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Students: Life is like an intersection

Holly Spangler rural road through cornfields
STRAIGHT: Everybody loves a straight path.
Student life is real hard these days, but here’s how I know it’ll all be OK.

Way back when, somebody clearly had something against T intersections in western Illinois. They liked Y’s.

This has annoyed me for 25 years because instead of one road meeting another with a stop sign and a right perpendicular angle, the road turns into a giant Y and you take a curve to go left or right. Somebody stops, looks back over their shoulder to figure out if it’s clear, then proceeds. Hopes for the best.

To my way of thinking, the T works better. You stop because your road ends. You look. It’s clear. It’s easy. No looking over your shoulder. No straining to see what might come out of nowhere and smack you.

But while I deeply dislike them, a Y intersection is like life. You have to make a choice. It’s hard to see what’s around the curve. It’s not always clear who’s in charge. Maybe there’s some corn in the way. Maybe someone nearly hits you.

It’s been a hot minute since I was a student, but I’d venture to guess a lot of students feel like that car at a Y intersection right now.

Student life

Think about it: You’re a senior in high school, and everyone’s asking, “What are you gonna do next year? Where are you gonna go to college? What do you want to do with your life?”

Or you’re a college kid and everybody’s asking, “What’s next? Do you have a job? What do you want to do? Where are you gonna work?”

They’re innocent questions, likely asked by well-meaning adults who are just trying to engage with their young people. But the heart of those questions is the same: What’s your plan?

And the truth is, a lot of young people don’t know.

The senior in high school hasn’t had a full year of normal high school. The pandemic began in March of their freshman year. They were in and out their sophomore year and masked most of their junior year. They’ve been quarantined and social distanced. They didn’t even have a locker for a couple of years there. The fun stuff of high school — the dress-up days, the dances, the class trips? Most of them were canceled.

The college kids are in the same boat. The college senior hasn’t had a full year of normal college. Locked away in a dorm room, quarantined at home, tested and masked. Their internship opportunities have been limited and virtual. I used internships to help figure out what I wanted to do (and didn’t want to do). These students haven’t had many chances to figure that out.

The world itself has shifted in the past couple of years, like a thousand-piece puzzle that got tossed in the air, and we’re trying to fit it all back together. The job market has turned upside down. Do you even need a four-year degree anymore? Ag college recruiters now say their biggest competition for male students is a job, because earning potential is that high right now. Maybe we don’t need that piece anymore. Or maybe we’ll find out in a few years that we really did need it. It’s hard to know.

First rate

So, what’s your plan? It’s OK not to know. It’s OK to keep looking.

I suppose the best advice I ever got still holds true, pandemic or no: Your life and your work are not the same. Don’t confuse them. Yes, find a job you like. But build a life. Build a real life with real friends in a place you love.

Author Anna Quindlen wrote, “You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.”

So if you’re a young person at a Y in the road, look around. Figure out what you’re good at and follow what you enjoy (unless it’s beer; then, you know, moderation).

Be a good friend to the people you enjoy by showing up when you’re needed, and even when you’re not. Be a person who offers solutions in tandem with complaints, instead of just complaints. And know it’s OK not to have a job or a college lined up months in advance. Keep looking. You’ll get there. It will be OK.

And the next time somebody asks about your plan, it’s OK to smile and say, “I don’t know today. But I will, around the curve.”

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