A new school year has begun in most parts of the country. And since September 11, 2001, the start of the school year also provides a poignant reminder of freedom, democracy, and all that we hold dear. While it is true that the educational system in our country is in need of improvement in many areas, we can’t ignore the fact that few places on Earth provide the freedom to pursue the number and variety of educational and professional opportunities we have here in the United States.
Whether this marks the start of your first or final semester, the beginning of a new academic year can bring on a case of the butterflies (or worse). Many students experience anxiety and stress about their educational path and future job prospects. After more than a decade’s worth of experience in higher ed – and my own learning adventures – I have two pieces of advice that you aren’t likely to get from your education officers or even from your family.
Don’t be a follower.
You’ve probably been told by many well-wishing people “follow your passion.” Or, “follow your heart and the rest will fall into place.” Although it sounds wonderful, this kind of advice is better suited for relationships than for your education and future work.
In today’s economy, simply doing what feels good isn’t a sustainable practice – it can lead to frustration, accumulating debt, and a string of broken dreams. Plus, if you’re a working adult with a family to support while you go to school, you have responsibilities that you can’t simply shirk to follow your own interests.
Instead – bring your passion with you. Whatever you do, give it 110%. Find something to love about whatever you’re doing and give it all you’ve got. Look for the opportunity to share your passion with others and leave your own unique mark.
Strive for harmony, not balance.
“Work/Life balance,” as blissfully ideal as it sounds, is something that everyone seeks but few accomplish. It’s an incredibly popular topic that has everyone from CEOs to bloggers weighing in with their opinions and ‘how-to’s.’
Be careful about setting yourself up to achieve someone else’s idea of a balanced life. What works for them may not work for anyone else. Struggling to achieve an unrealistic ideal adds unnecessary (unhealthy) pressure.
What I would propose instead, is to strive for harmony as opposed to balance. Think about those televised singing competitions – sometimes a group is asked to sing in harmony together. It works well for some groups; others, not so much. In some groups, each of the singers wants to extend their 15 seconds of fame so badly, they sing over each other and refuse to yield the spotlight. The result is a musical mess that hurts to the ears.
Accept that there will be times when one aspect of your life takes priority over another. One area of your life will “sing lead” for a while and the others will support it and make it shine. You are the only person who can decide your priorities – your “lead singers,” if you will. Too many lead singers and you get a train wreck of a song. Too many backup singers and the music doesn’t really shine. The challenge is in making sure the right voices are singing lead at the right time.
The decision to earn your degree is one of the most important you can make, and if you’re reading this, you very likely already understand that. No matter where you are in life – whether you’re a working adult, a veteran, a military spouse or recent high school graduate, as you move forward in your educational pursuits and your professional career, you will be on the receiving end of all kinds of well-meaning advice. I hope the two pieces of advice I offered will help guide you toward achieving your goals. Best of luck to you as you begin the fall semester.
I’d love to hear from you. What kind of education or career advice has helped you? What do you wish you’d known when you started out?
Ms. Shelly has spent more than a decade working in higher education. She currently serves as executive vice president for Grantham Education Corporation. Ms. Shelly is passionate about changing lives – about making college education accessible and affordable to more people and preparing students and graduates for success.
I first learned about terrorist attacks when I was 15, when five Americans were killed in simultaneous terrorist attacks at the Rome and Vienna airports. President Reagan ordered sanctions and moved military forces into action, and my dad – then a full-time Air National Guardsmember – talked with us kids about what we saw on the television.
Seeing how rattled we were, he talked to us about “situational awareness.” He spoke simply and plainly, letting his love for his country and his kids overshadow any grief or anger he might have felt. There was no need to be afraid, he said, as long as were aware of what was going on around us. He told us that the freedoms we enjoy in America are special, and that there are others who seek to destroy those freedoms. And that if we’re afraid, we’re not really free.
After that, nearly every single time I went anywhere as a teenager, my dad would send me off with a hug, look me in the eyes, and say “situational awareness.” We sometimes laughed about it, but between me and my dad, it became code for “I love you, please be safe.”
A few months later, following Operation El Dorado Canyon in the spring of 1986, I watched when President Reagan went on national television. “When our citizens are abused or attacked anywhere in the world,” he said, “we will respond in self-defense. Today we have done what we had to do. If necessary, we shall do it again.”
Fast forward 26 years, past the Oklahoma City bombing, past the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, to the evening of September 11, 2001. President George W. Bush delivered an address after spending the day aboard Air Force One: “Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”
Like many people that day, I called my parents. My foundation had been shaken, and I found myself needing to talk to my loved ones with more urgency than I had felt in a while. I worked very near a state capitol building at the time, and told my dad of my feelings of unease about going to work the next day. He reassured me that I would be alright, and he reminded me of the security and comfort that comes from having a plan and from being aware of what’s going on around me.
Nothing I could ever write today will deliver justice to the fallen, or ease the grief of the widowed, or comfort the child who lost a parent that day. But on this day, the anniversary of a day when our collective awareness of the world changed, I want to try to honor the words that my father spoke, and with them, honor the courage that he and another million-plus veterans have demonstrated with their sacrifices. Today, I am reminded to be aware of the blessing of my freedom and of what tremendous sacrifices have been made to gain it.
Today I want to honor those who died on that horrific day, and those whose hearts were broken. I want to thank those men and women who volunteered to help search for survivors, recover the fallen, and attend to the thousands of injured and suffering. I want to thank those who sacrificed their lives in Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom nearly every day since October of 2001. I will continue to be aware and thankful for my freedom, because so many courageous people have paid dearly for it.