The Optimism of College

GATech

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Georgia Tech and Clemson University for work. While it isn’t uncommon for me to be on college campuses in my job, these trips were a bit unique in that I had some down time between meetings at each place which allowed me the chance to walk around both campuses a bit on beautiful late summer days in the South.

While each school has some beautiful spots (like the fountain above at Georgia Tech), it wasn’t the natural beauty that struck me. What really stood out to me was how energizing college campuses can be. There was a buzz in the air as I walked around amongst the 18-22 year olds in their environment. Yes, I did realize how old I’ve become as I noted the differences in fashion, language, and fitness level. Sure I had a few moments of angst as students just walked right out in front of my car in the middle of the street because that is where they wanted to cross. And I certainly had some trepidation for our country when I saw the frat boys slamming beers on the front porch of their house at 2 in the afternoon. But those things just come with the territory.

What I had forgotten in my nearly 20 years out of college is how much hope, optimism, excitement, blissful ignorance, and energy can be found around university students. The highlight of my trips last week was the opportunity to speak to a Sports Marketing Class at Clemson University. Far from dis-engaged, the students seemed interested, asked good questions, had insightful comments, and a few even hung around to talk after class. I was on cloud 9 the entire drive home. There is something about young adults, aspiring to be professionals in your field, listening and soaking in your instruction that makes one feel like they are important.

Over the past few days, I’ve been mulling over why I had that reaction to these experiences back on campus. I think certainly there is some nostalgia about my own time at Milligan College. My time tucked away in the mountains of East Tennessee, making the best friends of my life, and learning how to learn were some of the most formative and impactful years I’ve experienced. I remembered back to the carefree feeling of early fall days when classes were over and basketball practice hadn’t yet begun or the springtime when a Friday afternoon meant taking off early (and maybe even skipping a class) for a camping trip.

I’m sure part of my euphoria was also connected to the 10 years that I spent on college campuses as a basketball coach and athletic administrator. I met my wife on a college campus and our lives, both personal and professional, revolved around those schools and their athletic departments for many years before our own kids came along. We developed intimate relationships with the coaches and student-athletes we worked with, and developed passions for the schools where we worked.

Still, I think it is the optimism I sensed that excited me the most. Unlike our adult lives that often grind on endlessly from week to week and month to month with no beginning and no end, college has built in points of reset. The start of school in the fall is a chance for everyone to have a clean slate with no grades in place, no interpersonal fractures with professors or friends, and a fresh start. Every year there is a new crop of freshmen experiencing things for the first time, which adds to the excitement. Most schools have a fall break that is the end of the first big push of the year, and when you come back you start focusing on getting the first semester wrapped up. Then it is an extended Christmas break time for family, football bowl games, and a time to decompress. The Spring semester gives you the promise of new and different classes, established friendships, and the pursuit of an internship or other summer activities. By the time Spring Break rolls around, you’ve pushed yourself to have a good start and you come back from a week of fun in the sun to finish the school year with 6-8 weeks of either hanging on in your classes or throwing in the towel. The end of the semester may have angst and anxiety, but after a week its over and there isn’t anything you can do about. All that is left is to move on to whatever personal or professional opportunities you’ve lined up for yourself in the summer, where if you’re lucky you get a 3 month ‘test drive’ of something you think you want to do for the rest of your life. Then you walk away from your summer fun/work, wash your hands of it, and start the cycle over.

How could you not be optimistic if every 3 months you got a ‘reset?’ It is no wonder that there is energy permeating from college campuses. Rather than starting each week looking at last week’s sales report and worrying about how this week will impact next month, every week holds the promise of its own new challenges with little regard for last week and certainly no concern for things months from now. Instead of facing the same 8 am start and 5 pm end to the day Monday through Friday, college schedules are random and scattered with some classes meeting 3 times a week, others 2, a few one day a week, and an intensive seminar now and then. Some days your first class is at 8, sometimes it might be 10. When Friday rolls around all you think about is yourself, not chores around the house or kids’ activities. If you go through a semester and struggle with a class, its over in less than 6 months and you redirect things to an area where you’ll find more success; think about the opportunity to do that on your work projects!

For me, being on these college campuses was a great mental reset. It not only made me grateful for my own college experience, but it got me thinking about trying to borrow some of their optimism for my own life again. If you haven’t been on a college campus in awhile, I’d strongly encourage you to go – go back to your alma mater for Homecoming, volunteer to be a guest lecturer at a local school, or go to a random art or sporting event at a nearby school. Park somewhere on the edge and give yourself some time to walk the campus, hit a coffee shop, or stop in at the student union. Then sit back and ask yourself why you shouldn’t have the same optimism as the students you see around you? My grind is only a grind when I let it be that way and so is yours.

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