On Choosing a University (On Deciding the Rest of Your Life)
I give tours some Friday afternoons for the College of Engineering and Computing here at USC. After closing my tours, I generally hang out in the lobby of 300 Main, an engineering building here on campus, in case any shy prospectives want to ask me questions in private. A prospective student came up to me this past Friday after the tour and told me, somewhat frustratedly, "I just can't decide where to go to school."
At first, I was unsure how to take this. Was my tour not convincing enough to make this student want to be a gamecock? Immediately I thought of things to fix about my tour - maybe my jokes weren't that funny. Oh no, I thought - maybe Clemson's tour guide was funnier. And smarter. What if Clemson's tour guide had smarter and funnier jokes.
Wait. Maybe he doesn't know where he wants to go to school because I gave an awesome tour and now he has to rethink his college plans. Maybe my tour was more entertaining than the one at Clemson. How could I ever think their tour was better? Okay, Blakeley, I thought to myself - you did good. You made this kid rethink his entire life plan. Good, good.
And then, of course, it hit me (insert dramatic pause for effect here). This kid was a junior - we had talked before the tour - he still had a whole year to decide his fate. My tour was mostly (probably) irrelevant to his most recent confession - this prospective was anxious about choosing a college to attend in general. He probably did think that his entire life plan would be circumstance of his college selection - the weight of his entire future was about a year and one decision away.
And, in some ways, it is. Where you go to school affects where you go after school. I remember thinking like that when I was a high school senior (and let's be honest, junior, sophomore, freshman). I remember thinking that if I didn't attend an Ivy League school (or equivalent), that at eighteen years old, I had already failed to be a successful individual, forever. Obviously that's not true, but I remember, as a high schooler, that college admissions defined me and predicted my ability to be successful in the future - the decision of choosing where to go was as much about choosing what to study as it was about figuring out what you, as an eighteen year old, valued. In a lot of ways, I felt, choosing a university was a reflection of choosing what kind of person I wanted to be.
So let me first say: where you go to school does not define who you are as an individual. Philosophers have been debating for thousands of years about what makes an individual an unique individual, what makes you "you", and I promise you (having admittedly only taken one philosophy class), that no where in any famous discourse does a famous dead guy say, "The university in which you attend defines the inner essence of your being, blah, blah, blah." In the same way that the brand of your clothes do not define your beauty, labels like "Ivy League", "Liberal Arts College", "Technical School", "Community College" do not define your intellect, propensity for success, who you are, or what you will become. Unfortunately, I think society - the media, romantic movies about the American dream, what have you - propagate this idea that you are your degree in sum. Let me say again: where you go to school does not define you. In fact, I'd argue that the converse is true: you define the school to which you go. But that's an entirely different post to write.
After choosing to attend USC, I remember most of my family saying to me: "It's not what school you go to, it's what kind of student you are." Yes, so, so, so cliche. However, let's think statistics for a moment, and remind ourselves of the difference between causation and correlation. Sorry for breaking an inspirational streak, but just because you go to a "good school" does not mean you will be a "good" insert-your-career-title-here. Or, just because you go to a "bad school" does not mean you will be a bad insert-your-career-title-here. Feel free to expand the previous statement with adjectives of your choice. Correlations between particular institutions and success in particular fields are a thing, yes, but that still depends on what kind of student you are - and those are the types of questions you should be asking yourself. When I graduate, what will I have to have done or been in order to consider myself successful? Note that the answer to this question is not a university name and will probably change continually (and therefore can't be a university name unless you plan on transferring for, like, forever - this is a good moment to mention, however, that transferring is a thing). To choose a university is not to choose who you are or will become. I'd argue it's to choose how you want to become.
My last note here is that choosing a university does not actually decide the rest of your life, the chronology of events to follow your walking across a stage in some cloud-like robes. This is at least my hypothesis. You've probably seen this statement coming from the beginning of this post - and I recognize it's hard to hear and digest, especially among US News and World Report rankings, your peers complaining about waiting to hear back from institutions or about their own decisions, and movies like Homeless to Harvard (which, yes, was part of my high school's curriculum). And, yes, again, correlation is a thing. But I promise you, prospectives everywhere, that after about a year at your chosen institution, there are bigger decisions that will "decide my fate forever." (Air quotes are intentional here.) What will I do this summer? Do I like my major? Do I like my major enough to get a degree in it and work a job associated with these classes forever and ever? Do I want to go to graduate school? Do I want to pay for graduate school? Go into the industry? Where do I want to live after I graduate? Do I want to get Chipotle or Hibachi for dinner tonight? (This is more important than you suspect, young grasshopper.) Of course, the answers to these questions don't actually decide your fate forever, but it will feel like it, in the way choosing a university feels like an ultimatum to you now.
So now is your chance to "practice" solving such "rest of my life"-like problems and to start thinking about how you might want to solve them. Not even necessarily about the solutions themselves, but about your approach.
I think this is the point in my blog where I am obliged to say, though, that if you are thinking about engineering at USC, please click here - and again, I give tours on Fridays!