'The real world' starts in college

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It was my first day of college.

Standing at the base of Lorimer Chapel, overlooking a snow-covered Mayflower Hill, my mother turned to me and said: "You're going to have a great time here. But remember, college is about getting ready for the real world."

I had heard this advice before.

The first time I visited Colby College was in 2005, just a few days before the April 1 deadline when prospective students make their college commitment.

As the admissions counselor at Colby began her spiel about the "liberal arts experience" and "preparation for the real world," I slowly began to tune her out. This lady seems nice, I thought, but my future is not going to be in the liberal arts. Moreover, I was not going to attend a school with only 1,800 students, located a full hour north of Portland, Maine.

I had made my final decision about college a few weeks earlier, or so I thought. I bought a T-shirt that cried: "GO! Maryland Terps!" and began to visualize the bright and promising future that awaited me as a journalism student at the University of Maryland at College Park.

So, when my mom insisted that we still make our planned drive from Queens, N.Y., up to Waterville, Maine, I seriously objected. My decision had been made, and plus, "It's too far away, it's too expensive, it's too ... New Englandy!"

In the end, however, she won out -- and so did Colby.

Despite my best efforts to stick with the Maryland plan, I fell in love. The campus, the classes I attended, even the preachy admissions lady made me feel at home.

Fast-forward through my first semester of college, which I spent participating in a Colby-run program in Dijon, France, and I was back in Waterville.

"College is about preparing yourself for the real world," my mother repeated.

And my mom wasn't the only one.

At Colby, most professors began their courses by explaining how each academic experience will facilitate the skills to think critically, give thoughtful presentations and write well. They assured us that by honing these skills now, we would be better prepared for "what's out there."

Administrators and deans reiterated this philosophy in their speeches, emphasizing how the responsibilities that we took on in college would prepare us to be informed, productive citizens in the real world.

I internalized this advice for four years. And then, one day in the spring of 2010, the peonies on Mayflower Hill blossomed and I graduated.

Enter, the real world.

In the real world, there are no meal plans, no guaranteed health insurance and, as was my experience this summer in Pittsburgh, no air conditioning.

There are no career counselors to tell you if you're making good decisions and no professors to reassure you that you're on the right track. Planning for what comes next becomes a confusing and sometimes overwhelming process as you learn to think of life as just life, and not blocks of time broken down by fall, winter and spring terms.

There are decisions to be made, and our college experiences have brought us to the point where we are ready to make well-informed choices, right?

Maybe not.

Last month, consumed with anxiety over how to make plans for an unknown future, it dawned upon me that this "getting set for the real world" advice was perhaps the worst I had received during my college years. I realized that to mentally separate four years of college from the rest of my adult life had been a mistake.

My advice is to reject the notion that college is a distinct era, somehow separate from your future life in the "real world."

Instead, look at your freshman year as the beginning of the rest of your adult life. Once you accept this perception of your college experience, you can leave school with the resolve to take each day one at a time, knowing full well that you may not immediately have all the answers.

Moreover, appreciate the higher education experience for what it is: a four-year period during which time you have a unique opportunity to work on yourself.

Whatever career path you intend to pursue after graduation, use these four years to expand your horizons and become a better writer, problem-solver and intellectual.

Upon graduation, you won't necessarily feel prepared for the obstacles that you will inevitably face, but you won't expect to, either. You'll simply graduate four years older, and hopefully, four years wiser.

Elisabeth Ponsot, who is a Post-Gazette intern, graduated this year from Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where she majored in government. She can be reached at localnews@post-gazette.com .


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