Penn State football program over the past year. It dictates my schedule when I am awake and if I get to sleep on a particular night, but I would not trade the experience for anything. All of a sudden, one day it hit me, I was sitting with some of the people who I grew up reading.
I emailed with Tom Bradley, got yelled at by Bill O’Brien, appeared on ESPN, covered games in four away stadiums including driving halfway across the country to Lincoln, Nebraska with Ryan, Kevin, and Dave, and learned how to report things quickly and accurately. Most importantly though, I learned about myself from student-athletes who were younger than me and were directly impacted much more by the events of November 2011 than I was. I could expand upon this, but it’s all detailed here.
At the onset of your college career and even in high school, mounds of advice and wisdom are heaped upon you about what to do in college. Most of it is with good intentions, but no two college experiences are meant to be the same. There are plenty of people here who will lead a relatively normal lifestyle — going to class, studying after class, and doing whatever they please on the weekends. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with that. Plenty of students are doing exactly that and will graduate with good jobs and a bright future, but know that everyone is capable of doing more.
Never let someone else insult what you do or tell you that you aren’t good enough, but owe it to yourself to pose an honest question: Am I taking full advantage of my time here? If you answered yes, awesome. If you responded in a different way, you have the ability to change that, and while it may sound cliche — it’s never too late to start.
Find your “Onward State,” as I did, and with it comes the people you cannot live without. There is one for everyone, and if you’re really convinced there isn’t, do what three freshmen did in Simmons Hall five years ago and create something.
I wish my phone hadn’t broken last February because I know if I still had that four-word text message saved while finishing this column, I would open it up and crack a smile.
When someone calls you mediocre, rise above it and be superior.