Words for Students About College

My grade 12 students are applying to college and for the most part, they’re miserable about it. They’re worried about grades and transcripts, letters of recommendation and application essays. They’re worried about class assessment tasks, standardized tests, final exams.

And no matter how often I try to tell them that it doesn’t matter, I understand that to them, it does. When I was 17, applying to college was the most stressful and seemingly important thing I’d ever done, too. I do empathize with my students. Applying to college is the most stressful thing most of them have ever done, but it doesn’t have to be this way. 

I’ve been telling my students to consider the following pieces of advice based on what I know now, looking back over 11 years:

  1. Put yourself in a place you’d like to live. Think about what you want around you, the community you’d like to call home, and the access that place provides for whatever matters to you.
  2. Study something that provides you with options. You can always go back to school, continue your education, and switch tracks entirely. The more options you have, the easier it is to change your mind and do something else.
  3. Consider your passions and the best ways to find fulfillment – and then consider what you need to be able to do that. Financial security? Free time? A level of autonomy? We encourage students to follow their passions, but I’d argue that it’s more important to set yourself up to be able to do that in the long run.
  4. Remember that formal education is an option, not a requirement. It’s a choice. Take a gap year. Get a job. Go somewhere new. And then decide whether formal education is the best way to set yourself up to live a good life. Higher education isn’t going away.
  5. Figure out how you learn best. Figure out what you need to sustain yourself in an environment that drives you. Do you need a 9-5 job to afford to spend your weekends surfing? Do you need to live in a specific country? Do you need to be part of a think tank to have meaningful discussions?

I’m not saying these are the right questions for everyone, but I do believe they merit some thought. Higher education is the default option for the students that I teach, as well as for many students worldwide. I don’t think this is always appropriate, if for no other reason than we don’t often consider alternatives. We also don’t often consider why higher education is the default.

Asking questions is a step in a different direction, and hopefully in the right one.

A friend described his life path to me as “a bowl of spaghetti” and he’s one of the most interesting people I know. I followed a very linear path until I got scared and jumped off it; I’m a better person and educator as a result. Linearity and predictability are safe, easy, and obvious but there’s a lot more to the world than that.

Building Peace: A Time for Giving

I live in a country obsessed with stuff. We have a lot of malls and shopping centers, a lot of sales, many opportunities to spend money. There’s a lot of getting new things, getting rid of old things, and keeping up with trends. I work with very privileged teenagers and for many of them, getting each new iPhone is the norm.

The focus on materialism has struck me sharply this week based on what I’ve seen and heard around school and I started to wonder: Why isn’t this a time for giving?

After talking with an administrator, I was asked to write a few lines for the parent newsletter and submitted the following:

With the prevalence of advertisements and sparkling lights it can be difficult for young people to remember that this time of year is a time for giving. We are lucky to live in Singapore where there are ample opportunities to give back to the community, volunteer time, and donate money to local causes. In Advisory, students are bringing in food donations for Food from the Heart, a resource bank for a variety of non-perishable items. Please consider emphasizing the importance of giving as you talk with your children around this time of year. There is much that clamors for our attention, but giving lies at the heart of what makes us human. As the IB mission states, we aim to develop “caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world”. Thank you for helping us raise these young people.

So for this post, let’s talk about giving.

‘Tis the Season

Many of us are attracted to shiny new things, as the advertising industry well knows. But once we’ve received the shiny new thing, does it make us as happy as we hoped that it would? Does it solve the problem we hoped it would solve? Sure, sometimes we love it and we’re glad to have it. But other times, we find ourselves using or missing the same comfortable old thing instead. Advertisers don’t talk about that part.

This is the time of year where we’re supposed to want the new thing. We deserve it, we’re told. We’ve worked hard. We can treat ourselves. 

And we have worked hard and we can treat ourselves. Sure.

But we can also give.

Giving is a verb. It is an action. It is something you do with purpose in whatever way you’d like. Giving means doing for another without expecting a response. It means thinking about someone else and removing yourself from the equation. Give because you want to and then step aside.

Giving doesn’t actually have a season, but this opportunity is as good as any. We can decide that this is a season of giving and we can promote giving as a peaceful act.

How to Give

Giving is easy because you can give anything.

We can give small moments to people in our lives just to see them smile when they realize we’ve thought of them. We can send a few “thank you” emails. We can offer a compliment about a new shirt or tie. We can smile a bit more, laugh a bit more, appreciate each other just a little bit more. We can ask after one another and listen, really listen, to what people say.

Giving, after all, is a verb.

And if we have it, we can give time. We can set aside our phones and other distractions and give people quality conversation, a friendly phone call. We can volunteer almost anywhere. For those of you in Singapore, we have ample opportunities to do just about anything.

If we’re lucky enough, we can give money. There is no shortage of good causes (and advertisements for causes that might not be so good). I know that this can be overwhelming, so if you’re looking to make the greatest possible impact, here is my favorite place to start.

A Peaceful Act

I haven’t written much about peace and peacebuilding since I published my book back in June, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’ve been trying to live it with my students in our discussions about prosocial behavior in psychology class. I’ve been talking with friends from outside work to gain new and different perspectives. I’ve been meditating daily to grow in my ability to be open to sensations, experiences, and people.

So this is my request for a peaceful act: Please, amidst the holiday parties and glittery ads, think about giving. 

As I’ve written before, I see peace as the keystone in the arch of what comprises a better world. Giving, in any way you choose, will help make that world a reality.

Running to; running from

I always said I’d live abroad but I never imagined doing it.

I was very close with my family growing up, even largely getting along with my parents when that wasn’t cool. I heavily weighted “distance from home” when choosing a university and moved back after graduation because I didn’t know where else to go. Many of my happiest memories are with my family, which is why many people thought it out of character when I moved halfway around the world.

A few years ago, a friend mentioned the strangeness of people who choose lives abroad. There are relatively few of us, though the number is growing. Our common ground is simply that we’ve made the decision to leave home. No one gets here by accident.

Over the course of a different conversation much later, the same friend commented that many of us are running; some are running to while others are running from. But, he said, only some of us have acknowledged it. This has played in the back of my mind for over a year because, in retrospect, that’s it. That’s the answer.

Curiosity

I’ve always been curious about what else is out there. I spent hours as a child poring over the 1995 edition of Children Just Like Me and I wanted to meet all of them. I wanted to talk to them, learn their languages, taste their foods, see their world. I was fascinated by diversity, though I didn’t yet know the word. I just knew that there was a lot more to see than my immediate environs.

As an adult, I know that my parents made financial decisions to allow us to travel as a family. They showed me that the world was accessible, navigable, and wonderful. I learned that while it might not be easy, it would work out, whatever it was. My parents smiled when I told anyone who would listen that I wanted to see it all. They smiled when I bought a car with a manual transmission that I didn’t know how to drive because I wanted to be ready.

But travelling and moving are very different things.

Running To

I had a job, a Master’s degree, a long-term boyfriend. I lived in my town’s coolest neighborhood with a great roommate and other friends nearby. My family was a mere 12 minutes away by car. (It took a number of lesson-arguments with my dad, but I learned to drive a manual.) Continuing on the current trajectory would have been easy and obvious.

I don’t do very well with easy and obvious. I wanted the novelty, adventure, and excitement of living and working somewhere new. I wanted to minimize my possessions and figure out what really mattered. I wanted to speak new languages, meet new people, and wake up to a different sky.

Back then, I thought the world was really big. Now, I know it’s actually quite small.

When I first accepted a job in Malaysia for the 2014-2015 school year, I had to double-check a map. I didn’t know the questions I should have asked. I didn’t know the research I should have done. I was determined to go and insistent that it would work out. And if it didn’t, I’d come back. My boyfriend and I bought plane tickets and off we went, completely unprepared for what awaited.

Suffice it to say, we learned a lot. The Malaysia archive on this blog can provide some insight. Even though I cried every single day for a month and then some, I was always glad to be there. And despite everything that went wrong, which almost everything did, I couldn’t imagine leaving a world I’d just begun to explore in earnest. I couldn’t imagine returning to what was easy and obvious.

Running From

All of my friends in Malaysia had worked elsewhere overseas and talked about possibilities, experiences, and impressions of the world that I’d never imagined. During orientation, one mentioned that he didn’t believe in nations; I’d never heard of such a thing and it fascinated me. This is it, I thought.

Back home, there were expectations. There was a path. And somewhere along it, I got scared.

I suspect that’s why I couldn’t go back. After a year in Malaysia, I was planning to move to Singapore where my boyfriend had gone to look (unsuccessfully) for a job. We spent the summer in the US and he prepared to move to New York while I would go to Singapore to give him time to settle. In the airport, I promised I’d only stay for a year. In a year, I’d be ready to return to “real life”.

But I wasn’t.

I did return to the US a year later because I’d promised I would. Maybe I even thought I wanted to. But as the time to departure drew closer, I began realizing that I couldn’t continue life as usual. Perhaps deliberately, I made some decisions that would make doing so impossible.

After a year being single in New York, I moved back to Singapore. I tried to tell myself that I was returning somewhere that still felt like home, but I wasn’t. I was running from the path that I had grown up expecting to follow.

Today I know that path has been abandoned, given up, lost. I’m not running anymore, but I’ve turned so far off the path that it has ceased to exist.

It feels good to breathe.


Just yesterday, a friend sent me a job posting for his school in Beijing. “In case you’re looking to make moves,” he wrote.

At some point I will, but I’m not quite ready right now and that’s okay, too. My contract is up in June and I’ll stay for two more years. At some point, I’ll start looking. Or maybe I’ll stay. A lot can happen in two and a half years; a lot has.

Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place