I’ve often said that the best thing my parents ever did for me was to send me 3,000 miles away from home. At age 17, I went from home in Washington State to Middlebury College in Vermont. And I grew up very quickly.
I hadn’t liked myself very well in high school. I was bookish and introverted, smart and embarrassed by it, short and unathletic. I wanted to change. Well, I knew I wouldn’t grow any taller, but I could change my personality, I thought.
Middlebury’s strong reputation as a foreign language school attracted me, as did its small size. But mostly it was the distance from home. If I went far away, to a college where no one knew me, I could change who I was. Or so I thought as a 17-year-old.
So I got my ears pierced (to make myself look older – a story for another time), and headed off to Middlebury.
For the first few weeks at Middlebury, I tried new experiences – parties, football games, dances, other things I hadn’t done much of in high school. Plus, in the mid-1970s, the drinking age was 18 in Vermont, and no one in town or on campus ever carded a college student. I wouldn’t say I went wild, but I was not the nebbish I’d been in high school (if a Catholic girl can be called a “nebbish”).
I pretty quickly realized what I was comfortable doing and what I wasn’t. Turns out, I am a nerd. I am introverted. And that’s all right. I don’t have to change.
By the end of September in my freshman year, I’d figured how who I was, and became comfortable with myself. That’s a pretty big lesson to learn at age 17.
Then I went on to have a wonderful college experience that paved the path for the journey I have taken in the 36 years since I graduated. I used my bookishness to graduate in three years and to get into law school, where I met my husband, who is from Missouri, and the rest is history.
If I hadn’t learned my life lesson so quickly, would I have graduated in three years, gone to Stanford Law School, and been in the same law school class as my husband? If not, my life would have turned out differently. The corollary of learning to be yourself is learning not to have regrets for the decisions you make.
I’m thinking a lot about Middlebury this week, because I’ve spent the last two evenings representing the college at local college fairs. I’m not a good salesperson (too introverted), but it’s easy for me to sell Middlebury. I had a wonderful three years there, and I can be authentic as I encourage other high school students to explore whether Middlebury is right for them.
Not many people in the Kansas City area have ever heard of Middlebury College, though it is one of the top liberal arts colleges in the nation. It’s in a small town, nestled in a valley near Lake Champlain between the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains. It’s cold in the winter (waiting to hitch a ride to the ski slope is another story for another time), but idyllic in its setting. I went there sight unseen as a 17-year-old, and was extremely fortunate to find a lovely campus with great professors and fellow students.
Yes, I got homesick. And when I did, I’d look west over the Adirondacks, and think of my family 3,000 miles away.
But the lessons I learned so far away from home not only gave me a strong academic foundation for my life, but taught me about myself as well.