Today, I’m attending the 50th anniversary celebration of the UC Irvine Summer Orientation Program, an organization I’d never heard of when I applied to the school, but that ultimately defined my entire college experience.
I attended the program as an incoming freshman, spent two summers working as a volunteer staffer, and was eventually hired to help run it during my senior year of college.
It was during this program that I first considered working in the field of education. I was 21 years old and experiencing the joy of working hard with people I admired in the service of something we believed in (it’s not a coincidence that this is exactly what Collegewise is for those of us here today).
My first experience with public speaking, writing to a large audience, interviewing and hiring, and, in one case, firing an employee, all took place during the years I worked with summer orientation.
My boss who became my mentor (and who would one day enroll her son at Collegewise)? I have the program to thank for the influence she’s had in my life.
Fourteen years later, summer orientation brought me back as a guest speaker to welcome the new college freshmen.
And today, I’ll be heading to the reunion with four of my closest college friends—a heart surgeon, a dentist, an editor, and an electrical engineer—guys I’ve known for over 25 years. All of us are coming back to the school and to the program we once called home.
But all that opportunity, all the learning, all the fun and friends and impact this program has made in my life since I was 18 years old–none of it was predictable. UC Irvine couldn’t have promised those outcomes in the pre-internet brochure I read. All they could do was present boundless opportunities inside and outside of the classroom for me and other students to choose from. Not everything panned out for me in the same way. But once I found summer orientation, I made the most of my opportunity.
I pound the drum daily on this blog that what you do in college is more important than where you do it, that hundreds and hundreds of colleges, not just the famous ones, can offer you opportunities for learning, growth, and fun if you’re willing to seek and take advantage of them. It’s not just an idealistic belief. It’s a fundamental truth about the American college education system.
I’ve watched this lesson play out for my friends from college, for hundreds of eager, wide-eyed freshmen who came through the summer orientation program, and for thousands of Collegewise students who found and went on to thrive at the right colleges—some famous, many not—for them.
As the next wave of senior families prepares for their students to enter the college application process, I know many of you are anxious about the unknown. But I’m here to tell you that the unknown is where the surprises are waiting. Yes, be thoughtful and make informed choices—this is too important to leave entirely to chance. But remember that the sources of the life-changing magic of college often surprise those changed by them. And it’s those surprises that can make all the difference. You can decide to fear them, or you can eagerly await them.
Put a different way, if the college admissions process seems far more stressful than it does enjoyable, try changing “We don’t know what will happen” to “We can’t wait to find out.”
That change of posture just might change the game.
And happy 50th birthday, summer orientation.