Exploring New Personal Characters

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College isn’t so much about learning as it is about discovering. Sure, we explore a particular field of study because we find it intellectually stimulating. The true exploration, however, is the journey we embark upon within our very souls. The newfound freedom that comes with the college experience and the attendant releasing of inhibitions allows us to realize – and, if we are fortunate enough, become – the character we’ve always wanted to become. And if it turns out we don’t like that character (or simply grow out of it), we can shed it immediately upon graduation. (Of course, we always retain the option to dust it off and put that cloak back on come reunion time.)

For a variety of good and not-so-good reasons, high school presents itself more as a prison than an academy. You’re shuttled from room to room, eat in a communal hall, and do the work assigned to you. Failure to follow these (and many other) rules risks punishment, including an extended sentence. On the other hand, faithfully executing your labors in a manner which follows the prescribed discipline leads to your ultimate freedom. (Sure, some might call it “graduation,” but we all know it’s nothing less than the formal unshackling of the chains that have bound us through our fast vanishing childhood.)

College is that period of transition from childhood to adulthood. It’s a purgatory of sorts, a four-year parole from the prison of high school. You’re still controlled by the rules, but now you’re more like a free-range chicken. You’re unchained, able to roam at will yet bound by an invisible fence. The farmer feeds you and keeps you protected from the wolves. In exchange, you’re asked to pound out a few papers, do some lab work, and sit through any number of 50 minute lectures.

Ah, but it’s that time in between all that work where the greatest learning occurs. This will no doubt surprise many. After all, most college freshman arrive at their universities having been told all their lives it is the classroom that educates them. Contrary to what many parents, teachers, and administrators have led you to believe, it’s your extracurricular activities that forge the “you” you wish to become.

Case in point. Marv Levy, Hall of Fame coach of the Superbowl Buffalo Bills is widely known to have said, “Football doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” Within the ivy-covered walls of the university, it is our activities outside the classroom that divulge our character. It’s not as though character emerges from some hidden shell. It’s more like college is a stage that permits us to play any number of characters.

Now, just to be clear, there’s a difference between a “role” and a “character.” We all play different roles in our lives – sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and any number of occupational roles – but these are specific positions within our family or organization. A “character” differs from a “role” since any number of “characters” can play the same “role.” Think of those TV shows that feature a “good” cop and a “bad” cop. The actors are each playing the same role – a policeman – but the disposition of the characters are completely different (in this case, opposite).

When you experiment with the range of characters you wish to become, you’re not limiting yourself to the two dimensions of “good” and “bad.” Characters are more complex than that. Maybe you want to be Ironman, a ne’er do well who has figured out a way to do well. Or perhaps Captain America, a throwback of naiveite that somehow manages to nonetheless win the day. But why limit yourself to live-action characters? Why not try cartoon characters? How about Sponge Bob or Patrick? Or any one of the Scooby Doo characters (including Scooby himself)?

So you see, the palette of self-discovery can be quite large. You can be one character in one of the group’s you join, and a wholly different charter in another group. (It helps if there isn’t a lot of overlap in group membership.) By the time you’re a senior, you’ll probably have settled on one character – or have been given one. It matters not, for once you graduate from college, you can start all over again.

Of course, this is the final trick, the transition from the university to the real world. Just like your high school persona doesn’t travel with you to college, neither does your college character travel with you once you leave college.

Unless you want it to. And you’ll still have to work hard to show the real world what your actual character really is.

Good luck.

And have fun.

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