I don’t think I’ve ever shared this publicly….In 1983 I was graduating from a very respected public high school. Many of my friends had chosen schools that were considered top notch like UNC Chapel Hill, Emory, and Vanderbilt. I had the grades to apply for those type schools but I did not have the money to attend. I was essentially paying for college myself and with the help of siblings. I received a very small scholarship but not enough to make a real dent. I was unable to get financial aid due to circumstances beyond my control. I chose Furman, a small Christian school in South Carolina, primarily because I felt pressure to attend a non-state school. I felt I received some messages even if subliminal that I could have done better. Along with two other classmates, I transferred after my freshman year. I truly hated it there…partly because I was going through adjustments and depression and partly because I didn’t fit in at all and as I have often said was not really “Miss Susie College.” I would actually end up transferring two more times (one didn’t count because I was there a few days-that’s another story for another day), but I landed at what would end up being my alma mater twice for grad and undergrad-Georgia State University.
That’s right. The very place that would have been MY choice without the pressure but others’ last choice ended up being the perfect place for me. Many of the things that I was told I would not get at a community college were there plus more. I received more personal attention from my professors and I loved the diversity. It was nice to be in class with people of different races, religions, ages and who were also having to rush to a job after class. The bonus was being able to eat lunch with people without homes in Hurt Park and starting a chapter of a ministry that partnered with Ga Tech.
Yes, at the time GSU, known as the concrete college didn’t have an incredible reputation, a sports team to root for or dorms to live in, but I can tell you that I couldn’t be any prouder of my alma mater. I am routinely reading stories like the one I read today about their innovative work with green space on the campus which validate MY decision to land there. The last story I heard on NPR was about what amazing things the school is doing to support students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I am grateful for this part of my journey because it allows me to have this perspective when talking to my students:
1. Choosing a college is not an easy decision
2. Choosing the right college is not a life or death decision
3. You really want to think about what you really want as much as what your parents and teachers want because you will be the person attending there daily-not them
4. Finding the perfect fit on your first choice is optimal, but it’s perfectly fine if you need to transfer, even more than once.
5. Choosing a state school is not the kiss of death or any less desirable than Harvard or Yale. Having GSU on my resume for undergrad and grad school has never once kept me from obtaining a job I wanted. On the contrary, going there opened the door to an internship in grad school that paved the way for my career. (Funny thing is that I attended a dual program during grad school to obtain a certificate in Christian counseling from a private school. Myself and another student dropped the theological part to attend just GSU (yes, there is a pattern here) because while we were told originally that we would be taking classes at the GSU campus and the church, the program eventually invited the GSU professors to the church to teach because some of my fellow students weren’t comfortable attending class downtown. Sigh. I was actually told by my Bible professor when I went into his office to inform him that I was leaving-I was one of many-that I would never find an internship if I left the program; I found my dream one like a week later). There is a pattern here…..follow your heart no matter the shaming or discouragement from well meaning adults.
6. What is considered a “good” college changes. I had a student tell me once that her life would be over if she didn’t get accepted into the University of Georgia. I told her that in 1983 I knew people who considered UGA and Auburn easy schools to get into. Don’t get bamboozled. What’s in today could change tomorrow. Let me be clear and say that if I have a student who desires to attend an Ivy League school, I support them 100%; I’m just saying it needs to be the student’s dream.
7. College is a great idea and the appropriate path for many, but it’s not for everyone and unlike decades ago, it’s not considered the determining factor for success. I never discourage any of my students from attending college, but if they are struggling with the decision and seemingly not ready, I encourage parents to give the student freedom to consider other options including a year off.
8. Don’t stress out trying to get a 4.5 GPA or a perfect score on the ACT or SAT. I talked to a young woman last night at an open house who is entering her Junior year and said that her dad was putting 30 minutes daily into her schedule to study for the ACT. She has taken three and not done well. Along with a few tips, my biggest encouragement to her was to relax and enjoy her year because the test is not an indicator of intelligence or likelihood of success in college. I could see her mom’s eyes out of the corner of mine saying, “amen.” (My hope is that they permanently waive these tests like they did when Covid started; I’m not a fan)
My last message for my students and others is that God doesn’t waste any of our experiences, and that non-traditional paths with zig zags and hiccups are just as legitimate as others.
*Disclaimer (prompted by a phone call from my oldest sibling this morning (12 years older- who graduated from Furman and loved every minute of it-probably another reason I considered Furman): I failed to make it clear that Furman is an amazing school is just wasn’t affordable or MY choice.