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NOTIONS: Learning while teaching the college freshmen

October 22, 2007

I spent two days last week in Bloomington, visiting my alma mater. I walked tree-lined paths I walked 30 years ago, spoke from the front of an auditorium where I once faded into the middle-row masses, grabbed pizza for dinner with some journalism students and their professor.

In my lectures, I told the undergrads how I got from there to here. How, at their age, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. How a teacher sparked interest and instilled confidence. How I wandered from photography to pre-law to journalism to politics to PR to advertising to some hybrid thereof.

I told war stories. Recounted baptisms by fire. Credited mentors. Recalled lucky breaks. Explained breaks where I made the luck. Reflected on things that went wrong.

When I returned home, I found emails from some of the students.

One said: "I would like to ... praise the honesty in your voice. In these crazy times in this complicated society, I ... search for glimmers of real truth and understanding of the big picture. It's those moments, whether found in a good article, a lecture that avoids all bullshit and gets to the real point-human spirit and responsibility, or true vulnerability-that really stir up the passion I have for words and remind me what I'd like to do with my life."

"I'm in a bit of a confusing spot with schooling at the moment," she continued, "But I'd like to thank you for all that you shared today. It was definitely one of those inspiring moments for me. I'm glad I woke up for class."

Another freshman wrote: "I ... admire how you've combined activism and writing. That's always been something I've vaguely wanted to do, and I often feel like I'm going to have to choose between doing something fluffy (writing) or 'making a difference.'

"It always seems like 'success' (whatever that may be, because I'm still not quite sure) is this amorphous thing in the distance that a few lucky and/or talented people occasionally stumble upon. On the other hand, seeing ... what you've done in the past and what you're doing now (well, minus the advertising, probably) is something that has clarified what I can see myself doing in the future-though, of course, whether I'll end up achieving that is anyone's guess."

These college freshmen sound like the ones I know best: my own sons. While one of my twins seems locked in on his future career, the other-two months into his coursework-sounds as uncertain as his old man at that age:

"[My girlfriend] and I are going on a work/career frenzy," he wrote the other day, "She's thinking about changing her major. I'm wondering what in the hell I'm going to do with mine. Really wish I could get a teaching degree at the same time as my English, but no, that would be logical."

"My friend Jim and I have something of a similar dream," he said in another email. "The dream is to be an artist in our chosen roles. He would like to write songs. I'd like to write books. We talked about this a few months ago and what he kept reminding me was how easy it is to give up that dream. It's easy to think, 'Well, I'll be an English teacher; I'll make good money and retire happy.' I'm beginning to realize how tempting that is. Maybe I will do that. And maybe it's not as terrible as we make it out to be."

No, Austin, teaching wouldn't be terrible. Not when you get to inspire-and be inspired by-young people such as the ones I met last week.

On the other hand, 19 is too damned early to dump your dream.

As one who's watched his dreams emerge and evolve, be shattered and rekindled, I'd be much happier if all college freshmen envisioned their futures à la the journalism student who wrote to say: "I was glad to hear that it is, in fact, possible to have multiple careers at the same time. Personally, I know there are about a million things that I intend to do with my life, and I don't want to be confined to the same exact job for 30 years, day in and day out."

Amen, sister.

I turn 50 next week. What I didn't tell those students, while sharing a case history from 20 years ago, is my greatest fear: Is my best stuff behind me? Did I, like Paul McCartney, record my greatest hits with the old gang years ago? Is it all downhill from here? Or can I build on my first half century, be inspired by that young journalism student, and know there are still about a million things I intend to do with my life?

Perhaps, like Paul McCartney, we'll know the answer-when I'm 64.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month.To comment on this column, send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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