Where you go to college does matter, but not for the reason that you think

Yesterday, one of my editor-in-chiefs sighed, exasperated. “I’m tired of people telling me it doesn’t matter where I’ll go to college, that wherever I go, I’ll end up happy! It does matter!” Her defeated look saddened me. 

I initially disagreed, as I’ve often said that to hundreds of seniors, thinking it was comforting. After all, I didn’t end up where I thought I would/wanted to go, and it all turned out the way it was supposed to. 

However, the more I thought about it, I realized she might actually have a point. But maybe not in the way she, like many of you, think it does.

To explain this, I need to go back to 2001. I too was a senior at an ultra-competitive high school, complete with a “where are they going?” wall and a girl named Sabine who swore she’d go to Stanford, Stanford medical school, become a doctor AND be a French model. We were RANKED (it was on your transcript). There were also fewer of us, so we all knew each other and each other’s rank; we too stressed about college. There were stigmas there too. P.S. You hand-wrote your college applications and colleges sent you skinny envelopes in the mail to reject you. Brutal.

For some reason, I had my sights set on the University of Virginia and Boston College. I DEIGNED to apply to two UCs, University of Oregon and a school called the University of Puget Sound, initially because they sent me lots of mail. My adult self looks at my judgmental 17-year-old self with shame, and a little bit of pity (that line “Oh, honey” from “How I Met Your Mother” comes to mind). I had a stellar GPA (#37 baby!), several extracurriculars, weighted classes and a fairly decent essay, but I literally cried over my SAT scores. I was also hopelessly sheltered, naive and not nearly as smart as the 65% of Virginia students given admission preference.

I’ll spare you the agonizing details of my senior year and the not so obvious spoiler that I did not get into UVA. Devastation. Or BC. A glazed numbness set in. All I could think about was what a loser I was, completely ignoring the fact that I got into FOUR other REALLY GREAT COLLEGES. 

I mention this all-encompassing rejection for two reasons. The first is that everyone struggles with, and gets rejected from, collegeS. I think of this as a literal rite of passage, along with getting rejected from a job you really want, traversing a major metro system, learning how to budget, doing laundry for the first time. 

The other reason, which I know sounds cliche, is that it is SUCH A GREAT THING I did not get into UVA or BC. Not in the “my life was a happy pink cloud with puppies and rainbows”, but more so because it DID matter that I went where I went to college. 

Why? Because UPS was the exact right place for me, for how/why I needed to grow at that time, the opportunities it gave me, the environment I needed to be in, the professors I learned from and the life skills it taught me. And so much more. 

You’ve likely barely heard of my university. Mostly, people make bad jokes about packing boxes and driving large brown trucks. But UPS (get it?) was the absolute best place I could have attended college. Even years later, I do not regret going there and NOT going somewhere else; I have literally never looked back and thought, damn, I wish I’d gone to UVA. Those manicured LAWNS tho! Nope. Not once. 

Starting college, as I previously mentioned, I was very sheltered. Naive. Confused. I may have talked a big game about why I wanted to attend UVA or BC — something about an honor code, Jesuit tradition, science programs — but I didn’t have any PERSONALIZED reasons for attending. Mostly, they were very far from here (I’m a Bay Area kid), and I was obsessed with leaving, starting over and reinventing myself (“oh honey”). It was also because I thought it SOUNDED good; I daydreamed about telling people, “Oh yes, I attend an elite school”. 

But if you asked me why I wanted to attend UPS, I had tangible, definitive answers. While visiting, I noticed that people were always together in common areas, talking and laughing, I was genuinely engaged in the class I watched and everyone was so friendly I kinda wanted to cry. 

UPS is also a beautiful campus, with lots of big trees, brick buildings, and green stuff, in a small town similar to the one I’d grown up in. They had an amazing music program, which I could be a part of but not have to major in. Their 3,500 student population felt comfortable after going to a high school of 400. It was close to Seattle, a mecca of culture, music, diverse people. Mostly though, it was because the campus felt like HOME. I could actually picture myself there, not just daydream about attending. The distinction is important: there’s a difference between seeing and hoping/pretending. 

Fast-forward to my actual four years at UPS, where my academic experience was personalized, comfortable, just the right kind of challenging. I didn’t feel overwhelmed in classes — my biggest was probably 50 — but it also wasn’t so small that I felt exposed (insert Goldilocks metaphor here). I actually had relationships with my professors, because they taught their courses, not a TA, and they had office hours they actually sat in; once, my organic chemistry professor painfully tried to explain a semester’s worth of material the day before the final. I wrote him a note at the end of it that said, “I’m sorry, I tried, but I’m giving up after three hours.” 

Outside of academics, I was exposed to passions I never even knew existed within me. I discovered journalism, because it was a tiny program and allowed me freedom and the upward mobility to become Editor-in-Chief; that was my most favorite job I’ve ever held. I learned the all-important skill of walking backwards being a campus tour guide. UPS had a radio station where only maybe 100 kids applied for slots, instead of 1,000; I knew about Death Cab for Cutie BEFORE they WERE Death Cab for Cutie, k? 

And the people I met there challenged my tiny Bay Area bubble, exposing me to different lifestyles, music tastes, the way I saw the world. My friend Will, from the Alaskan wilderness, literally SHOT HIS OWN DINNER at home; what a world I’d never known! I also met friends from all over the U.S., instead of mainly … Virginia. My room was a real double, with a strange roommate I weirdly ended up sitting next to at graduation, where, by the way, the Dean actually knew me (not for good reasons, but that’s a different story…). 

Mostly, UPS allowed me to be bold, courageous, and HONEST with myself. I challenged a faculty plagiarist; I changed my major, and thus my future career, after hearing the poet laureate breathe poetry into my blood; I camped on the beach for a weekend; I took a chance on a crazy idea and moved to DC with two suitcases and no promised job because I’d finally learned what it meant to truly challenge myself. I could go on, but overall, UPS made me, ME. 

I don’t presume to know all, but I know that UVa would NOT have. I would have been swallowed by its enormity and culture; I would have felt incredibly lonely at BC, in addition to being too sheltered. Sure, I might have figured out how to be academically successful, made a few friends, had some good experiences. But I wouldn’t have been as happy and I wouldn’t have learned how to be … me; I would have continued to keep up the same facade I wore while applying there. 

So here’s the crux: it mattered that I went to UPS because it was the right place for ME. Within that supportive but challenging environment, I thrived; I could shed my nervous, sheltered skin due to its size, culture, and people. My relationships with professors and friends, who were all very different from me, pushed me out of comfort zones and exposed me to new ideas, perspectives, methods. I needed UPS to shed my supposed perception of my family’s expectations of my future career and embrace what made me happiest: writing, discussing literature, critically thinking about the intersection of literature, history, and culture, striving for justice, running a newspaper, singing karaoke at E9 on Thursdays, walking around that beautiful campus under a light mist, thinking, I am so lucky to be here.

Ok,this is all really dreamy and passionate, Decker, but this is about ME, I can hear you saying. I have to go to Harvard because of their business program! I have to go to Yale for their connections! I must go to Stanford, so I can get into Stanford medical school, so I can become a doctor!

Sure, if you want to be the best engineer in the country, MIT probably should be at the top of your list. And I guess I can’t argue with the idea that Harvard will facilitate connections with Harvard alumni, so you can start that Fortune 500 investment firm you’ve decided at 16 you’ll be the Vice President of; it is a slight leg up to attend certain schools because of their connections and their impressive endowments.

But don’t let that make you think other colleges don’t. I landed my first job because my boss was so impressed with the investigative journalism I’d conducted on a faculty plagiarist that he knew I’d be a perfect fit. I went through a rigorous academic program at UPS, just like any other school. I’m still in contact with some of my old professors, some of whom wrote me letters of recommendation for graduate school. A year ago, I posted an article on Facebook about academics and strong teachers, with the comment, “Thanks to my tough AND supportive professors I am the student/teacher/thinker/resilient person I am today” and actually TAGGED them in the post. One of them responded: “Commodore Decker [that’s what he called me], you graced UPS. You made it better, which was and is difficult. I think often of your courage and how you opposed pseudocrats and plagiarists.” AND I RAISE YOU, HARVARD.  

And sometimes, more often than not, your future plans don’t turn out the way you believe they will right now (actually it’s most of the time) and I believe it is more important to attend a college for what it can do for you personally, rather than for an uncertain, imaginative future you have no control over. I am by no means advocating for not planning for your future, or saying it doesn’t matter. But I believe that personal growth leads to a bright, happy, successful future and college is instrumental in that process. IF you choose wisely.   

Listen. If you don’t buy any of this, know this: wherever you end up for college, you will inevitably do all of the following: you’ll do something really embarrassing your first week; you’ll have a dorm room the size of a stamp pad that you’ll decorate with what you think are impossibly cool posters and string lights; you will have at least one weird friend (everyone does); you will, often, usually around 1 a.m., as you stare at a 10-page paper assignment you’ve written just your name on that’s due in under eight hours, consider dropping out; you’ll go through a “I’m trying on this new personality” phase, probably with poor wardrobe choices. You will also learn, think, study harder than you ever have in your life, read, read even more still, improve your time management skills, challenge yourself and grow. 

Whatever campus you walk onto next month, the single most important factor, agent of change, determiner, is YOU. As writer Kelly Corrigan so eloquently stated in a public Facebook post last month: “You are your own good news. You can create a future for yourself, full of connection and purpose. Beneath the fear of inadequacy and the self-consciousness that suffuses public evaluation, you’re in there. You have gifts and power and will develop more of both. Tend your crops, best you can, and that will be enough. I promise.”

This is the first time you’re (or rather someone is — a trust fund, a parent, a big bank) paying for your education. So choose wisely: it does matter where you attend college. Make it the right choice for YOU.