To College and Beyond: Moving Forward from Current Circumstances

college pennants

Forward movement by others can inspire us in countless ways to get moving in a direction we’ve longed to go. This time of year, it seems fitting to recognize first-time college students as an inspiring example of forward movement – as they embark on pursuit of higher education.

For students for whom going to college was neither assumed nor easily envisioned — students, for instance, with significant economic challenges and/or in families where no parent had ever attended college — decisions of whether to even get on the college preparatory track, let alone pursue a degree after high school, may likely have been considerably more complex. For these students, heading off to the first day of college is all the more impressive a feat. Selecting the color and style of a “bed in a bag” ensemble for one’s very first dorm room would not have been among the toughest choices these students faced over the past few months.

The Challenge of Getting UnStuck 

For students from low-income families, the summer months may have included endless hours of serious re-consideration of the viability of decisions to attend college, particularly given the loss of time in the workforce and the emotions of separation. As they seek to move forward, their minds may also be filled with concerns associated with temporarily stepping away from families who very much have grown to rely upon them financially or otherwise. As they prepare to take this step forward, these students may likely be experiencing a painful tug of war between the desire to open doors through the furtherance of their education and the desire to remain home and continue to be of support to family members overwhelmed with the challenge of economic survival and the wide range of associated issues.

…and Getting There

Beyond this, on a practical level, while these students have successfully gotten into college, they may be facing a challenge this very month of finding a way to get to college. We don’t often think of students who worked so hard to get admitted facing a last-minute hurdle of getting there with all their belongings. We forget there are students whose families do not own a car (or a reliable enough car to make the trip), have a budget for round-trip gas money and tolls, and/or a cent to spare for a one-way train, plane or bus ticket.

The Value of Re-framing and Taking a Fresh Look at One’s Cargo

Having been one of these students, I am passionate about offering encouragement to young people who lack the supports that many of their peers enjoy and/or the social or cultural capital others their age may have garnered. While in no way discounting the challenges they’ve experienced, I remind them of the value of “reframing” their life’s circumstances – by viewing themselves as “differently resourced” (versus disadvantaged). In doing so, I encourage them to refrain from focusing on what they are lacking and instead, to recognize the priceless attributes they do possess — which will accompany them to college and beyond, no matter what route they take to get there.

Their precious cargo includes:

  • Resilience
  • Resourcefulness
  • Motivation
  • Determination
  • Ability to multi-task, problem solve and outwork others

Lastly, these students often benefit from a gentle reminder that they are not traveling alone. Those, beyond their family members, who encouraged them along the way, such as trusted teachers, advisors, coaches, or organizations like the Posse Foundation or Upward Bound, are very much with them and should continue to be leveraged at this juncture and at other points in the journey.

Inspiration for Us All

As first-generation-in-college and low-income students take a courageous step into unchartered territory this month, may they serve as a reminder to us all that the most trying of experiences can often leave us with unexpected gifts of incredible strength and wisdom. May they also remind us that reframing is a useful tool and most importantly, that:

Our present circumstances need not define or limit us

While we applaud all first time college students this month as they move forward toward their dreams, let’s offer a special shout out to those students whose paths were not assumed and who may have had a more difficult time getting and staying on route.

Endings Matter: Getting Unstuck When Time Grows Shorter

IMG00074-20110528-1803We don’t typically think of “the end” as a common place to get stuck — because by its very nature, the end comes no matter what. But, getting stuck in one way or another at, or toward the end of life, can — and does often happen — to our loved ones, to those who care for them … and even to us.

With a sincere desire to keep those we love so very much with us as long as possible, we may find ourselves stuck in a cycle of leaving no stone unturned in aggressively addressing each and every health issue that arises. Couple this with medicine’s endless supply of advancements, experimental treatments to help prolong life and a wide array of nursing and assisted care facilities to keep our loved ones safe — and we can very easily fail to consider avenues that may provide for greater enjoyment of the precious days, months and years leading up to the end.

In Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, author/surgeon Atul Gawande offers a fresh perspective well worth considering. He examines how the well intentioned quest to prolong life by medical professionals, fueled by families’ desires to do everything possible – all too often runs counter to the quality of life that is often desired but not proactively articulated by elderly or seriously ill patients themselves. Gawande offers an alternative model that helps to provide patients with not only a good life — but a good end to life. Since what constitutes a good ending will vary greatly by individual and family, this model requires a candid assessment of our loved ones’ preferences and priorities for how the remaining time allotted to them is spent. In order to do this, medical professionals must assess the patient’s understanding of his or her condition, the risks and benefits of available treatments and of undergoing no (or less) treatment, and any fears or concerns the individual may have.

Gawande suggests that treatment decisions might be more appropriately made when based on the likelihood they will lead to a quality of life that the patient would consider worthwhile through the end. We can only know this, of course, by having assessed the patient’s preferences. To gain this knowledge for when it is most needed, we need to talk early and often about end of life preferences and seek to identify, to the extent possible, what trade offs and treatments are acceptable and where to draw the line.

While we may feel that getting as clear as possible on what our loved ones want the end of their lives to be (or not be) is a form of giving up – just the opposite happens to be true. Soliciting and honoring our loved ones’ preferences can help all involved more confidently and peacefully move forward — and with far less anguish, uncertainty and pain. Not knowing which direction to go — and when enough intervention is truly enough — creates considerable anxiety. Whereas achieving clarity, no matter how difficult it is to have had the conversation(s), creates a sense of control and direction – and helps to get everyone on the same page. Having a plan creates comfort.

Through the many patient experiences he explores and his own touching end of life experience with his own father, Gawande reveals how courageous and valuable a choice it can be to focus on interventions designed to provide comfort, rather than a cure, at the end of a patient’s life. This approach, of course, requires an understanding of our loved one’s wishes, a level of acceptance that death is approaching and a desire to help our loved one experience more meaning and less suffering during whatever time remains. Despite the complexity and sensitivity inherent in the topic and the painful scenarios that are included along with a number of truly uplifting ones, Gawande’s writing is gentle in its honesty. Being Mortal is a must read for those wanting to help those they love live their final days more fully.

When the end of life is imminent for someone we love, the value of getting unstuck – for whatever amount of time remains – can go a long way. Gawande’s Being Mortal and the advance planning and thoughtful alternatives it advocates provide a valuable model for how to help our loved ones (and ourselves) move forward with peace of mind and grace as we lovingly walk them home.

New Year’s Eve in July? A Toast to Mid-Year Resolutions


With under six months left in the calendar year and without the noise and pressure of New Year’s Eve, the quiet and relaxed days of summer present an ideal opportunity to assess how our year’s gone so far, to visualize where we’d like “to be” by year end, and to implement any changes in course that are needed to get us there. After all, many of us participate in various types of mid-year reviews at work — which require us to take look back as well as forward.  So, why not incorporate these types of self-assessments into our personal lives? And why not avail ourselves of the opportunity to do it now?  With plenty of time still left in the year, July is the perfect month to re-visit resolutions and to assess if we’re on track to our desired destination.

Here are a few steps that you can take now to help you finish the year STRONG:

1. Utilize the season’s down time to reflect – Whether en route to vacation, out of office on a half-day or “summer Friday,” or while relaxing on a beach or mountain top, utilizing new-found time to review the year to date is an essential first step. With the benefit of hindsight of where we made progress and where we did not in the first part of the year, we now have the ability to replicate what worked and modify or adjust for what did not. This insight is priceless.

2. Leverage the quiet – Without the hustle, bustle and sheer noise of the holiday season when initial resolutions were likely made – we can embrace the opportunity of this less hectic season to hear ourselves think. As we do, we should listen for and honor our inner voice. Actively listening to ourselves can help tremendously in re-examination and re-prioritization of goals.

3. Take a candid look at sticking points – With the best of intentions, earlier in the year we may have resolved to fix what we have now come to realize is unfixable. It may be time to recognize areas where progress can simply not be made or not made in the fashion we envisioned.  In some instances, it may also be time to compassionately detach and move on from a job or relationship in which we’ve felt stuck.  Taking the time to recognize obstacles that cannot be overcome is an important first step to getting unstuck.

4. Visualize it –  Seeing it makes it easier to achieve. Taking the opportunity to visualize exactly how we’d like look and feel by 12/31 (and perhaps even who we’d like to be with or not be with at the start of a new year) will be tremendously helpful. A specific vision of what we’d like to accomplish before the year ends can help motivate us to get there and the picture becomes all the more impactful when we incorporate into it how good we plan to feel.

5. Seek support if you need it – Engaging a coach like Akua Soadwa of Let’s Pursue You can be a wise and valuable investment this time of year to help you get crystal clear on your intentions and how you plan to utilize the next few months to finish the year strong.  Plus, we may have more flexibility over the summer to get started or re-started on steps that must be taken or habits we wish to form. A coach or other support system can help us create specific and measurable goals and a plan to measure progress over the next few months to achieve them.

Mid-year assessments can be the perfect complement to resolutions made at the start of the year. There’s a value in checking in.  Beyond this, a narrower timeframe can be extremely effective in encouraging us to re-assess, re-focus and re-commit if we happen to have fallen off track or if our objectives or perspectives have changed since our resolutions were first made. Think of it this way — if we thoughtfully make and keep our mid-year resolutions, we are all the more likely to be toasting a job well done as the clock strikes midnight on 12/31!

What steps do you plan to take this summer to help you finish the year where you’d like to be?