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Confessions of a Homecoming Princess

October 30, 2009

WARNING: Disgusting content in this paragraph. I’m going to tell you a secret that ranks right up there with having a twice-weekly cooking column in a newspaper in my pre-teaching professional life, something I rarely share with anyone unless they are seeking a little-known fact about me to use in some sort of trivia game. I talk about this secret I’m going to tell you less than I do about having farted myself awake in high school geometry class. It was the last period of the day. It was hot. I sat next to the window where the sun flooded my desk.  The teacher droned on and on. I drifted off, and KABOOM—loud and smelly—startling me from slumber and delighting as well as disgusting my classmates. My advice: having two bean burritos at lunch may not be a good idea if you have classes in the afternoon. We moved away from Santa Ana and left my nickname, Smelly, there.

So here’s my seldom-told secret: I was a homecoming princess when I was a college undergraduate. That probably doesn’t sound all that unusual to you, but remember, I was also a mom with a full-time job and I’d been out of school for twenty years before I went back to get a degree. People like me weren’t homecoming princesses. Except that they were at my school in part because of others like me who kept reminding the system that we older students were there too. (Note: People like Smelly weren’t high school homecoming princesses either.)

And that’s another secret of camaraderie: There are lots of people at any college or university who are hoping that you will want to get involved. These people work with special programs, they help with clubs and other student organizations, they work in student services, they organize activities of all kinds, they assist you in the library, they are a crucial part of orchestrating your experiences, they are everywhere, and they really want you to succeed. They also need your help. They need students who want to get involved.

At first, it can feel like you are just nibbling around the edges of involvement. You may not know where to start. You may feel like an interloper, like you don’t belong. Unlike high school, where breaking into cliques can seem almost impossible, in colleges and universities, the real cliques are formed by the committed, people who are willing to give their time and energy to something, people who can be counted on, people who take responsibility for helping to make sure things get done.

Finding a need is the first step. Sometimes, there is already an avenue to address the need. You can find these opportunities for service and involvement in the student newspaper. You may read about them on campus bulletin boards. They may come in the form of all-campus emails or you may hear about them on radio or television. You don’t have to limit your involvement to on-campus activities. Often campuses are active in their communities and there are opportunities to work on projects that are linked to your personal passions and to your career goals.

If you have a personal need, getting involved can provide the opportunity to create something that addresses it. Generally, if one person is in need of something, others can use it as well. Here’s an example from my own undergraduate days: I was a commuter student (known then and sometimes still as a “non-traditional student”) and I wanted to connect with others like me. After talking with staff in student services, I found out that there was a defunct club that I could reactivate. I also got involved in Student Senate. I volunteered to help organize other opportunities for older students. These and other activities not only helped me connect with a wide circle of students who shared my concerns about childcare and parking and other issues, they also led to writing a proposal for a non-traditional student handbook as part of a fellowship offered by the school. That fellowship paid for my last year of college. The work I began then, two decades ago, continues here.

This is another pragmatic reason for involvement. Often people who grant scholarships are looking for a student who is already demonstrating what kind of contributor s/he is likely to be after graduation. That’s why you’re often asked about extracurricular activities and community involvement in applications. If you’re someone like me who was already juggling lots of responsibilities, you may need to pick these activities wisely so that they benefit you as well as others since you may have less time to get involved in things just for fun, although I would never discount fun as a perfectly valid reason to do something. After all, I was a homecoming princess!

What kinds of extracurricular or other volunteer activities would you like to get involved in?

Everybody can be great.  Because anybody can serve.  You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve…. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.  You only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.  ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

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