A Mother’s Advice for College Students

This is the time of year when millions of young Americans are heading off to college, including my own daughter. In the spirit of maternal love and concern, I wanted to offer a bit of wisdom to them, based on my observations and personal experience.

No. 1: Actually, don’t try to change the world.

The college-bound youth of this country (and others) hear constantly that they are the “best and the brightest.” They are often launched into adulthood carrying the weight of all society’s ills, having been told that it’s their charge to “solve” perennial problems like poverty, hunger and war, which have existed since humankind crawled out of caves. (Not to mention the relatively more recent matters that our neurotic elites have decided are crises, like overpopulation, “climate change,” “the patriarchy” and “white supremacy.”)

The delegation of these responsibilities is apparently supposed to be inspiring, despite the fact that teenagers and 20-somethings typically have inadequate education, experience or judgment to resolve anything as widespread, varied and hotly disputed as these issues are.

Unfortunately, I think the whole “best and brightest” spiel has contributed both to the explosion of depression and anxiety and the rise of strident intolerance we have witnessed on college campuses across the country for some years now. To paraphrase poet William Butler Yeats and songstress Joni Mitchell, the best of our young people are overwhelmed when they think about those unwieldy responsibilities, and the worst are full of passion without mercy.

Better than committing to “change the world” is the decision to make good decisions in one’s own circumstances.

And in that vein …

No. 2: You do have some control over the “culture” on campus.

Every new school year brings headlines about the culture of substance use (and abuse) and “hooking up” — the latter of which is, regrettably, often fueled by the former. Here — unlike world peace — a student’s individual decisions can have dramatic impact. It’s quite simple, in fact — don’t drink to excess, don’t use illegal drugs, don’t take others’ prescription meds (a source of many tragic fentanyl overdoses) and don’t treat sex like recreation. You keep yourself out of danger — and you never know how many people you can influence by making better choices.

No. 3: It’s not about the grades; it’s about knowledge.

There is so much pressure to cheat — an impulse that is now exacerbated by the omnipresence of the internet and artificial intelligence.

Ultimately, however, this is counterproductive. Success in life is about knowledge and character, not grades. If you scoff at this, ask yourself: Would you rather be operated on by a surgeon, represented by a lawyer or flown by a pilot who got A’s by cheating, or B’s by doing his or her own work?

No. 4: Character starts early.

Cheating also sets a bad precedent, and being under pressure is no excuse. If you didn’t do the work, take your lumps. If you cut corners in small things, you’ll be inclined to do so when even more is on the line. Character is established in everyday decisions.

No. 5: How clean is your own environment?

Some years ago, I was told by a student that my generation was responsible for the polluted environment. I said to him, “Fair enough. But what does your dorm or apartment look like? Your car?”

His expression told me plenty.

Don’t be a hypocrite. Concern for the environment starts at home.

No. 6: Be humble — you may be wrong.

This is advice that is just as applicable to older folks as to college students, but it’s a good attitude to adopt early on in life. It is wise to consider whether you have all the information before exploding with the righteous indignation that accompanies inflated belief in one’s elevated moral status. If advocates of the prevailing narrative about which you are so certain are shutting down dissent, objection, contrary opinions, arguments and even research, you are probably operating in relative ignorance. That’s bad. Ignorance and arrogance together are much worse.

No. 7: Diversity is about more than external characteristics.

The inclination to include others and make them feel appreciated and valued is worthwhile. Make sure it includes not only those who don’t look like you, but those who think differently. Encourage conversation and debate. You might learn something. (See No. 6 above.)

No. 8: Appreciate people for things other than their politics.

There is so much more to human interaction and relationships than who people vote for (yet further proof that government has grown too ubiquitous in our lives). Find other things you have in common with those around you: a love of movies, books, music, food, puppies, sunsets, travel, whatever. Be interested in others’ nonpolitical interests. A great conversationalist asks open-ended questions and then listens sincerely; learn how to become one. Your life will improve immeasurably.

No. 9: Love works more miracles than power.

It’s easy to talk about caring for humanity. But real love values others enough to engage them in reasoned discussion. Persuasion creates commitment; brute force creates resentment. Enough said.

So, dear young people, do go off to school this year determined to make a difference — but look for those opportunities right next to you. In doing so, you will have more impact than you ever thought possible.

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