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June 25, 2011

Grads must discover who they are


Daily Star

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High school graduates this weekend are hearing speeches from administrators and their top academic classmates about how important their parents, teachers and friends were as they enter the new paths they've chosen from what life has to offer.

They will hear the traditional themes of following dreams, aiming high and believing in themselves. They will be told to find themselves, no matter how long it takes.

Unfortunately, most of them have been pressured to decide on life's path by the time they graduate from high school. Our highly competitive economy requires an early preparation and a focused motivation for the best jobs, they are told.

Those who check the "undecided" box likely are in a small minority as they enter the final teenage years _ years that often are the most intense and creative for establishing a personal identity.

And, for that reason, it should be OK to be undecided, and perhaps the best advice to new graduates is to keep open minds about where they are going because they are not done growing. They may be a long way from finding out just who they are.

When I graduated from high school more than 40 years ago, I had decided to major in landscaping and horticulture at a SUNY college. I didn't really know why, except that the topics sounded interesting and being in college would defer me from the military draft.

A semester later, I was a business major at a different college. A year later, I was studying journalism, and a year after that I delved into philosophy, the subject, or condition, in which I earned my degrees.

Of course, I was far from normal, switching from such far-flung majors in a matter of a few years, but most students back then often ended up with career interests different from what they might have thought about on high school graduation day.

My oldest daughter, Greta, spent a semester in nursing at Syracuse after graduating from Oneonta High. Then it was anthropology there and in Toronto before she decided to join a world youth program and spend time on a dairy farm in Uruguay.

She finally landed in Vermont and earned a degree in community development and applied economics. While in high school, she cringed at our suggestion of college in Vermont, a state that she now calls home.

Growth and change cannot be thwarted, but they can be suppressed unless young people are prepared and open to what is happening to them. Amid all the flowery talk, that's often what graduates hear in speeches on these weekends each June.

But that inner voice doesn't necessarily lead you down the best economic path. Just ask a philosophy major. Ultimately, decisions have to be made that balance the various factors in life, such as happiness, money, satisfaction, stimulation _ and family needs.

Of course, not everyone jumps off the cliff of graduation and is thrown to the winds of personal growth and maturity. Some young people know early on what they want to do in life and pursue those goals with the vigor it takes to achieve them.

Take Theodoros Basdekis, an Oneonta lawyer, who graduated as valedictorian from OHS in 1988 without any doubt that he wanted to go into the legal profession. He told The Daily Star years ago that he didn't know he would end up in his hometown, but "knew I always wanted to be a lawyer."

Such early resolve occurs often in some careers. You hear sometimes how somebody always wanted to be a teacher or a nurse or, no, rarely a philosopher. When someone has that youthful identity recognition, it becomes of matter of tooling together the motivation and the means to achieve the goal.

Not everyone can or wants to go to college, and those who choose to enter the work force or join the military still have the kinds of choices that can garner lifelong skills and careers.

Aiming high and following dreams can also lead young people into vocational and technical jobs that fewer of them are choosing to enter. For example, some predict that there may be a shortage of auto mechanics because of the decline in vocational education and the pressure to attend college.

And, sometimes, it can be chance and the seemingly minor random decisions that determine how someone discovers a true path in life.

So perhaps the most important message graduates will hear this weekend is the challenge to discover who they are, no matter how difficult and lengthy the process may be.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net.