A tale of more than two cities

by Hayden Wright / Beacon Staff • November 13, 2013

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Student's should not define success by where they live or the population of their city.
Student's should not define success by where they live or the population of their city.

Since starting my job at an independent college prep school in August, I’ve worked with high school seniors to craft the perfect admissions essay. 

Over and over, I’m amazed by what a clear sense of direction many students have about their futures—where they want to go, and what they want to do. That certainty shows in their writing. I often have to remind myself it wasn’t so long ago that I was in their shoes, with the single mind to study writing, literature, and publishing at Emerson College. In fact, it was the only place I applied.

Today, I live in a cottage on the corner of a hobby ranch in Triadelphia, West Virginia, population 811. Unlike my move to Boston for college, this was not always in the cards for me. I would have laughed at anyone who told me a year ago that I’d wake up every morning to the sound of cows mooing, or gather my own eggs from a chicken coop near my house. In my imagination, now was the time I’d start rubbing sticks together to begin a publishing career in New York City. 

Needless to say, my road diverged a bit. When I graduated from Emerson, the sense of direction I had relied on for so many years escaped me. As friends took entry level jobs in New York and Los Angeles, moving to the country to work in education seemed distinctly countercultural. More than a few friends raised eyebrows and expressed genuine concern for what my life would look like if I switched lanes. Today, some are still bemused. 

I’m usually not one to offer advice, but I encourage my Emerson family to look beyond New York and Los Angeles. To little surprise, the majority of my peers are living in those cities, chasing the dreams they felt with such intensity on the corner of Boylston and Tremont, propelled by the desire to conquer the publishing, entertainment, or marketing industries. However, I’d humbly remind current students that there’s more to life than cramped Williamsburg apartments and fetching coffee for Mario Lopez.

This is not to say the person who fetches coffee for Mario Lopez doesn’t love her job. 

Much admissions pamphlet ink has been spilled touting Emerson College as a school of goal-oriented young professionals, and that couldn’t be more true. But that culture creates a collective tunnel vision of uncompromising ambition—Plan A or bust. My liberal arts instructors constantly implored me to take creative risks. If graduates don’t take them in life, Emerson is no better than a glorified trade school, or a skilled labor factory. I had to remember that I could choose my next move. 

In my own experience, putting those publishing aspirations on hold to try something new has created a sense of fulfillment I didn’t expect. There are things I miss terribly about urban living. The nearest good sushi restaurant is 60 miles from my house. I can’t find shallots at the grocery store. As much as that pains me, I don’t think about it when I’m sitting on my front porch, watching a West Virginia sunrise with my puppy and a cup of joe. 

Don’t be afraid if your life immediately after graduation doesn’t look the way you always expected it to. More importantly, don’t buy into the conventional Emerson wisdom that if your life doesn’t look a certain way after graduation, you’ve failed. Quality of life—on which I am no expert—is not about a job or a city. For me, it took a radical change to learn something about myself and to appreciate things like space, nature, and service to others. 

In a single day, I do more things for other people—coaching swim practice, writing a grant proposal, assisting an advanced placement language class—than I probably did in four years of college. It’s not as glamorous as interning at a talent agency, boutique publisher, or public relations firm, but folks in those jobs will tell you Conde Nast is not all champagne toasts and free swag. I had to change my thinking from, “what do I want my job to be?” to “what do I want my life to be?” to decide I would take some time out from that game. That’s paid dividends, as accidentally as it happened.

When planning your future, try to be a little less deliberate. Turn down the heat on your laser focus and let your life take its course. The students I’ve worked with have months to wait before hearing back from their dream colleges, raising hopes that can be dashed with a single rejection letter. When it comes to Plan A, think laterally, question your assumptions, and don’t bet the whole ranch.