It Took Me 22 Years To Learn Why College Mattered So Much

I’ve been thinking a lot about college and money this past month. It started with two Death, Sex & Money podcast episodes on student loan secrets (part 1 and 2). Like many of the people featured in these episodes, I relied heavily on college student loans, signed the loan agreements without really understanding what I was doing, and found myself completely freaked out by the magnitude of the loans on the flip side. After college I aggressively paid off my loans because debt made me enormously anxious. So hearing the depth and complexity of shame, frustration, and panic in the people featured in the Death, Sex & Money episodes really touched a nerve.

Then, a couple of weeks ago while Laurel and I were on a walk, she told me she decided where she wants to go to college. I’m not sure why she was even researching this topic (she will be entering 8th grade in the fall so, hello, there is time!) but it seems to be because her friends have started discussing it. Her desired choice is an excellent one. It’s also one whose current costs for tuition, room, board, and fees total $66,445 per year.


Later that evening, I brought up the college thing with Jon. The impetus for the conversation was a “How are we doing on those 529s?” type thing (that $66,445 price tag + my attempts to extrapolate what that figure would be in 2022 were clearly weighing on me), but I soon realized that a big part of the conversation involved my emotional baggage around college disappointment and my concerns for Laurel. Because here’s the thing: no one believes me when I say this, but I was a solid C student in high school. I applied to about a dozen colleges, most of which were way beyond my reach and the public facing nature of college rejections stung. Laurel is a stellar student, but still, I think knowing how high she is aiming triggered my own emotions about college rejections. I found myself fretting about how college rejections might land on Laurel’s sensitive self. I know I can’t protect her from this sort of thing, and learning to work through disappointment = good, but still. Gah.

One more critical, unexpected thing happened during that conversation. Given the distinct, dramatic line that bisected my high school and college academic performance, I have always assumed that my brain just wasn’t wired to process academics until later. In high school I struggled mightily just to achieve C’s. At Wheaton College I made Dean’s List every semester and graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. I went on to earn a Master’s degree and a Ph.D. I figured I was just a late bloomer. But as I talked further with Jon, he completely flipped my academic assumptions upside down. He told me that someone with my work ethic and attention to detail would have gotten all A’s had I been supported during childhood. Listen, I’m not trying to throw my parents under the bus but the reality was that they were extremely busy and stressed raising 7 children, our growing up was chaotic and disruptive, and my school struggles were not met with unconditional love and support. Jon’s argument made sense.

In contrast, at Wheaton, the adult figures in my life were -- with one exception, against whom I still hold a teeny tiny grudge -- completely different. I was celebrated for success, yes, but more crucially, I was supported when I struggled. I remember bombing my first Psychology 101 exam and professor Jeff Mann assuaged my panic (I was planning on declaring psychology as a major and figured I was sunk) and worked through my exam mistakes with me. I remember struggling mightily with Chemistry 101 (my hard science requirement) and feeling enormous pressure and embarrassment because by that time I was established as a high achiever at Wheaton and I was worried that professor Elita Pastra-Landis would think poorly of me. When we met up for extra help, it was almost as if she could read my mind; she looked me directly in the eye and said, “You do know that this test grade doesn’t make you a bad person, right?” I remember when my violin teacher ripped me apart during a lesson right before my recital. I went to cry in the bathroom and when I came out, professor Ann Sears waved me into office (which was next to the bathroom), gave me a big bear hug, talked to me about how the crappy lessons are just as important as the great ones, and assured me that my recital would not be a disaster. And I remember during freshman year when I was considering transfer to the Tufts/New England Conservatory dual degree program and professor Carlton Russell (who was my advisor and also on the retention committee) said words that had never been said to me before: We really want you to stay. You are highly valued here.

My eyes are leaking just typing this all out.

I have always valued my college experience, but it wasn’t until that conversation with Jon -- 22 years following my graduation -- that I realized how holistically instrumental my professors at Wheaton College were in expanding my mind and helping me think critically, yes, but also in delivering the support and unconditional acceptance that was lacking during my childhood. That unconditional acceptance unlocked my understanding that stumbles lead to strides and enabled me to move forward with purpose and intention, no matter how rocky the path.

Laurel’s challenges are different. She has the benefit of parental support -- both emotional and academic -- and is achieving plenty of academic success. But she undoubtedly will arrive at college with her own set of challenges and quandaries and she no doubt will experience her own personal breakthroughs via friendships, mentors, and the unique situations that college offers. We’re living in a maddening era of anti-intellectualism right now, but it’s now more clear than ever that college represents so much. And I am ever emboldened to help my girls find their way there.

Disclosure: This post reflects a compensated editorial partnership with Fidelity/MEFA. All opinions about the life changing nature of college, and the fact that kids and grownups alike should be dumping money into their 529 are, of course, my own. To learn more about the 529 college savings account, hop over to the MEFA website.

Featured photo by Faustin Tuyambaze on Unsplash