Dear 16-year old Erica,
I know you don’t believe me and you probably won’t ever, but EVERYTHING WILL BE OK. Right now your biggest fear is getting through freshman year of high school. Does my eye shadow match my outfit? Why can’t I have a car like everyone else? Life is so unfair. Calm down. In about a year, your life is going to change and you will experience real fear. Real struggle. Real life or death situations. Things are about to get real. Yes, you’ll have a car and you’ll work your butt off for it. You’ll work two jobs until you graduate from your master’s program. And, yes, you’ll get a master’s degree. Right now, you don’t even know what a graduate degree is and when this upcoming year is over, you’ll think just getting into college will be impossible. You’ll mess up A LOT. Your grades will drop and you will consider giving up on college. With the support of your family and friends, you’ll turn it around in just enough time to get accepted to the only place that you’ve ever wanted to be: Florida State University. Several times you will feel like you are at your lowest low and, almost every time, you will be wrong. And when that happens, remember these few things to help you get through it:
First and foremost, relax. (Don’t roll your eyes at me!) You’ll do and say a lot of things on impulse. The best way to avoid doing that is to breathe. Even one deep breath is enough time to rethink your next move. It’s enough time to HAVE a next move. It’s a moment completely to yourself that no one else can have. It puts you back in control of your movements and emotions. Just breathe. Now, breathe again.
- Spend every moment you can with the people you love.
It’s easy to be naïve when you are so young. It’s easy to not understand things like cancer, divorce, Alzheimer’s, and death. But you want to know what’s not easy? What’s not easy is losing someone you love to something you have no control over. What’s not easy is being so naïve that you didn’t have a chance to say good-bye. You will learn from this and you will grow from it and you will be motivated to run a marathon. (Ok, breathe. Not any time soon. Whew.) You’ll lose certain meaningful relationships due to situations you can’t control and never get them back, no matter how hard you try. You’re not a kid anymore and you need to let go.
- Cherish your friends. They are there for a reason.
Soon you’ll learn who your true friends are. You’ll push a lot of people away and most of them will leave because they don’t yet understand struggle and aren’t ready to grow up. You won’t have a choice. Some of them will stay and refuse to be pushed away. Those people will stay with you and even at 27 will be by your side no matter what. These people will become your rock and your support system. In a few years you’ll realize the importance of what they’ve done for you. But for right now, just let them in. Let them help. Trust me; they know you’ll be there for them when they need you. And they will. They will need you. Be grateful for the people in your life. Your family, friends, teammates, and coaches will help you in ways that most of the time you won’t even notice. Always remember that they have your best interest at heart. They want to see you succeed as much as you want to succeed.
- Take it one day at a time.
Stop trying to think about what you’re doing next week or next year or even tomorrow. You will soon learn that planning for the future is moot as things will change, drastically, several times. Think about what you’re doing today. How are you going to get through today? That is most important right now. In a few years, you’ll have the luxury of planning and knowing things in advance. But not right now. Right now you need to focus on smaller things like getting out of bed and putting one foot in front of the other. Learning how to do this will be an incredible skill to have later on.
- Find an outlet.
Remember earlier when I said that you would be motivated run a marathon? You will. You’ll run 13 before you turn 28—two of them ultramarathons. Google it. Just not during lunch. Now go back and read #1-4. Every single piece of advice I’ve already given you will be crucial to running these races. There will be times when your day is so bad that nothing will make it better. You’re wrong. Go for a run. I know this sounds ridiculous but there is NOTHING a run can’t fix. It will work for you now, and it will continue to work 10+ years from now. Remember when I said you’ll go to graduate school? It will be hard and there will be a lot of homework. It will stress you out to no end, but then you’ll go for a run and get right back to it. Running will teach you how to conquer pain and defeat. It will teach you to work hard for your goals. It will make you dream big. Really really big. More on that later.
- Never take “no” for an answer.
Ah, yes. You already follow this one, I know. Soon you will redirect your stubbornness towards your ambitions. No, not making the school soccer team and track team (spoiler alert: you will); I’m talking about getting into an Ivy League school for a master’s degree. I’m talking about running a half marathon, and then a marathon, and then an ultramarathon, and then training to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I know I sound crazy to you right now and you’re shaking your head no, laughing in disbelief. And that is the same face people will give you when you voice these ambitions. You’ll talk about graduate school and people will tell you it’s just not plausible. “You’ll never get in. You did? Oh… well, you’ll never get enough scholarship money to pay for it. You did? Oh… give me a minute to think of more excuses.” You’ll get injured and someone will tell you that you can no longer run. It’ll be like someone cutting your heart out and saying, “Yeah, sorry, you can’t have this back. Ever.” Remember when I said getting into college will seem impossible? Get ready to really laugh. You’ll get into Harvard. No, seriously. You’ll have the dri-fit shirt to prove it. Because, you know, you need more running shirts so you can train for your marathons– in New York. I’ll save that for later. Don’t want to overwhelm you too soon.
- Take advantage of education.
You have no idea how lucky you are. You are in a great school with nothing but resources surrounding you. Take advantage of it! Learn as much as you can. And when you get to the wonderful and amazing place called Florida State University, take advantage of everything available to you on campus. Make the most of those four years. Get involved. You will get into the University of Pennsylvania BECAUSE you went to FSU. Not in spite of it (which some people will tell you. Ugh.). Never lose that thirst for knowledge. When choosing between something else and education or when others try to tell you that it’s not the logical choice, ALWAYS pick education. You’ll have some hard decisions to make about your education, but mom will give you some advice that you will never forget. She will tell you that it’s something no one can ever take away from you and she’s right. You can lose the slip of paper that says you walked across a stage (you won’t… all three are hanging in your office right now), but no one will ever take your education away from you. Always look for opportunities to learn more. Scout out professional development opportunities. Insegnare a te Italiano. Vous enseigner Français. Ok, I didn’t say you’ll be great at it, especially not French. Let’s be honest, it’s hard to learn. When you get to the Big Apple for a job, you’ll get wrapped up in creating a name for yourself. You’ll work at NYU and then become an assistant director at Columbia. Yes, the university. You’ll focus pretty closely on your career. You’ll put off going back to school. And then one day you’ll realize that having a master’s isn’t enough. You’ll want more. You’ll NEED more. You’ll want a doctorate. Once again, people will tell you “no” and that now is not the right time or that you should wait. I don’t think I need to tell you that at this point these words will no longer affect you.
- Never forget where you came from or what you’ve been through.
Right now life seems hard, and maybe for a 16-year old it is. It’s going to get harder and these experiences will make you who you are. First it will make you weak. Then it will make you stronger. Soon it will make you so strong you’ll be resilient and stubborn. Yes, you are already incredibly stubborn, but this will be a productive stubbornness– for the most part. Your family is collectively the MVP of your life. Like I mentioned before, you will lose some relationships. You will also gain two best friends: your brother and sister. Don’t worry, you’ll have a lot of really great friends, but there is no one else in this world that will get you more than they do. You’ll move. They’ll move. Things will change, but they will be by your side through all of it. And you will be to them. Moving to New York sounds terrifying and it will be. It will chew you up and spit you out more times than once. It will also become where you call home. Your love/hate relationship will only get stronger and in the winter you’ll start looking up flights to warmer climates. GO. TRAVEL. A LOT. See the world. But you’ll always come home.
- Love yourself.
People will try to change you and you’ll doubt yourself. Don’t. Remember what you’ve been through and the person it made you. Don’t dwell on the past and these experiences, learn from it. Don’t let anyone call you weak or tell you you’re not good enough. Be grateful for your haters; they fuel the fire. YOU ARE AWESOME. Yes, always strive to be better. You’ll become a perfectionist. Never lose sight of what you have and what you can do. Many times you will feel invisible and inadequate. You are not. People can see that you doubt yourself. Others can sense your fear and self-loathing. STOP. You can’t expect others to respect you until you respect yourself. You rock. Tell yourself that every day if you have to. There is a fine line between cocky and confident. Be mindful of that line and stay behind it. Don’t be afraid to pat yourself on the back once in a while, because you deserve it. And then get back to work. Stop searching for validation. You will be searching for a long time and will end up disappointed. Let me save you some time and energy: you are validated!
- Drinks lots of water.
Because…well… it’s good for you.
Erica Silbiger is the Assistant Director of Admissions for the Columbia School of Social Work. Her goal is to provide support and guidance to students in higher education and to aid in their personal and professional development. She has a B.A. from Florida State University, an M.S.Ed in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MDP Certificate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education with her sights now set on a PhD in Cognitive Studies in Education. She is a marathoner, ultramarathoner, starting to dabble in triathlons, and aiming to complete a full or half marathon in every state. You can follow her race reports and training progress here: Eat, Sleep, Travel, Run, Repeat.