Find Your Tree: Derek Bannister’s Senior Column

I’ve had no idea what I would say here for quite some time. A few days ago, I decided that I wanted to tell a story.

Approximately 16 years ago, I decided to climb the ever-imposing pine tree in my backyard. Not many six-year-olds would undertake such a task, but I was determined.

I made my way to the tree, sizing it up and searching for the perfect point of entry for my upward journey. Before long, I was what felt like miles above the ground. In reality, it was probably closer to 20 feet. I felt like a king.

And what do kings do? They grab the pinecones that catch their attention. Seeing a particular pinecone that struck me as something that I simply had to have, I inched my way towards the end of the branch and leaned forward to snatch this pinecone from its snug position. 

The branch I was scooting along, however, didn’t like my sudden movement and snapped beneath me. I was sent spiraling toward the ground, head first, toward an imminent doom. 

A funny thing happened, though. I never hit the ground. Strangely enough, I was suspended mid-air with my pants caught in a branch that probably saved my life.

As I dangled there, I called for my younger brother, Jake, who dutifully went off in search of my lifeline — my mom. Before long, my mom was at the tree with a ladder, looking up at me in anger and disbelief. Eventually, with her help, I was unhooked from the branch and made my way safely to the ground.

I love telling this story for a few reasons, and it’s taken on much more meaning for me over the past few years than I could’ve ever imagined. It’s a personal reminder to be grateful. 

Although recounting my excursion always makes me laugh, it could’ve easily ended in a way that wasn’t so funny. The story reminds me to be grateful for my family, like my parents or siblings who have always been there to support me — like they did when I was dangling midair. This story reminds me of all of the people I’ve met at Penn State who would rescue me at a moment’s notice, no matter what.

Research shows that people who regularly practice gratitude are happier and more satisfied with their lives. These people sleep better, go to the doctor less, and show fewer depressive symptoms. During college, you’re constantly under the stress of classes, you’re facing an uncertain future after graduation, and you have to deal with whatever else life may throw at you. I won’t pretend like I handled all of that without a few trips to CAPS.

It can be easy to focus on all of the headwinds you face or the things that haven’t gone according to plan, but it’s crucial to remember how lucky you really are. (And, yes, I know it’s easier said than done.)

I’m much luckier than most and I know it.

More generally, though, this story serves as a constant reminder to embrace a challenge. It’s important to feel confident enough to chase after the things you want most in life. Just, uh, make sure the challenge doesn’t actually threaten your life. 

Who cares if things don’t work out exactly as you’d hope they might? Yeah, you might fall out of a metaphorical tree or two, but you will learn. Being ambitious is what’s key — and that’s a fact.

The late, great economist Alan Krueger and Mathematica economist Stacy Dale found that high school students who applied to highly-selective schools and didn’t get in faired just as well in the long run as students who attended these institutions, holding grades and SAT scores equally. In other words, by controlling for the colleges that students applied to and were accepted by, these researchers found that there were no earnings boost for attending an elite college.

Here’s a direct quote from the New York Times’ Economix blog:

“Once the two economists added these new variables, the earnings difference disappeared. In fact, it went away merely by including the colleges that students had applied to — and not taking into account whether they were accepted. A student with a 1,400 SAT score who went to Penn State but applied to Penn earned as much, on average, as a student with a 1,400 who went to Penn.”

Earnings aren’t particularly important to my point here, but you get the idea. Get out there and do the thing! There’s literally no excuse whatsoever — you can be just as successful as anyone else out there if you really want to be. Facing rejection sucks, but it won’t matter in the end as long as you keep giving it everything you’ve got.

Penn State is a wonderful place to spend four years. The opportunities for growth (and fun) are endless. The friendships you’ll make are unparalleled. Beaver Stadium is pretty sweet. The weather could be better, but you can’t win ‘em all.

Thank you to everyone at Onward State who changed my life in ways that I couldn’t explain if I had years to write this post. My time at Penn State is nothing without the blog. My college experience has become so interwoven with writing and getting to know all of you wonderful people that I could never separate the two. And I’d never want to. Oh, and if you need me, I’ll be looking for the next tree to climb.


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About the Author

Derek Bannister

Derek is a senior majoring in Economics and History. He is legally required to tell you that he's from right outside of Philly. Email Derek compliments and dad-jokes at [email protected].

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