When I was seventeen years old, my parents sent me to Paris to visit my aunt for the summer.
My friends at school absolutely died of jealousy over my impending trip to Europe. My younger
sister, always trying to act older than her actual age of fifteen, said to me, “It will
be a chance to find yourself.” I thought this suggestion was ridiculous, that I know
who I am, I’m not starring in a cheesy Lifetime movie, that she could not be serious.
I was ungrateful for the trip. I didn’t feel like spending a summer with my difficult
aunt, in a country where I didn’t know the language, away from my family, where I couldn’t
go to the pool every day with my friends and work on my tan and check out the lifeguards and
drive around town with my brand-new license. My parents had given me a wonderful gift, but
instead I was irritated and spoiled.
Of course I had an incredible time in Paris that summer, as it would be impossible not to.
I picked up on some of the language, shopped for clothes, jewelry and gifts, ate delicious
food, went to the opera and the ballet, toured the art museums, rode the metro, walked the
Champs-Elysees, and saw the Eiffel Tower sparkle every night from my bedroom window. My mother
told me when I came home that I seemed “a lot more independent and mature.”
Maybe I was, but probably not. I didn’t notice any change in myself and didn’t
care to think about it. I still didn’t think the big questions of “who I am” and “what
I want out of life” or even “what I want out of this moment in time” would
ever become something that I would come to take seriously. I want to relive this trip at the
age of twenty-two as a Smith graduate, rather than seventeen, because I think three months
in Paris would take on an entirely different meaning to me now. These questions were never
something I fully examined in my life at home in Pennsylvania, with my Aunt on that trip to
France, or with anyone from high school.
I am most grateful for my Smith experience, because my professors here, my friends here, the
administration here, have really opened my eyes to a much deeper sense of my own self. I ask
myself those questions now. I don’t think that they are silly or irrelevant anymore.
I think they are of vital importance in my life. Smith taught me the ability to regularly examine
my own personal wants and needs, and I learned a lot of this through the experience of what
I consider my first real sense of failure.
I went on academic probation after the first semester of my junior year, when I earned two
D’s in my major courses. During that semester, I was, for the first time in my life,
meeting real challenges that were beyond my immediate control. I had appendicitis and subsequent
emergency surgery, followed by a weeklong medical leave. My grandmother was rapidly dying from
cancer at home, and I watched from a distance as my mother was suffering from the heartbreak.
I was experiencing the embarrassment and pain of unrequited love. After my academic performance
that semester, my parents made their disappointment crystal clear. “Academic Probation” was
emblazoned across my transcript. I received email reminders, a phone call, a letter sent to
my campus mailbox, and a letter sent home to my parents. I felt like I had really messed up,
to say the least. After all of the difficulties of the previous semester, academic probation
was the rotting cherry on top and a constant reminder of everything I couldn’t handle
anymore. As terms of my standing, I was also required to meet with Dean Bruzelius.
I was physically ill out of fear that I was going to hear some version of “you are not
Smith material” during our meeting. The first thing she told me, however, was to calm
down. The world was not ending, I had not done irreparable damage, that this was a typical
reaction in Smithies who go on probation for a semester because it’s their first realization
of mistakes made. She told me to look at this as a learning experience, to utilize my resources,
to go to counseling, to ask for help, to get to know my professors, to go easier on myself,
to evaluate what I find interesting about my classes, what I like about school, and where I
find my motivation.
So this failure was not failure at all, because I honestly would have never paused to hear
this advice and follow it had I not struggled. When May rolled around, I went to see her again.
I had pulled all of my grades back up by following her advice. I basically wanted to run into
our appointment, get the approval of “good academic standing” back as quickly as
possible, and run back out again to start my summer and internship. We didn’t talk for
long but she said something to me that day as we were chatting about how I am in the process
of writing a story of my life, a narrative; that comment really struck me and stayed with me.
I finally was beginning to grasp that it doesn’t really matter what my major is or my
GPA, that my first job will lead to another and another and another, that I might travel or
get married or have children, or I might not.
I knew I had heard her say this to me several times before, but it usually felt scripted and
went in one ear and out the other. This time I ate it up. I loved how casual and confident
she was in talking about how interesting and successful my life was going to be, even though
she had no specifics. I trusted what she was saying. I recognized that I truly felt like an
authentic Smithie, I recognized I have options and choices, and a whole life to live with ups
and downs. Whatever I choose to do, whether they are mistakes or successes, in the end it will
be its own version of perfection. Any mistakes or flaws will probably only make it more interesting.
In this moment, in my prime, with a whole unwritten life ahead and more successes in the past
than failures, it is daunting to keep that trend continuing. I can’t help but worry sometimes
because the unknown could bring anything. There are endless choices to make and in turn, there
are endless options. My parents have always told me, “It’s okay not to know, but
don’t close any doors on yourself,” so I have tried to follow that advice. My
parents have devoted their lives to giving me the skills and means to have options and I have
also earned, through my own hard work, the ability to walk in and out of these different doors,
but which ones do I pick now? I realize more and more that there isn’t a wrong or right,
and that fumbling and making a mistake might lead me to the true gift of finding something
meaningful. I’m also realizing that it takes immense courage to take on this attitude
in life and is so much easier said than done. While it is intimidating, it is also incredibly
exciting; I would never want the anxiety to trump the excitement.
I’m nervous about leaving Smith because I’ll simply be sad to say goodbye. Goodbyes
are hard, end of story; with these, I am very familiar. I’ll ache for my best friends
when I get lonely, I’ll miss the rousing debates in beautiful Seelye Hall, I’ll
miss chatting with the staff at my work-study job, I’ll miss the walk past Paradise Pond
at the beginning and end of every day, I’ll miss beer pong in the basement, I’ll
miss Friday tea, and the list goes on. Yet there is much more ahead of me that I have not even
met yet. It is a beautiful experience to have this progression and to learn this about myself.
I need to work on being calm and at peace with the confidence that everything will turn out
okay, as Dean Bruzelius so casually assured me last spring. I need to work on being vulnerable.
I need to work on not living on a timeline.
When I was boarding a plane to France at seventeen and my sister said to go “find myself,” I
rolled my eyes. When I first got to Smith even, I had no idea that there was so much of myself
that I did not understand. Graduating from Smith now, through all of the A’s and even
that one miserable semester of depression and D’s, I’ve learned that it is necessary
to ask myself about my definitions of success, about what I want from a future career, about
what I deserve in my relationships, about my strengths and weaknesses, about what is most important
to me. I can recognize the progress that has been made since I was seventeen and the amount
of growing I have still to do. It is a life-long process and what I have learned in this workshop
is that I don’t want all of the answers at twenty-two.