It’s Never Too Late to Be a Happy College Student

The dogwoods are close to their peak. This time last year, a freak late frost and snow killed springtime. Crops were ruined (acorns, strawberries, apples) and yards and gardens took a brutal and lasting hit. Japanese maples were especially hard hit, with some dying and most just losing all or most of their leaves, and spending an entire year naked and dormant.

Scenes from last year’s spring:

A dogwood limb with dead flowers like dirty tissue draped over the branches.

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My back-yard bleeding heart plant, frost-killed just as it puts forth the year’s first white blooms. The stems and flowers rotted and the whole thing eventually died back completely:

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Scene from this spring:

This is a college student from good old UNCA, wearing shorts and a dingy t-shirt, relaxing in a tree full of spring blossoms. This pic was taken this past Thursday by John Coutlakis of the Asheville Citizen-Times.

I love it because it captures the ease that most of us seem to lose with age. We trade in the cargo shorts and string anklet for heels and hose and ties and a mortgage. There’s got to be some way to hang on to the right and the leisure to read books in trees. Why are experiences like these the purview of college students, and no one older?

Lately I’ve come to realize that the main hidden benefit of college may be the way it opens avenues to new experiences in new places.

A young woman I knew from last semester — the cross young copy editor, in fact — spent a transformative semester in Washington, D.C. working for women’s nonprofit groups.

She fell in love with the city. She fell in love with her work. She’s thinking of holding off grad school to explore herself and her life more as a nonprofit worker for women’s rights.

This is something college does well, and often at a key cusp-of-adulthood time — take us to new places and let us explore new selves and new interests. After college, we harden up, feel more tied to the sameness of our lives: the bills, the yard, the work, the pets. The routine. The familiar.

I think my next big college challenge is to find a way to let myself be like a traditional college student, and let myself, like a caring and involved parent, have some kind of wholly new experience that completely transgresses all my needs to stay tied to the life I built not completely out of growth and exploration but also out of comfort, settling and default.

Rowan canceled her trip to Ireland out of knowing she hasn’t the time to do research overseas and still graduate this year. An exciting trip to a beautiful place to do research in a discipline she finds fulfilling became just another pain in the ass to be avoided in order to Get Things Done in the sweet daily life she lives now.

Heather, on the other hand, is a glutton for punishment. Days after finishing out a rough semester of biology in early May, she’ll hop on a plane bound for South America and spend two months of medical volunteerism in Cochabamba, Bolivia. She’s going alone, leaving her husband at home.

What will she have to say about her experiences when she comes back to us?

I can’t wait to hear it all, both to know my friend’s adventures and to convince myself there are completely new experiences still waiting for me, ones that can show me unexpected things about myself and my world that in my safety I never knew and never had a chance to know. Never knew how to know. And then one day I was 39 and the cats were hungry and the car was making a weird noise and my deadline for the website was Tuesday…

I realized while talking with a friend that my main problem with the international studies program at UNCA is that it actually requires that one spend multiple semesters abroad, instead of, as the friend and I would have preferred, letting us learn about other countries from the familiar safety of our own town. How inconvenient of the program to ask me and her, women grown and well over 30, to pull up stakes for a whole semester. We didn’t have time or money, we agreed, for such a thing, no matter how interested we were in the program. No matter how interested we were in the world.

Seconds after speaking I realized the utter stupidity of my position.

Not that I live a timid life for nothing but money and work. But I have never spent a semester in Washington working for women’s rights. I have never gone to Ireland to research religious traditions. I have certainly never braved all my excuses not to jump, all alone, onto a plane bound for Cochabamba, turning my back on my own world for two months.

What would happen to me if I did?

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