Leaping Into Life

A young writer looks back at her college years and laments the lost opportunities.

May/June 1998

Reading time min

Leaping Into Life

Brian Rea

Youth, they say, is wasted on the young. I'd amend that sentiment a bit. As I see it, college is wasted on the young, because students – especially freshmen and sophomores – take for granted what the rest of us long for: the ability to live in the present.

New collegians put off studying in favor of all-night bull sessions, skip classes for one more round of Frisbee golf, and pass on the internship in favor of that summer job as a deckhand on an Alaskan fishing vessel. After all, there's always tomorrow.

I should know; I was the same way. My freshman dormmates and I liked to throw around that "nickel a minute" tuition factoid, enjoying the decadent sound of it. But the image of the cash register ching-chinging with each sweep of the second hand didn't make me appreciate my time at Stanford any more. After all, it wasn't my nickel. The exorbitant bill was footed by my parents, scholarships and student loans that, yes, had my name on them, but wouldn't come due until far, far in the future – say, four or five years.

By the time senior year rolled around, reality had crept in. Seemingly overnight, I became unable to enjoy the present without considering the price; my brain automatically amortized over 10 years the cost of any given decision. That summer job at Smith Barney looked a little more attractive than it did a year or two earlier. And when friends opted for the button-down drudgery of the Financial District, the rationale, inevitably, was: "It'll look great on my résumé."

I too felt the need to be responsible. Despite my lackadaisical approach to my early Stanford days, I was, by senior year, rushing to finish my coursework early. "If I can just take 22 units fall quarter, I'll be done in December and then I can relax the next two quarters," I told myself.

When winter quarter arrived, I was finished with classes, but did I relax? No way. I'd fallen victim to the what-am-I-going-to-do-after-graduation blues. Instead of relaxing by Lake Lag or enjoying weekends in the City, I worked simultaneously as a hasher, ASSU notetaker, resident assistant and intern for a local city government. Liberal arts degree be damned! I wasn't getting caught with my pants down when the spring rush on the Career Planning and Placement Center began.

Well, my plan worked. I saved a wad of money, learned a lot as an intern and got into the graduate program of my dreams. But six years later, I look back with regret. Was that senior-year spurt of responsibility all for nothing? After all, the nest egg has long since been cracked and spent, the internship has been dropped from my résumé, and I've abandoned the career for which my "dream school" prepared me.

I now realize there is a middle ground between the devil-may-care attitude of my early college days and the ultra-dutiful urges I felt my senior year. Rather than careening from one extreme to the other, I could have enjoyed the gray area between "goof-off" and "hyper-careerist."

Why didn't I study overseas? Why didn't I spend my last two quarters filling my class schedule with creative writing, golf and art history? Why didn't I stretch a little and do something I might never have a chance to do again – work at Stanford Sierra Camp, volunteer at Bing Nursery School, write a novel? This is the real reason I'd like to go back to college – to learn how to seize the day without calculating opportunity costs or the future payoff of my choices. What I wouldn't give now for a sliver of carpe-diem pie.

But even if I returned to school, it wouldn't be the same. The window of opportunity to act as the unburdened collegian is shut and painted over. I have a husband, a son and a mortgage to think of, and those winged nickels would be flying right out of my pocket, not someone else's.

If I could do college again, though, I'd do it differently. I'd find that middle ground. I'd spread my wings a little further. I'd guard against the tunnel vision I developed senior year.

I'd eat all the carpe-diem pie I could. And I'd order it à la mode.

LAIN CHROUST EHMANN, '91, is a freelance writer living in Los Gatos, Calif.

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