How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love College

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A screencap from the Coen brothers’ 2009 film “A Serious Man.”

College, the eternal rite of passage. It stands before us as the ultimate challenge of our lives. We go, we conquer, we go on to great things. Or at least that’s the story. But does college make a difference? It is just another institution, a step along the way, one of many things we “must” do before we can get on with our lives, or is it something bigger than that? I don’t know the answer. But in my experience it is simple: life is what you make it; so assuming that you have the opportunity to go to college, it’s all how you approach it.

I must admit that for me college was an afterthought. It was something everyone did after high school as opposed to finding a job. And at 18 I’d been down the job road before: delivering newspapers, washing dishes, cooking fast food. I knew what that was, so it was an easy choice. As much as working was comfortable, predictable, at that age it just didn’t seem enough. I wanted more. But I wasn’t sure what that was.

My parents taught me that it was important to chase your dreams, think big, and make a difference in the world. So there was that. But very importantly I also grew up during an amazing time in a world full of opportunities: I remember watching men orbit the earth during the Gemini missions and land on the moon in the Apollo missions. These achievements of our nation challenged a generation to reach for the stars — and stretch our imaginations —  and inspired us to do better. It taught me that if I was smart, and worked really hard, I too could walk on the moon or make other great achievements. Add to that the media’s attention to the ocean in the 1960s, specifically the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, and it was easy to see a path to marine biology as a career. Which worked for me.

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Me launching rockets in 1969. Astronomy and space travel is still a passion. Photo: Gene Tissot.

But still, when I graduated from high school and started college in 1975 I was scared to death. Even though the pressure was low by today’s standards (tuition at Cal Poly was only $65 a quarter), I was compelled to be successful, to make something of myself. I remember my first quarter at Cal Poly well: I felt unprepared, out of my depth, and lost. Soon my desk was piled high with textbooks and I was challenged with the primal college dilemma: balancing my new-found freedom with my obligation to studying. Books or beach? So during that first year, I just went surfing. It was free, pure and the books weren’t particularly fun. I was an easy choice.

But at some point that all changed, big time. And for those of you that know me it is not surprising that I eventually went on to receive my PhD and have been a college professor now for 25 years. So what changed? What deep dark secret did I discover that changed my perspective about college? How did I stop worrying and learn to love college?

Well, It’s pretty simple actually: I became passionate about something. The truth is that many places and many people will push you to pick your major when you start college: that’s ok but the mistake is to think it is a life-long commitment. Many college students, including me, take that all to seriously and it can become a barrier to a happy life. Don’t let that happen! Your life is yours to live, don’t let anyone tell you differently. And it is never, NEVER, too late to change your life. As they say life is a journey, not a destination so be sure to keep your eye on the journey part. It’s the road to success that is exciting, the ups and downs, trials and tribulations, self-doubts and ego boosts that make it interesting. After all, if life was easy it wouldn’t mean anything. The value is in the struggle.

So here’s what happened to me: I simply changed how I thought at my classes. It was simple and effective and the key was to recognizing my true passion — the ocean — and build on that. The ocean was the common dominator in my life, the love of my life, at least at that point. So during my sophomore year I made the jump from journalism, which I still love (I’m blogging, right?), to marine biology and I was stoked and motivated and I set my goal to become a marine biologist, which required a PhD.

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Graduating with my BS Degree, 1980, with my Mom. Photo: Gene Tissot.

Now goals are important as they can both motivate and be a roadmap to the future. But after I changed my major to biology my 3-hr/week journalism classes with thin textbooks and assignments on writing, mass media, and photography were replaced with 9 hr/week science classes with thick, heavy textbooks on math, chemistry, physics and biology. It was a daunting transition but one my passion, now in full bloom, tackled head on. The trick, which I mentally kept telling myself, was that I if I was going to be a successful marine biologist I had to master everything. I wanted it so bad that everything else just faded away. I learned to love it all, everything, because that was the only way I could be sure that I would make it.

Obviously, that worked for me but not without many, many nights, weeks, months, years of hard work. But I also learned something else along the way:  the rewards of college are far greater than establishing a career. I learned to love learning itself! Even today I am fascinated by  chemistry and marveled by the concept of stellar evolution; I adore physics and what we are discovering about the origins of the universe; I love everything about biology including molecular genetics, physiology, evolution and behavior.

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And more importantly, because science is just one part of the human experience, I am still inspired by my liberal arts background, those pesky general education classes they force you to take. I’m addicted to life long learning about history, anthropology, psychology, political science and sociology. And am still learning to appreciate art, music, poetry. You see college, and the quest for knowledge that college fosters, is much more than a job or a career. It is an intellectual journey that never stops, one that has a life of its own, an intellectual synergy that makes life greater, brighter and boundless.

So no matter where college leads you the best thing you can do for yourself is to stop worrying, just do your best, and enjoy the ride to wherever it may take you.

What’s not to love about that?

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