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What I'd Tell My College Freshman Self

An Open Letter to My 18-Year-Old College Self

Dear College Girl,

It has been almost 25 years since I graduated from college. I've now been a college graduate for over half of my life, if I'm doing the math correctly, and there is always an excellent chance that I'm not. And while I am most amazed at the reality that I am old enough to be your mother, I'm also astounded that those five years — I took a senior year victory lap; I highly recommend this — that happened so long ago have had such a profound, lasting effect on my life even all this time later.

It makes me wonder what I wish my 18-year-old self knew as I moved into my dorm room and tried to figure out how to fit my entire wardrobe in a closet the size of a shower stall in a prison cell. What would I tell myself if I could go back to the Fall of 1989? My first thoughts are these three things:

  1. Wear sunscreen. Tan now and you will pay later in the form of pricey antiaging moisturizers.
  2. Those boys who seem like they could have real potential if you could just change a few things about them aren't going to change.
  3. Your college transcript does tend to follow you around, so maybe do study for that Physics 201 exam.

But what I really think about is how many different emotions there are as you walk out onto this precipice between childhood and adulthood. You are so happy to be finished with high school. At the same time, there's a part of you that can't believe that piece of your life is over. Here's what I will tell you: whether you have felt like everything leading up to this moment was the best or worst years of your life, don't carry that into the new life that's waiting for you.

Life isn't about what you already know. It's about what you're going to learn from this point on. You are standing at an open door, with the whole world at your feet, about to embark on one of the greatest adventures of your life. Years ago, I heard someone declare, "It's Saturday night, I've got a new pair of shoes . . . the possibilities are endless!" This is your Saturday night. This is your new pair of shoes. Your possibilities are endless.

You have the ability to exceed everyone's expectations of you, including how you see yourself.

Don't live a life where you let your past define who you are and what you will become, because I can guarantee you that life never turns out like you think it will. You have the ability to exceed everyone's expectations of you, including how you see yourself. You have unique gifts and talents and the world is waiting to see how you will use them.

It's your willingness to go through those open doors that you don't expect or feel prepared for that turns your life into a great adventure. And you only get one shot. When you realize that failure is inevitable, whether you're doing what you want or not, you might as well take a stab at figuring out what it is you love and go for the dream. In the words of Norman Vincent Peale, "Shoot for the moon, because even if you miss, you'll land among the stars."

It's our failures that teach us the most in life and, as much as character-building experiences can be the worst, they are also a gift in the long run. Hitting rock bottom can become the solid foundation for you to build something that really matters. Your life will be determined by what you do after you fail. Do you give up or do you keep trying? Will you embrace it and learn from it or let it become an excuse for not living up to who you can be?

You are going to make mistakes. You will drink beer out of a funnel at a fraternity party and regret that decision. You will keep dating the wrong boy because you believe your love is enough to change him. You will eat pizza at 2 a.m. every night until you realize the problem isn't that your pants are shrinking in the dryer. You will choose the wrong major, have professors who don't care that you slept through your alarm, and score a 13 on a test you didn't study for, which means you'll have to drop that class from your schedule because ain't nobody recovering from a 13 on a test. You will cry harder than you thought was possible and feel more scared than you want to admit.

You will learn that your parents were right and character is who you are when no one is looking.

But you will also make friends that become a second family; you will discover who you really are and what is important to you. You will go to football games and sorority parties and make memories that still make you smile almost 25 years later. You will change more than you even realize and discover that you are strong and smart and that life is going to be OK even when a relationship ends or you fail a test or your car gets towed by the university police because you forgot to pay the 10 parking tickets you received during the Fall semester. You will laugh and love and look back on these years as one of the greatest gifts of your life.

You will learn that your parents were right and character is who you are when no one is looking and that the key to living a successful life is never compromising your integrity or letting your pride get in the way of making smart decisions. And that there is no job, relationship, or goal worth losing who you are over because somewhere there is an opportunity that is waiting for the real you, the you that only you can be.

People around you will tell you that true success is a certain number in your bank account, a certain major, marrying a certain type of guy, a certain amount of cars in your driveway, and maybe that all kinds of people know your name. But true success and prosperity come as you figure out that what matters most in life is embracing what comes your way, both good and bad, holding on to the people you love, and being fiercely loyal to your friends and yourself.

As you walk into this new chapter of your life that feels so unfamiliar and new, fill your life with hope and possibilities. Walk through this open door with your arms wide open. Follow your dreams, take a risk, do the thing that seems too scary. Don't wait for things to happen but rather make your own future, chart your own course and hold your head high. This is your time and you can do anything you set your mind to do.

And, most of all, have a ball and let your light shine bright.

Melanie Shankle is a New York Times bestselling author, podcaster, wife, and mother. Her next book, Church of the Small Things: The Million Little Pieces That Make Up a Life, is out Oct. 3. The Texas A&M graduate lives with her husband, Perry, and their daughter, Caroline, in San Antonio, TX.

Image Source: Melanie Shankle
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