My second oldest niece is going to college later this month. I wrote this when her older sister turned 17.
I keep thinking about the life she has in front of her, and what choices I would have changed if I had to do it all over again. So I figured I’d write it all down, and ask the other wise women in my life for their advice too. Hopefully a few young women will get a little smarter reading this.
In some ways this was the best four years of my life. I made wonderful friends, I learned a lot, and when it was all over I was ready to move on and start my life as an adult. Here are a few tips:
- Don’t pick your college because of a boy. If it’s meant to be he’ll be there when you’re finished with school.
- Pick a school that is strong in the field you think you want to go into, but make sure they are good at other things too. Lots of people start school thinking they want to go in one direction, and then discover that area isn’t a good fit. That’s okay. The important thing is to find something to do that you love. Going to work should be something you look forward to, not a chore.
- Get as much real world experience as you can. Take advantage of semester abroad and internship programs. These can be scary options, but they will be one of your best experiences (and help you get hired faster).
- Learn how to be an entrepreneur. Join clubs and take on officer positions. Sign up for any special classes or programs. Being your own boss is a great option, but also a lot of work. Learn as much as you can about going out on your own.
- Try to pick a career with some flexibility. Sometimes they make it sound like you can “have it all” – a husband, career and kids. But it’s not that simple.
- Have a budget and stick to it. Take on as little debt as possible and if you get a credit card pay off the full balance every month.
- If you can’t get a summer job in your field work as a waitress. This tip is from your Uncle. You’ll learn a lot about people, make good money, and you can work your way up to nicer restaurants (think bigger tips).
- Find the gym (I know this is already on your list). It’s easier, and cheaper, to maintain your weight than to gain and then loose it later. Plus you’ll need this outlet to balance out the studying.
- Do your homework, even if you don’t have to turn it in. I rarely read the assigned chapters as an undergrad because it was easy to skip that work. As a graduate student I did the reading, and you know what? It made learning so much easier. I walked into class with the current material on my mind (even if I didn’t fully understand it), so the lecture was easier to comprehend and I didn’t have to study as hard.
- If you’re going to have sex use birth control. Yeah, I said it. Get your degree, get married and then get pregnant. Life is much simpler that way.
- Don’t drink to much. Yeah, I said that too! Stay in control, and stay with your friends if they drink too much. You have to look out for each other.
- Never walk home alone. Ever. And don’t walk home with a boy you don’t know well.
- Do not pick your college based on your current boyfriend. if it is meant to be, he will still be there! Always have snacks in your dorm room and friends will come.
- The right fit may be more important than the right name. General Education courses may seem like a waste of time, but they will make you a far more interesting person and you’ll be surprised by how much of it you’ll remember.
- Make sure you take advantage of everything your college/univ has to offer. Clubs, service projects, socials, speakers, cultural performances – all of it. And definitely study abroad — totally worth all the money you spend on that experience. Research and find a marketable career (research how easy it is to get a job in that field, what the future outlook is, how much schooling you need, etc)
- College degrees do not come with a job guarantee! Also, finish school first, then worry about getting married. Get involved on campus (and live on campus) even if you end up going to your local college.
- Take all of your general education first, just in case you end up going through three majors your first few years.
- Apply broadly to colleges. Don’t be afraid to throw your applications broadly, don’t choose a college just because it was the first place to give you a scholarship, and don’t choose college based on proximity to boyfriend. Take classes off the beaten path your senior year– if you’ve been academic focused, try choir, annual, newspaper, whatever. You won’t regret it.
Boys, Dating & Marriage
I remember years ago telling you that your Uncle and I went to high school together, but didn’t start dating until our five year reunion. You and your sisters looked at each other and said: “Ew, I can’t imagine dating anyone at our school.” Well guess what, people change, especially boys. The geeky boys sometimes make the best husbands, and they certainly have the best career prospects! (and no, your Uncle was not a geek in high school!)
Keep an open mind and date people who are interesting and make you laugh. I have two college friends who got pregnant and married before graduating. The one who married a guy she was also good friends with is still married, the other is not. Be with guys you love spending time with, and who like you for exactly the person you are. And if he doesn’t seem to fit in well with your family be careful. You need to have similar goals but also similar backgrounds. Don’t ever forget your friends or your sisters for a boy. Most boys will come and go but your girlfriends will be with you for a very long time if you’re lucky. Even after you get married make sure you make time for your girlfriends.
Don’t settle down too early, who you are at 22 and who you are at 32 could be completely different and having some time to see the world and be comfortable with yourself is my secret ingredient to a happy marriage in the 21st century.
In most cases, the younger you are, the longer you should date someone before walking down the aisle. People change and marriage is forever.
Don’t continue to date anyone who can make you feel bad about yourself. No matter how funny they are or how cool they look playing guitar. Don’t skip the high school milestones, like prom or homecoming, if your too-cool-for-school boyfriend thinks they’re lame– only skip them if you want to. There’s no chance to do them over, so go ahead and see if they’re fun. And have fun.
Starting a Family
Don’t rush to start a family, but don’t wait too long either. Apparently your Uncle and I beat the odds as we had no problems getting pregnant, even at age 38. This isn’t the norm. Lots of women struggle to get pregnant, and the likelihood of this increases as you get older.
No matter what child care option you pick (staying at home, nanny or day care) it will be hard, and you’ll second guess your decision. If you stay at home you’ll long for the money, structure and feelings of accomplishment that came with your career. If you continue to work you’ll always feel like you’re not fully giving yourself to your career or your family. There is no such thing as balance, it’s more of a juggling act.
From my experience the Mommy Wars (stay-at-home moms vs. working moms) are a made up term used to sell magazines and generate a buzz. Most women I know (maybe because I only hang out with good people) are generally happy with their situation and accept the pros and cons (although some days are better than others), and realize that each of us is different. We have to make decisions that fit us and our families – not what some “expert” says.
Keep in touch with your network – former classmates, current and former colleagues, and anyone else you meet in your field! If you decide to stay home you’ll need help from this group if you want to jump back into the workforce later. Volunteer to keep your skills up to date. Start your own business (see “Learn how to be an entrepreneur” above) or if you’re fortunate enough to have a career with some flexibility (see “Try and pick a career with flexibility” above) work just a little bit for a while. I know moms who work one day a month, and plan to increase their hours as their children grow older.
- There are plenty of young mothers who do remarkable jobs, and many more who struggle mightily. And there are women of “perfect” childbearing age who still struggle …while everyone is free to make her own choice, perhaps *some* women would make other choices if there were more open conversations about fertility. I think society makes both options seem to easy – get pregnant whenever or get some medical help. When really, neither option is always that simple.
- Finish yourself as best as you can. travel, finish your education, whatever before you have children. it’s definitely possible to do those things with kids but it’s undeniably easier to do them without kids.
- I sometimes have to stop myself from screaming at younger friends who want kids, but keep putting it off because they assume it will be easy. Mind you, I waited too, but so many assume they will fall pregnant instantly, instead of many years and miscarriages later. They literally think they will just get pregnant, according to the clock, right after that 34th birthday so they can deliver just before 35 (when we all become “high risk” on paper). It doesn’t work like that for so many of us, and the truth is, you don’t know which category you fall into until it happens.
- Seriously love is great.. but it can WAIT! I really mean this…. I was 31 when I got married, 35 when I had my first child and 38 when I had my last. I lived in NYC for 8 years and traveled some and had a wonderful time. I am a better mom today because I lived first!
Make Plans, But Be Ready to Adapt To Circumstances
I changed my major halfway through my junior year of college, and thankfully still graduated on time. I put stuff away for an apartment, but moved back home with my parents because it was free and I wasn’t making much. My grandmother said I might meet someone nice at my five year high school reunion, I lectured her that I wasn’t looking for a boyfriend and just wanted to have fun. Your Uncle drove me home that night. I went to grad school full-time because I got laid off, again. My goal was to start and stop having kids between the age of 30-35 – I did have the first one during those years! Your Uncle lost his job when I was two weeks pregnant and we moved to Arkansas when your cousin was three months old. Not what I had planned, but we made it work and recognized that life is what you make of it.
“Life turns out best for those who make the best of the way life turns out.” ~ Art Linkletter
Enjoy each stage while it lasts and don’t rush into the next one!
Make the best decisions you can using introspection and the wisdom of others, but know that although your decisions now are life-affecting, they are NOT permanent. Use life’s twists and turns to your advantage. U-turns are not the norm, but can be navigated successfully. You are always in control of who and what you become. Settling is not necessary although most will tell you it is because of life’s demands. There is always a way provided your will can stand up to the negativity.
Lastly, your Uncle and I love you and your sisters very much and are very proud of all of you. We look forward to watching your life unfold over the years. Please know that we are here for you if you need us. We’re always just a phone call (or a plane ticket) away. XXOO (hugs and kisses, how my grandmother signed every card).
– Aunt Suzanne