I went to a small liberal arts college in Amish Country, PA and for the first two years after my matriculation, I was all over the place, one dichotomy after the other. I pledged a white sorority, I joined the black student union, I dated a graduate, I attended freshman activities. After a tumultuous break-up in high school with a church that planned out my entire future, I sat in government 101 classes, thinking, hmm, this might be what I want to do. When I struggled through that course and realized that my writing was the only thing that really saved me that semester, I thought, hmm, maybe English. I quickly dropped that idea when the head of that department was a prickly man who I only saw as a prick. By the time I was a rising Junior, I had three major declarations. At the start of my 3rd year in college, I met my college adviser, an older white gentleman who loved New York, whose daughter’s name was the same as mine, and who had written a book on Central Park. He was the head of the department and he had to sign off on the lofty endeavor I was proposing. I wanted to get my feet wet and dive in the pool all at the same time with little or no justification as to why American Studies was of interest to me.
He didn’t seem immediately smitten with me, which has always been a difficult thing for me to accept, but he was a man who demanded excellence and hard work. He was not impressed with charm or excuses, two things I had a good portion of at the time. In order to graduate on time, in four years, I was to take the 100, 200, and 300 level courses simultaneously in one semester. Whether either of us liked it or not, we were forced to see the potential in our union. I didn’t always appreciate the 90-minute lectures about the importance of monuments and he didn’t really appreciate the crafty way I could capture 50 pages of reading in one comment when he accurately figured I had only read 15 of them. But again, a unique relationship was formed.
During my senior year, a few months before graduation, I sat in his office just to shoot the breeze, which I did quite often that year, especially after 9-11, which rocked us both in a profound way. I shared with him that despite my current academic success, being on Dean’s List two consecutive semesters and finally finding my own at this school and not being blown by the wind at ever corner, I was still so immobilized by uncertainty of what my next steps were to be. I was resentful that the message of “you don’t have to figure it out, just graduate,” given to me years earlier were false and now as I was putting final edits on my college chapter and drafting notes for my career chapter, I had hit a writer’s block and everyone demanded to know, “what’s next?”
What he asked next, after initially giggling at my naivete, will stay with me forever. “How important is money to you,” he posed matter of factly. I looked at him with a puzzled look and he added, “that’s where you need to start to figure out what is next.” I never grew up with money and although I had been educated with people who valued money differently because they had it, I didn’t even think to direct that question to myself in trying to figure out what I should do next. At the time, I prided myself in my struggles and wore them as badges of honor and thought it only right that I make only choices that were true to my heart and not to my wallet. I now would answer that question quite differently, but I now am aware that struggles take tolls and that you can have honor while still be financially sound.
My college adviser probably thinks of me less often than I do him, but I am so thankful for the impact of that conversation that brisk spring day of 2002. I ask myself that question all of the time now so that I can make the wisest decision on what to do next.