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A Field Guide for Your Four Years: What I Would Tell My Freshman Self

By Michael Mitole

In a number of days, I will join over 8,000 students from the Class of 2023 in the final rites of our undergraduate careers. When I was a high school senior, seventeen years old and full of unmitigated optimism, I dreamed about my college years. Now, I am a college senior: twenty-one years old with a balanced view of the world and a record of experiences, growth, and relationships that far exceed anything I could’ve hoped to buy with tuition dollars. 

I never knew, as well, that these four years would be the staging ground for so much in our country and the world: a racial reckoning in the United States, seismic political shifts in governance and people’s rights in countries around the world, a global pandemic, wars rumored and wars waged, and more. So, to a younger Michael, I’m here to report back as much as I have learned and seen over the last four years. As an added favor, I’ll leave you some survival tips for all of the impending disasters I mentioned in the footnotes. You’ll need them!

College is an Exercise in How You Want to Live:

Think about your time here in university as an experimental period. For the first time, you’ll be handed endless liberty and opportunity, out of which you’ll build a life of your own. It will be nothing like the things you experienced while living in your hometown. You’ll discover extracurriculars that will become your passions. You’ll have the chance to take classes on subjects that extend far beyond anything that your high school could provide. Finally, you’ll encounter much more than the thin slice of diversity in your Pennsylvanian suburb – get ready to marvel at the plurality of human experience and personalities that only a university can cobble together. 

As you begin to think about how you want to spend your college years, consider the things that will make them meaningful. What values will you live by? How will you make your presence felt around others? How will you choose to spend your time when you’re alone? Who are the people you will share your life with while you’re here? What organizations, activities, goals, and opportunities will you commit your energy to? How will you pursue personal growth and transformation? 

Often, you’ll be told that “college is the best four years of your life.” I’m here to offer you a different perspective: college is, simply, four years of life. It is an experience in which you’ll feel the heights of joy, sorrow, clarity, confusion, change, and stability. The wonder of college, in my view, lies in the fact that it can be four years where you set up the best kind of life you could want for yourself in the future. In other words, the kind of “living” that you do while you’re in college will lay a foundation for how you’ll live in the world that exists beyond these campus walls. 

Who Will You Be Once Everything Goes Away?

During your time in college, you’ll be presented with many opportunities to acquire status and accolades. You’ll see clubs that promise a recognizable identity on campus (like fraternities/sororities, service organizations, interest organizations, professional organizations, and affinity organizations); associations that place you in the company of outstanding people (like Phi Beta Kappa, honors and leadership societies, prestigious companies, and academic institutions); and, you’ll notice awards that can distinguish you (like Latin honors at graduation, scholarships, and special fellowships). 

Soon, though, a day will come where you will trade those leadership titles, social affiliations, awards, and academic distinctions for a single defining characteristic: your status as an “alumnus.” When this happens, will you be happy with the person that you are, removed from all the things that you felt once defined you? Or, will the person that remains be someone you hardly recognize?

What Constitutes a “Full” Undergraduate Experience?

Without a doubt, you’ll begin the first day of your academic career wondering how to do this whole “college” thing the right way. When you find yourself pondering this question, picture the following scene:

Imagine that you’re sitting in the Bryce Jordan Center on the day of your college graduation. Remember, it’s a 3-hour ceremony. In hopes of passing the time, the person sitting next to you taps your shoulder and says, “Hey, how did you spend your time in college?” 

First, ask yourself how long that conversation will last. Will you have many experiences to share? Or none at all?

Second, ask yourself if the other person will be interested in what you have to say. Will they listen intently or find themselves struggling to engage with you?

Third, ask yourself how that person will respond when you ask them that same question in return. Will they say, “Well, it sounds like we did all of the same things in college!”

What does this all mean? During your undergraduate career, pursue (1) a large number of experiences and opportunities that (2) are diverse in type and (3) unique to the many interests and talents that characterize you as an individual. 

Find a Big Dream Worth Living For:

You’ll learn over the course of your undergraduate career that the pursuit of any dream – a job, a relationship, or an opportunity – is an isolative endeavor. You’ll have to expend resources, energy, time and, sometimes, sacrifice your relationships. This happens because when we chase dreams, we only do so to serve ourselves. 

If you want to lead an impactful life, Michael, you’ll soon discover that it is much better to live for a dream than to chase one. The dreams that you choose to live for and share with others are the ones that change the world, or at least make a better one. So, find a dream to live for that’s big enough to include others around you. If you can do this, you won’t feel like your resources, energy, and time are depleted, and your relationships won’t suffer. The participation of others in your dreams will always carry you farther than any distance you could travel on your own. 

Learn How to Navigate Landscapes of Opportunity:

One thing you’ll appreciate about college when you graduate is the vastness of this place. There are so many more people to meet and things to do than you’ll ever find the time to experience. In fact, you’ll say those very words at a podium during the induction ceremony for the 2022 Class of Paterno Fellows. Yes, you were riffing somewhat during that speech (that’s something you’ll enjoy doing a lot when you’re older, by the way), but here’s what you said next:

The right way to think about college is to view it as a landscape of opportunity. That has important implications for you as an individual.  The people and things you are drawn to during these four years indicate that there’s something special about you that can carve a unique route through an expanse of possibility and potential. If you can learn to recognize that, you’ll be ready to move purposefully through the world.

The Reward of Knowledge and Learning Exists Outside of Academic Credit:

You’re probably arguing with your parents right now about adding additional liberal arts majors and minors to your degree. What’s your dream combination again? Majors in Finance and English with minors in History, Philosophy, and Psychology? That sounds like an awful amount of class!

After a few more years, you’ll arrive at a different view of university degrees and their relationship to knowledge and learning. The degrees that you earn are your school’s rubber stamp that you successfully acquired the knowledge deemed representative of your discipline by a committee of faculty you’ll never meet. For certain occupations, you’ll need that rubber stamp to practice or gain employment. But why let others dictate how you pursue your intellectual interests? 

Look, Michael, I’m not saying degrees are pointless. I’m suggesting something entirely different. Learn how to determine what it is that you want to know for yourself, in any discipline. That discovery process is the hallmark of a genuine education. Your reward will be an unshakeable confidence in the usefulness of that knowledge. 

Set Your Sights on Things That Keep You Reaching Beyond Your Known Horizons:

During your freshman year, you’ll encounter a quote by Epictetus: “First say to yourself what you could be and then do what you have to do.” You’ll probably ask yourself during that year, “How much of my potential do I want to have?” After some thinking, the answer will become clear – something close to one hundred percent. 

If that’s really what you want, I can tell you what I’ve learned about how to get there. You’ve got to roll up your sleeping bag, pack up your things, and pitch your tent in what most people call “the realm of impossibility.” That is where you’re going to live. It’s the place of “I don’t think I’m ready yet,” “most people don’t do that sort of thing,” and “there’s no way of knowing how this will turn out.”

When you make a habit of venturing into the unknown, you’ll gather two kinds of feedback. The first kind tells you that there is more potential left for you to discover and now you’re someplace that will require you to call upon it. The second kind tells you that you’re limited or even out of your depth, and from it you will develop humility. 

You should know something else, too. In March 2022, you’ll give a TED talk at Penn State about “ambition.” In fact, that experience will completely change your relationship to the word – you’ll nearly stop saying it entirely. I’ll bet you’re wondering why that is. Well, somehow, the period following that talk will be one of the hardest years of your life. You’ll feel failure, rejection, and loss like you’ve never experienced it before. 

I want you to know what you said in the final sentence of that talk, because it’s something you’ll cling to in difficult times:

The height of our ambitions make them worth the journey and certainly worth the fall, for it is better to fall having your ambitions than it is to fall with your ambitions having you.”

Don’t Expect Your Hard Work to “Pay Off” Exactly How You Plan It To:

You’ll probably spend your first two years of college drawing an elaborate plan for the things you want to accomplish. I’m here to tell you now that the things you want may not happen in the timeline or manner that you expect them to. 

Many times your personal journey will feel like a black box. In it, you’ll collect the hard knocks of failure and setbacks, the wisdom of your mentors and role models, the artifacts of past triumphs and achievements, the record of experiences had and forgone, the abbreviated biographies of people you met, and the notes of your own reflections, dreams, and ideals. While you won’t see how these things sort themselves inside that black box, you’ll accumulate more and more during your college years. 

Finally, you’ll arrive at an opportunity or position of leadership that requires you to make full use of everything you’ve collected over time. In that moment, your black box will be less of an arbitrary collection of things and more like an armament of tools, ready-made and useful for the moment, the opportunity, or the role in front of you.

Place Yourself in Proximity to People & Things That Inspire You:

You’ll learn during your college years that you can take little credit for who you are and who you’ll become. You are the product of the investment and influence of so many people. 

You’ll also learn that one of the greatest human emotions is the feeling of awe, or, the small spark that reignites the embers of disinterest and disappointment. 

Move Toward People and Places That Accept You For Your Flaws but Don’t Let You Stay That Way:

Trust me, Michael, you’ll need to know this for where you are right now and where you’ll want to go in the future. 

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