A Reminder: The Work We Do Changes Lives

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Editor’s note: This column was first shared on the NACAC Exchange.

All of you see it every year.

A senior who graduated in May stops in before they head off to college. The smile is bright, but the eyes betray them; they are scared.

It’s easy for me to reassure them because, as old as I am, I remember how transformational the first week of college was. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, and I grew up in a town of 13,000 in Illinois. I really had no idea what to expect. I was pretty scared.

It started in my second class. My professor said something, and I laughed out loud. He asked me what was so funny, and I told him that I had never ever thought about what he had just mentioned. He gave me a sly grin and became a lifelong mentor.

I walked back to my dorm, and saw a poster for a free concert with the Chicago Symphony that very evening. I had never seen any classical music before, and the idea of going alone made me sad. Then a voice behind me asked “Want to go to the concert with me?” I looked at a lovely young woman I had never met, and laughed out loud, “Of course! Are you sure you want to go with me?” It was 1973, and the women in my high school had just been given the right to wear pants instead of dresses to school during the frigid winters. I had never ever considered that someone might ask ME out.

We went to the concert, and it was Sir Georg Solti, one of the most prominent conductors of the time. The final music selection was Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, and I can still remember the hair on my arms standing straight up; it was electrifying. We went for a walk afterwards and talked for hours; it was just such an amazing evening.

The next day I went to biology class, which I was dreading. Biology was a snooze in high school, and I had no expectations that it would be any better. My professor started the class with helping us understanding the miracle of life, and the hair on my arms stood straight up again. I went up to her afterward and asked for a book about what she had talked about, and she gave me seven. I got hooked on biology.

I went to the library the next day, and went to the music room. They had some little offices where you could listen to music and study, and I told the librarian about the concert and wanted to learn about classical music. For the next four years, I would study there every evening, and there was always a new piece of music she would suggest for me. She opened the whole world of music to me.

And this was the first week. It wasn’t all great; my sociology professor was so full of himself I feared he might explode. Already in the first week, I could see one of the guys in my floor was having serious issues with alcohol.

But it was an extraordinary week. So, I could look my student in the eyes and say, “You are going to do so great in college and experience so many great things. I’m so proud of you and all you will accomplish.” I was surprised that she teared up, but more surprised that I did.

All to say, to my friends on the college side: Thanks for taking my beloved students and helping them become extraordinary people. To my friends on the high school side who are making schedule changes that seem like they will never end: Take heart. You are doing noble work that will change lives.

And to Northern Illinois University, thanks for changing my life.

NACAC member Steve Peifer serves as director of college counseling at The King’s Academy (FL). He is a recipient of the CNN Heroes Award for Championing Children (2007) and the NACAC Excellence in Education Award (2010). Peifer is the author of “A Dream So Big.”

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