I started writing this on a plane headed to my 10-year college reunion in Chicago … by myself — which seems rather appropriate because that is the way I spent most of my time in college. As I headed back to Northwestern University with a single football ticket in my purse and a suitcase full of outfit options, I was filled with nervous anticipation about revisiting college — a time in my life where I was so unsure about myself.
Would I remember people? Would I have anyone to hang out with? Would my classmates remember me? Or of even greater concern, was the me that they remember someone they even liked? You see I was not very happy in college, and the insecurities that traveled with me from high school made me shy, which often came across as cold or distant. In college I resorted to my old standby defense mechanism: immerse myself in my studies and not really put myself out there socially. I lived most of my life in "when/then" thinking: "When I graduate and start my own life, then I'll be happy," or "When I get a boyfriend, then I'll feel good about myself," and so on. Despite all this, I did manage to make a few good friends, pledge a sorority and fall in love for the first time. But my college years did not live up to the "time of my life" experience I had expected, and when I graduated I jetted off to Los Angeles before the ink on my diploma was dry.
Going back to my reunion solo and having to face a bunch of people that I never made much of an effort to connect with or stay in touch with was a bit nerve-racking. But 10 years later I have some life experience under my belt, which none of us had in college. I know now that a lot of the other people there were probably just as self-conscious as me. More importantly, I know that I do not have anything to prove to anyone, including myself.
My college degree taught me a lot of things, but I don't think any of us really walk away from college with the most important lesson of all: knowing who we truly are. I've spent the past 10 years discovering who I am and working to accept it. Maybe that is what reunions are really for. It's not about showing up to show off how far you've come or how great you look — it's about showing up AS yourself.
So that's who I showed up as, and do you know what? I had a blast! As I reconnected with people, I shared with them about how I struggled with tremendous self-doubt and almost every person I talked to could relate in some way. College, like the 20-something years that follow, is a confusing time. We are just beginning to discover who we are — and most of us are pretty hard on ourselves as we do.
Now on the flight home from Chicago after reconnecting with some amazing people and realizing how much I kept myself separate, I'll admit that I'm indulging in a little "If only … " If only I would have made more of an effort to learn how to be a friend and build lasting friendships. If only I had known that the boys I liked actually liked me back. If only I had not stressed myself out studying so hard because no one has EVER asked me what my GPA was. If only I had more fun instead. If only I had taken the classes I actually wanted to take instead of taking ones I thought I should. But "if only" thinking is as much of a spin cycle as "when/then" thinking. It takes us out of the present moment and produces regret.
As I bring my awareness back to the present, sitting here in my purple and white Northwestern T-shirt, I realize that the key ingredient that was missing for me in college was being in and enjoying the present moment. Because I was so focused on the future and consumed with all the things I didn't like about myself — I missed out. Thank goodness I learned this lesson and could go back and really BE at my reunion and soak up all the good times.
Christine Hassler (C98) lives in Santa Monica, Calif., where she is a life coach, professional speaker, author and Huffington Post columnist. She wrote Twenty-Something, Twenty-Everything: A Quarter-life Woman's Guide to Balance and Direction (New World Library, 2005) and The Twenty-Something Manifesto (New World Library 2008).