An Ode to College from a Place of Limbo

In the last nine months, I have had 1,043 and one-half conversations about college. 387 people have asked me where I’ll be next fall—aunts, teachers, friends, people whom I don’t know but nonetheless follow me on Instagram, little league coaches, Chick-Fil-A employees (they insisted it was their pleasure to ask), and a ripped man named Antonio who spotted me for one struggle of a set at the gym. You might be wondering, how does one have “one half” a conversation about college? One would need to witness my Uncle Terry ask where I was heading before cutting me off and subsequently spinning the yarn of how he made the choice all those years ago while smoothly changing the topic to the amazing deals on his latest Costco run. 

It’s fairly spectacular to watch these conversations play out. By spectacular I mean how one expected and straight forward question can paralyze “the future leaders and thinkers of our world” and make even the most articulate mock trial and debate team captains mumble and or fumble over their words. Moreover, one cannot forget those who remain in the barren wasteland of the waitlist—they still must face this dreaded conversation after May 1st with the same uncertainty. And perhaps that’s all there really is behind the dread, behind the tortured experience of the college admissions process. Uncertainty. 

Unless one is part of the few, the proud, the loud—those who have known what they wanted to do since “Career Day” in kindergarten—the college process brings to bear difficult, existential questions. What do I want to do with my life? What is success? What is a good life? While these quandaries are certainly nothing original, the current cultural atmosphere in which they are being wrestled with definitely is. The world of today is not the one my parents or even older brothers lived in when they applied to college. Oldsmobile’s marketing slogan of it “not being my father’s Oldsmobile” could not be more on point when it comes to the culture and perception of college today. My generation realizes things have changed. The future, while bright, is precarious. There is hope, but it is tempered by the knowledge of dangers with perhaps the greatest fear being graduating high school without a life plan. 

After graduating high school a few weeks ago, I began working at a local literary and entertainment agency for the summer—the resume “grind” doesn’t stop after May 1st. My first job was copy editing a book from a prestigious university president about choosing the right college. While the book was certainly worth the read—it had a few bits of gold that would have been helpful during my college decision—my main reservation was the audience it was written for no longer exists. 

My generation is vastly different from my parent’s and even my millennial brothers. Instead of turning to self-help books or advice from elders, we flock to the wellsprings of wisdom that are Instagram, Snapchat, and the ever-knowledgeable Twitter. While the path of success for my parents might have included going to college, entering the workforce, working fifteen years for a company trying to move up the corporate ladder, and then retiring with several grandbabies while collecting social security, that isn’t the path my generation chooses (we certainly won’t see social security and my parents might not either). It’s not just that my parents and I are different—what it means to choose and attend a college has changed immensely since the time of my parents in cost, in worth, and in the certainty of the process. 

Back in the days when my parents would send their applications through the mail (I prayed and thanked God every day for the CommonApp during November), college was a different animal. There remained a sense of security: getting a college degree was part of the defined—and partially guaranteed—path of success. That isn’t the case with my generation. College is no longer a firm prerequisite to “success” and the worth of a college degree is no longer a given, particularly as the price continues to skyrocket. For more and more people, the ROI of college is no longer working out. But more than just an economic reality, this is a cultural reality. My generation doesn’t define success the same way as our parents and how we view college has changed accordingly. Instead of becoming a cog in a corporate machine, mine are a people who wish to start their own companies, non-profits, and initiatives. Success for us isn’t just about the individual, but also uplifting the community the individual comes from. It’s not just about what sounds impressive to our parents or signals success, but what cultivates a sense of social fulfillment within us. 

I say all that, but when people asked me what colleges I was considering, I usually would spit out what I thought my parents wanted to hear, “Some of the Ivies along with a few in-state options.” It’s not that I was so focused on chasing prestige or pleasing my parents. More so, I had no specific idea of what I wanted and believed I needed to follow the plan of success my upbringing laid out: get into a certain Ivy League, become wildly successful, and say I went to school in Boston when anyone asked. It wasn’t until I was waitlisted by this Ivy that I actually asked myself what do I want? Not my parents, not my teachers or peers, but what did I want out of my college experience? 

I tried to nail this down with cool charts and comparison layouts, but it always came back to another more fundamental question—where and who do I want to be at the end of five years? (I’m telling my parents four, but come on, let’s be realistic). Eventually, I hit rock bottom: I asked who am I? But that’s really what the college process is—it’s our modern Bildungsroman—my generation’s coming of age journey. We are told, by every college counselor and admissions guide book, that our application is supposed to be the best holistic expression of ourselves. But, as I sat before the blank page, the blinking cursor taunting me, I struggled to write the story of Raleigh Dewan. 

So I began dissecting myself—who was I and what did I truly believe? The college process is like a hydra with these questions, you cut off one and two more pop up. But these questions aren’t the kind that can be answered by looking through one’s perfectly polished resume. I tried to separate myself from my environment, deducing what was truly Raleigh and not just his upbringing. Although I wanted to separate myself from my familial expectations and values, I found, after many failed attempts, that I couldn’t. I wasn’t able to morph myself and my story into what I thought colleges wanted to see on my application file. Who would Raleigh be without his family, his community, and his past—what would I be without my last name? Once I embraced my past and upbringing, not as something to leave behind, but something to be inherited and brought forward, I was able to start crafting that holistic expression my college counselor so badly wanted. For me, my application consisted of telling the story of a young baller who suffered a horrendous leg injury, almost robbing him of his entire right leg, and became a writer who’s developing a sweet tea company based on his novel about the most interesting nun in the world—but that’s another story. 

Another story. That’s really how I began to view college—not just as a prestigious name or a box to check off on my parents’ expectations, but another story that would play off my past and lead to my future. This shift in perspective enabled me to see that I shouldn’t attend a college just because it’s the most prestigious or what my parents might consider the best signal of success. I also realized that college isn’t the end of my story, but just another chapter, and I didn’t want to impinge my future with massive college loan debt, especially when graduate school was likely the next chapter. It was towards the end of my decision process that my conception of collegiate success became attending the place that offered the most opportunities for my chosen path and the best environment to develop into the person I’m striving to become. 

That’s where I think my generation is truly diverging from previous ones—we aren’t looking to take the path of our parents or the one society says is right. We are individuals who want to take our own paths to our own definitions of success and how we approach college reflects that. The road to success doesn’t just take place in the Ivy Leagues for my entrepreneurial generation—it takes place anywhere that allows us to improve the important aspects of our lives, to think and create freely, and most importantly, to be apart of a community focused on not just signaling a difference, but generating one. Success isn’t about the name of the college you attend, but rather the name you make for yourself at the college you attend. 

Make that 1,044 and one-half conversations about college.