Last week I traveled to Scotland on a Tech Trek trip, backpacking with 10 of our incoming freshmen. Prior to the trip, these students only knew each other for a few days. The group was made up of engineers, business majors, designers, scientists, and programmers…. libertarians, democrats, republicans… passionate vegetarians and outspoken carnivores. In terms of gender, ethnicity, family background, worldview, career aspirations, and dancing styles, this group ran the gamut.
While they are all the same age and have chosen the same college, their differences were clear. They came from as far west as Seattle and as far east as Connecticut. They attended elite out-of-state private schools and rural Georgia public schools. Conversations reflected their disparate backgrounds, which made the trip both fascinating and encouraging, even when we inevitably had disagreements or controversy.
Breaking Down Barriers
It would have been easy to allow their differences to create barriers and exacerbate divisions. But over the course of our nine-day trip, through sharing tents, trading food, and splitting bottles of water, they only grew closer. When someone was struggling with a tough day, another student was quick to offer to carry a pack, offer an encouraging word, or attempt a song rendition as a distraction. Over the course of our 52 mile hike, we gained 17,411 feet in elevation with well over 40 pounds on our backs. Scotland gave us its best and worst. We saw rainbows and sunsets and summits, but also endured furiously driving rain and heavy winds on high, exposed ridges. Ultimately, the struggles and the victories unified everyone as they built trust, respect, friendship, understanding—and, ironically (despite exhaustion), patience.
By the time we rolled into the last town on our hike, these strangers from a week before were not only sharing toothpaste, but toothbrushes as well. Sadly, it was there we learned about the tragedy in Charlottesville. A myriad of emotions swirled in my mind when I started reading more and listening to some of the early news reports: sadness, embarrassment, disgust, and a fleeting desire to pursue a longer travel visa. But the image I could not get out of my head were of the people behind shields and masks— combative and closed off.
What does this have to do with college admission and the college experience?
Everything. If you are about to start your freshman year in college, it’s likely you’ve spent the last year focused on “getting in.” I urge you to thoughtfully consider what it means to “lean into college.” Getting into college only puts you at the front gate. Sure, you are there–you have your schedule, your bags, and a room assignment. But being “in” is an inherently solo status. Leaning into college suggests risk and vulnerability. It will put you a bit off balance; it will put you squarely outside your comfort zone, but it’s a forward-facing posture. Leaning in helps you make new friends and connections; it helps you listen and consider a new, different, or opposing point of view; it helps you summit a mountain one step at a time.
Why are you going to college anyway? Have you actually reflected on this question? Have you written down goals for your freshman year or your college experience? If not, I hope you’ll take some time to do that. I’m talking about a pen and a piece paper you can actually pin up on a bed or board. You’ll be surprised to see getting a degree is only one item on a fairly long list. College done well is about expanding your network. It’s about developing critical thinking skills which transcend industries, job changes, cultures, and natural shifts in the market. It is about learning to more completely articulate your point of view by understanding those which are different. Leaning in puts you in classes and conversations at tables and forums where diverse thoughts and backgrounds have the opportunity to be heard and considered. Leaning in broadens, stretches, advances, and enhances you as a person.
In contrast, a homogeneous network is a limited network and inherently diminishes your potential for opportunities and long-term success. Unfortunately students do this all the time–they join clubs or organizations or teams, even academic colleges or majors, and start putting up barriers, drawing lines, and minimizing their sphere. They begin to point to other groups on campus as “other.” But for every “other” you name and shut out, you simply rob yourself of an opportunity to grow, learn, be challenged, and expand your knowledge and network. Naming “others” puts you figuratively behind a shield and mask and will limit your relationships, decrease your perspective, and directly impact your future potential in the workplace or graduate school.
You have gotten in. Now it’s time to lean in. Share some toothpaste, or even a toothbrush. You’ll be glad you did.
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