"If you want your white clothes to stay white, don't wash them with clothes that aren't white." I didn't have to say this to our Willow as we left her with the same family I spent a gap year with in Germany some 34 years ago. She and her sister have been doing their own laundry since they were eight. They have also learned to cook and to clean up after themselves. They know not to spend money they don't have and to always keep some in reserve in case there is an emergency.
So, while her transition to life in small town Germany may be a bit rocky because of the language barrier, I am confident that she will remember the basic life skills we tried to teach her while we were privileged to have her with us for the last 18 years.
As summer transitions into fall, another generation of young humans leave their families of origin to make their way in the world. Every autumn I greet a new group of students at Western Illinois University. This year marks my 19th year of teaching and I still love my job. I really do. One of my favorite teachers, Russ Bernard, said this about being a university professor, “It is a privilege to be surrounded by 18-21-year olds. They never get older, even though I do.”
The older I get, the more introspective I have become, and the more I care about the success of each and every one of my students. I want to them to reach their fullest potential and to do good things on this earth. Yet, I also wonder, mostly as a parent and not as a professor, what lessons they remember from their parents, grandparents, aunties, and uncles.
Thus, what follows is the short lecture I give all of my students every semester.
1). This is a privilege. To sit for 75 minutes twice a week to think and debate about why the world works the way it does is an opportunity granted to only a small portion of humans that inhabit this planet. Show up each and every day. Be mentally and physically present. You never know what what might happen.
2). Your professors are human too. We may seem old and grumpy, but we are here because we believe in you. We trust that you will be able to unravel problems that we, in some instances have created, and in many instances haven’t been able to solve. We have our good days and our bad days, just like you. So, if you have a problem tell us. We are here because we love what we do.
3). Office hours are a thing. Come see us. Please. Otherwise we spend time procrastinating just like you do, seeing what our colleagues are doing on social media, and putting off working on those revisions on papers that weren’t quite good enough to publish the first time around.
4). Eat all of the colors of the rainbow. The freshmen 15 is a thing, and while carbs are yummy in all forms, try and remember to eat a well-rounded diet. Take some time every day to exercise. We have a great rec center, and you pay for it so use it. Go for a walk, or run, or drop into a fitness class. You will feel better afterwards. I promise.
5). Don’t take your roommate’s Adderall to help you study. It will just make you feel weird and if you don’t know the material before taking the drug, you won’t know it later. My best advice to you is to buy your books and read them. Books are meant to be read and also to be written in, so get some highlighters and sticky notes. They will help, I promise.
6). Leave your dorm room door open a crack. Take your earbuds out of your ears and make eye contact with people. Ask for directions. Smile at strangers. This is the Midwest after all, and we have a reputation of being nice to keep up. I know it is scary but take a chance on yourself. You never know who you might meet. I met my two best friends in college while sitting in the back of a freshmen philosophy class. Dr. Goldblatt was prattling on about some dead white man I had never heard of before, and so I leaned over to the pretty blonde woman on my left and said, “’What in the world is he talking about?” The beautiful blonde man on my right said, “I have no f**ing clue. We should study together.” Thirty some years later we are still good friends and yes, we passed that class.
7). Be kind to yourself and all of those around you. It has taken a lot for you all to get here, but remember this is the not the end game, but just the beginning. As you move forward remember the following: Life is not fair. You will be unappreciated, you will not do as well as you had hoped, and you will fail. But don’t give up. Learn from your mistakes and try not to repeat them. As an unknown author once said, “Don’t carry your mistakes around with you. Instead, place them under your feet and use them as stepping stones.”
Now go forth young humans and make all of us proud.
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.