adolescence

What Senior Year of College Really Feels Like

I’m reaching the end of my second-to-last semester as an undergrad, and it seems that almost everyone I know (myself included) is going through a major quarter-life crisis. This year has brought with it a mix of emotions for many of us that are unlike anything we’ve experienced before, as we urgently question what we want to do when we graduate and struggle with the idea of what it means to grow up.

Often in high school, senior year ultimately boils down to a prom dress, a few questionable hairstyles, a last-minute SAT exam, the wait to hear back from college admissions, and the hope that your one guy “friend” will decide he’s crazy about you and, in a gesture as grand as any high schooler can imagine, send you carnations on Valentine’s Day. (Later on, of course, you forget the exact breakdown of your SAT scores, discover that your high school crush was interested in men the entire time, and recognize that prom was never a defining moment in your life as pop culture would claim it to be.) Although it feels incredibly important and all-consuming at the time, senior year of high school eventually fades into a distant memory that you’ll later claim to have hated all along.

College, meanwhile, becomes an exciting time of self-discovery and opportunity. You meet the friends who make you feel infinite, join organizations, and attempt to figure out what you’re good at and how to develop yourself professionally. You still fall for the types of guys your parents warned you about when you were in high school, only now they own suits and are a little harder to identify at first glance.

Senior year is a new ballpark, because while college itself is a glamorous night downtown with your best friends, senior year is a mess of emotions and scribbled-out schedules and lunch plans canceled in favor of finishing that last paper. Senior year is that moment when you realize that you might be too old to wear heart-shaped sunglasses or your Holly Golightly tiara in public, but you still store them in your closet with the quiet hope that maybe you can put them on one day when no one is looking. It’s the time when you stop accepting the advances of guys who only text you after 10 p.m. because – dammit – you’re an intelligent, complex individual who deserves to be taken to a nice restaurant or museum once in a while. Your most used topics of conversation with friends, family, acquaintances and the guy in the checkout counter at Publix? 1. Post-graduate plans (or lack thereof); 2. Where to buy business casual clothing; 3. “I AM SO STRESSED OUT RIGHT NOW.” In fact, your stress is both a source of pride and a source of grief for you.

I firmly believe that senior year of college comes with all of this craziness because it is a time of transition in our lives. We are uncertain of what the future holds, so we start to look backward with a mix of nostalgia and regret as we attempt to decipher the past four years of our lives. Perhaps four years from now we will look back at college in the same superficial snapshots with which we look back at our high school years today. Perhaps we’ll wake up one day and things will suddenly make sense, or maybe we’ll simply need to do a little more self discovery to figure out what it is we were meant to do.

From one college student to the next: I hope you are surviving your senior year and cherishing every memorable moment it has to offer.

The Friday Five: Lessons Learned From The Harry Potter Series

When I was nine years old, I made the most magical discovery of my life. One day, at the elementary school book fair, I picked up my copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and it immediately became my bible. Throughout the next twelve years, the series remained a staple in my world, as I attended midnight releases, enjoyed Harry Potter Weekends, visited the theme park and even organized a “Hunt for the Horcruxes” fundraising event in college.

Last night, it all ended with the second installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows hitting theaters. Of course I attended the midnight showing (what self-respecting nerd wouldn’t?), and as I watched some of the flashback clips, I couldn’t help but think about how much of a profound effect the series has had on me and so many others. When I think about some of the most important things I’ve learned in life, I can’t help but think that half of them have stemmed from an Albus Dumbledore quote or an aspect of one of the seven books.

Not only has J.K. Rowling inspired me as a writer, but she has also created a powerful series of young adult novels that can teach us a lot about how to be the best we can be and strive for positive change, even in the Muggle world. This week, in honor of the final film’s release, I would like to share some of these lessons with you! (Warning: Possible spoilers up ahead!)

The Friday Five: Lessons Learned From The Harry Potter Series

1. Your choices shape the kind of person you become. – Tweet this!
It doesn’t matter how inherently good you believe you are; if your choices in life don’t reflect kindness and loyalty, then you will not be perceived as kind or loyal. It doesn’t matter how talented you are; if you don’t practice or demonstrate your skills, then you will not be perceived as talented. We are all born with some good and bad in us, but ultimately we will be judged by the actions we take and the paths we follow. This also means that we are capable of change. On Harry’s first night at Hogwarts, the Sorting Hat suggests that he would do well in Slytherin (much like Tom Riddle, the eventual Lord Voldemort), but instead, Harry chooses to divert from Voldemort’s path and become a Gryffindor instead. This simple choice alone ultimately has a major impact on the next seven years of his life.

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2. There is more to a person than meets the eye.
Everyone — whether it’s the first-string quarterback, the janitor or that weird guy who sits in the corner by himself — has a story. On a day to day basis, we usually only get a piece of that story, but we can learn a lot about a person by digging a little deeper. Throughout the first six books of the series, Potions professor Severus Snape is painted as the most miserable and biased teacher that Harry has ever seen, and he becomes one of those characters you just love to hate. I don’t want to give away the ending for those who aren’t caught up on the series, but Snape does turn out to be one of the bravest, most noble characters, with a heartbreakingly beautiful storyline. Upon first glance, a person might not seem like much, but you might find something wonderful if you look just past the surface.

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3. Your true friends will stick by you through the difficult times.
Harry Potter lives a tough life as the Chosen One; not only must he balance academics, Quidditch and attempts at finding a girlfriend, but he is constantly bombarded with a new Voldemort-centered problem that he must solve. His two major constants: Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, his best friends. Whether he must destroy a Horcrux, escape a band of Death Eaters or save a hippogriff’s life, his friends are always there to help in any way that they can. In the past year especially, I have found that my truest friends have been those who stuck around not only when things were going well, but when times were rough. In other words, a true friend does not scare easily and will do his or her best to help you tackle any problem you have.

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4. There will always be injustices to fight.
Discrimination takes place no matter where in the world you go, and it comes in all shapes and sizes. In the Harry Potter books, this discrimination is seen among magical creatures, as well as by blood status (Pureblood versus Half-Blood versus Muggle-Born). Throughout the series, Harry and his friends never stop fighting for what they believe in. In your own life, when you witness some sort of prejudice that you don’t agree with (whether it is by race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status or Team Edward/Team Jacob), it is important to stand up for your beliefs and for equality.

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5. Love is more powerful than hatred.
Just as good conquers evil, so too does love usually conquer hate. In the first book, Voldemort (who has never known love and was even born out of a loveless union) is more or less destroyed by a mother’s fierce love for her son. Growing up, Harry often compares himself to Voldemort, but unlike the Dark Lord, Harry sustains strong relationships and is bound to his late parents by the love that courses through his veins. Although Voldemort has many followers, he is merely respected and feared, never loved. Ultimately, the good guys win. In real life, there is something to be said for killing your enemies with kindness. Hating someone else is completely pointless; if anything, it does you more harm than good. The concept can best be summed up by a line from a Nada Surf song: “Always love. Hate will get you every time.”

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My fondest farewells to some of the most influential books I have ever read. (More on those later!) What have you learned from the series?

wishing1

Following Your Heart And Finding Your Backbone

“See, now that’s your problem. You’re wishin’ too much, baby. You gotta stop wearing your wishbone where your backbone oughtta be.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love

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As children, we were always taught that we had the power to make our dreams come true. The possibilities were limitless — as long as we wanted something badly enough, put in some effort and had a little faith, we would undoubtedly be able to obtain it. Our desires were merely a four -leaf clover, a penny in a fountain,  a wish upon a star away.

Innocent young creatures as we were, we felt entitled to our dreams. And why shouldn’t we? After all, we were nice enough to the other kids, did our best to behave and sometimes even ate our vegetables. Sprinkle on a little fairy dust and we were well on our way to accomplishing our goals.

Of course, as silly as this sounds, some of us have carried this philosophy into our adolescence and adult lives. Logically we know that no fairy godmother is about to wave her magic wand over us and make all of our hopes and dreams become a reality, and yet we still wind up waiting around for our lives to happen to us. We let our emotions get the best of us and meanwhile hope that the answers and solutions to our problems will find their way into our lives and work themselves out.

Sometimes, when we want something badly, we don’t think about it in the most rational way. Although I consider myself extremely goal-oriented and I have worked hard to achieve what I have, I will admit that I also have my struggles in certain areas, and that I have goals that I’ve been working on for years with no luck. This can get even a fairly optimistic person like me down. Such failed attempts at any task might make me and anyone else think, Oh, how unfair life is. Then, we blame our circumstances and wonder if our dreams will ever become our realities.

As I was reading Eat Pray Love this week (just finished today!), the above quote really struck a chord with me. Too many of us simply wish for things as if wishing is all we need to do, but then we forget to wish with our backbones, or really stand up for ourselves and do what needs to be done, as hard as that might be. Sometimes, we need to look within ourselves and find a strength we were lacking before, one that will guide us toward achieving our toughest goals and improving upon our weaknesses.

At the end of the memoir, author Elizabeth Gilbert wraps up her year of travels by discussing how she ended up with such a peaceful and happy new life. Now involved with a Brazilian ex-patriate who pledges his love to her, Gilbert writes, “I am happy and balanced. And yes, I cannot help but notice that I am sailing to this pretty little tropical island with my Brazilian lover. Which is — I admit it! — an almost ludicrous fairy-tale ending to this story, like the page out of some housewife’s dream… Yet what keeps me from dissolving right now into a complete fairy-tale shimmer is this solid truth, a truth which has veritably built my bones over the last few years — I was not rescued by a prince; I was the administrator of my own rescue.”

Too often we expect others to come to our rescue, or for timing to work itself out, or for all of our annoying little setbacks to disappear, but the truth remains that in order for us to see any real improvement in our lives, we have to slay our own dragons. A little help every so often is certainly appreciated from the ones we love and admire, but we have to rely fully on ourselves if we want to experience positive change. We can only live out our fairy tale endings if we muster the courage (find our backbone) to do something about them.

What’s In A Name?

When I was a sophomore in high school, one of the final assignments in my intro to journalism class was to write an article about the origins of our names. In my “research” for this article (if you could even call it that), I interviewed several people, including my parents and friends, to discuss the literal meanings of my name and whether or not they were fitting. At one point, when I asked a classmate I had known since fifth grade to describe me in one word, his exact words were, “You’re just… Val.” Based on his answer, I fit my name well — at least the shortened version of it, anyway.

Of course, some people call me Valerie (my full name), but if I really wanted to, I could have pursued other options as well. I could go by my first and middle name instead, or just by my middle or last name (or a variation of my last name). At different times, I’ve had friends who called me Vallie or V, and I’ve even heard of girls named Valerie who shortened their names to Ri. Ultimately, I wonder what makes us choose the names we go by, and how our various nicknames might characterize us differently.

In Sarah Dessen’s latest novel What Happened To Goodbye, the main character’s entire identity seems to change based on what name she chooses to go by. Mclean Elizabeth Sweets was known as Mclean her entire life, until her parents’ divorce that led to her attending four different schools in the next two years. At the first new school, she was the popular Eliza (a variation of her middle name); next, she was the artistic Lizbit; then, she became Beth, the extremely involved yearbook student. This allows her to get close to others without really revealing much of herself, and makes it easier for her to leave a school and group of friends behind.

In high school and college, we desperately search for some semblance of identity, even if it isn’t necessary our own. We struggle with this, and rightfully so — in fact, according to Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, we face the crisis of identity vs. role confusion around this time in our lives. Some of us combat this by morphing into our friends and idols (I’ve known girls who switched from Southern belle to only-listens-to-rap to hipster within a year or so based on the circles of people they ran with), while others tried to find themselves alone.

Ultimately, while I see the appeal in Mclean’s actions (new identities means new opportunities, and not getting close to anyone means not getting hurt), I don’t think that changing your name or anything else exterior can really hide who you are inside. You may have traded in your cheerleading skirts for skinny jeans and flannel shirts, or grown a mountain man beard, or changed your name from Elizabeth to Lizzie, but you can’t as easily hide the fact that you bite your lip when you’re nervous, you have a sarcastic sense of humor and you are fiercely loyal to your friends. Your name might define you in some way (Valerie means “strong” in Latin, and I would like to think that I’ve remained strong in the face of my challenges), but when it all boils down to it, you are who you are and it doesn’t matter how you label that.