Greetings From The Real World, From Devon Werkheiser
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To Penn State students (and whomever else this resonates with),
I spent last weekend at THON, the 46-hour dance marathon run entirely by students at Penn State University, and the largest student run philanthropy in the world, benefitting those battling pediatric cancer. This event is huge. The students spend all year preparing for it in various ways: raising money, becoming friends and supporting the actual families who have a child with cancer, going to smaller THON-related events, and forming committees to make sure the dance marathon runs as smoothly as possible.
THON weekend itself takes hours of donated time and energy from the hundreds of student volunteers on the committees. There is a committee for each of the important aspects that make the weekend work. An Entertainment committee in charge of organizing the two days straight of music and entertainment. A clean up committee (OPPerations) making sure the Bryce Jordan Center remains in good shape throughout and after the event. They have Alumni Relations, Family Relations, Rules and Regulations, and the esteemed Dancer Relations committee, formerly known as the Moralers (if you are going to be dancing for 46 hours straight, it helps to have a committee of students who are there to give you massages, make sure you don’t know what time it actually is, play catch with you, and guide you gently back into sanity if you begin to hallucinate).
Beyond the committees, the stands fill with students in support. The number one rule in the stands? No sitting. Many of the students in the stands stay for most or all of the 46 hours in support of their friends dancing, committee members, and the families battling cancer. The Bryce Jordan Center fills with anywhere from ten to fifteen thousand people who are there to give children and families much-needed hope and support. Anyone who has experienced what it actually feels like to be there knows, this is something special.
The enthusiasm. The encouragement. The love. The unity. Even though there are different sororities and fraternities, special clubs and organizations, alumni groups, and regular students, this weekend is held in place by an overwhelming sense of unity. Maybe because they are all Penn Staters. Or because they put some much time and energy into it. Or because they are all under the effects of sleep deprivation. Or maybe it is because they are all standing together for a worthy cause. Either way, the togetherness felt in there is palpable and unforgettable.
I mean, isn’t that what most of us really want? Isn’t that what most of us are searching for? A sense of community, a sense of enthusiasm, a sense of purpose?
We want to know that our actions matter. That we are doing something with our lives. We want to feel connected to the people around us. We want to feel alive. THON weekend provides a highly concentrated experience of the life we want to be living.
College itself also provides the opportunity for this experience of community and purpose, which is why it can be some of the best times of your life (even though it might leave you in debt until you’re 35). College is an environment balanced between structure and freedom.
You have the structure of higher education, intended to shape your understanding and sharpen your skills, to get you ready and give you an edge moving into your chosen field out in post-college life, and to broaden your perspective and concentrate your goals. You have the structure of the school year — deadlines, quarters, semesters, spring break, summer break, winter break, games, finals, etc. You have the structure of your schoolwork and the jobs you do to pay for that schoolwork.
Then you also have the freedom of college, of no longer living with your parents, f being able to stay out as long as you want to at night, as long as you make it to class on time…or not. You have the freedom to see the results of your actions. And you have the invaluable freedom of living in a community. You can go to a game and be surrounded by peers of “the same team.” You can wear the same colors anywhere you go. You are given the base-line, thing-you-have-in-common, conversation starter, “Do you go here?”
Make sure you appreciate this environment. Use it to your advantage for the time you have it. Do not take it for granted. The education you are receiving, the time you are being given to explore your interests, and the community of people around you — these things become much harder to find in “the real world.”
Adults are always talking about “the real world” as if it is any more real than what you are experiencing now. Responsibilities, disappointments, challenges, failure, losing touch with old friends, etc. The real world can be harsh, unforgiving, confusing. You become responsible for your whole life, which can either empower you to do great things or weigh you down with inaction and lack of direction. 10 years can slip by in the real world in what feels like the blink of an eye. That’s when adults look back to their college days and think that’s when they had it made. Then they project all their shortcomings and disappointments onto this “real world,” and
tell you about how tough things are and how good you college kids have it.
But the secret is, the real world is not fixed in place. What happens to you in the real world is not a guarantee. Like everything else in the universe it is being created on a moment-to-moment basis. The incredible thing is, you create the real world. You are a part of it, not a victim of it. You are an author of reality.
Yes, in the real world, some things are more difficult than in college. The community that surrounds you isn’t built-in. Finding a career is most likely going to be way more difficult than picking a major. Your actions will create consequences with a very quick return rate. You might end up living with your parents again, or feeling more confused and less prepared than when you left for college. And you will no longer have your precious seasonal breaks. Your life will be happening one hundred percent of the time. You will have to carve out vacation time, if you can find a way to afford it.
But here is the thing, with some hard work, and imagination, you can shape “the real world” to your vision for it. I mean, look at THON. Look at how far it has come. What started with a child’s dream for a cure for cancer, and a few fraternities and sororities organizing a small dance marathon, has become the biggest student run philanthropy in the world, generating tens of millions of dollars for pediatric cancer research and support for families, held in a fifteen-thousand person arena.
Notice how much work it takes to create something like this. Notice how many hours go into it. It is not easy. To dance that long, or stand that long, or to be a part of committee. I am sure there are setbacks and challenges along the way. But the outcome is incredible. You can feel it. To be a part of THON means you know that your effort has affected people. It has had results in the real world, on real people, not only the families battling cancer, but each other.
So as you move beyond college and out into the real world, don’t be scared, even though you will be. That’s another thing adults don’t tell you: everyone is scared. If someone says they aren’t, well, they are full of it. Everybody, on some level, is making it up as they go along. And they are likely unsure of themselves and the direction they are heading. They are facing doubts and insecurities. They are scared. It is natural to be scared. Fear is part of our evolution, keeping us on guard for the dangers that could prevent us from surviving. And what scares human beings the most? The unknown. Not knowing if what we want to happen will happen, if our actions will count for something, what obstacles are going to come our way, what is at the end of the road we are choosing, or what the answer is.
But learn to lean into the unknown. We are all afraid out here in the real world, but that doesn’t have to stop you from doing anything you really want to do, from being anything you really want to be, or from creating anything you really want to create. The real world is as much yours as it is mine. It is as much yours as the president’s or the politicians’. It is as much yours as a CEO or a police officer. We are all making it up as we go along.
Learn to accept that you might not always feel sure about yourself or what you are doing, but that you will get way more from going big than from playing small. You will get way more from following just one of your dreams than staying scared to follow any of them. Learn to be a source of the things you want to see in the world. Learn to be a source of the life you want to live. It all starts with you. It all comes from you. Through you.
As you leave college, don’t fool yourself, it will be kind of scary. It’s supposed to be! And there are going to be challenges and difficulties, you might lose your grand sense of community and feel like you are starting from scratch. But bring THON out into the world. Realize you have the power to find a community working towards a common good. Realize you have the power to create a community working towards a common good. Stay active in your life beyond just making money. And hopefully, you will look back on your college years with pride and smile, not because you wish you could go back, but because you know that your best years are not behind you, they lie ahead of you in the Great Unknown, and you get to pave the way.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out my Youtube inspiration series, Devon’s Life Survival Guide, where I bring you tips to not only survive your life, but enjoy your life and create a life of meaning. Join my community!