• Mel Butcher

Letter to a High School Senior

Updated: Jan 16, 2021

This is to one specific human, not the average High School senior.

Dear Senior,

You don't know me, but I know quite a lot about you. I'm friends with your Father, and it would be an understatement to say that you are the light of his life.

Your Dad recently asked me what I thought about universities for you. And I told him he probably wouldn't like my answer. He persisted and so, I agreed to write down some thoughts.

My words to you will be different than what I would give to others. Different because you come from a specific place, a circumstance that is unique to you. It's not the experience I had. And it won't be the experiences, say, my nieces have.

And so, we begin...

Pause Before Selecting

I won't try to talk you out of going to University because I am certain, in your case, that would be wasted energy. I will say this - if you are not ready to select a major that could impact the rest of your life, find a way to take a break from school (even just one or two semesters) and work somewhere (anywhere) before doing so. Recognize that not all degrees require two years of prerequisites or general courses that could count towards anything. Engineering is a good example. What I'm saying is, if you think you have time to coast on general courses before choosing your major, think again.

You have a very long life ahead of you. Consider that a year of working somewhere, versus attending school, could give you incredibly valuable insights into your interests, passions, work life desires, etc. that academia will never be able to show you.

If you want to rush into a decision anyway, which I expect you might, opt for what you believe will be the most difficult and will challenge you the most intellectually.

Degrees and Majors

Not all degrees are created equal. The same degree held by two different people can lead down incredibly different paths, not always good ones. Some people are lucky enough to be able to earn a passion degree and parlay it into work they don't hate. Those people will sing the praises of random degrees, including liberal arts degrees.

Personally, I have seen people earn random degrees and end up in a world of pain because of their choice. They are adults who cannot pay their bills and live sad lives in dead-end jobs, not entirely understanding where they went wrong. After all, they followed "their" advice.

If you were from a less fortunate background, I would encourage you to look at the Occupational Outlook Handbook to discern what types of fields and roles are anticipated to thrive in the future. But in your case, I don't feel you necessarily need to do that. Your opportunity is already much bigger than mine and of most people I know.

And that brings us to...

Recognizing Your Privilege

That sad outcome I described will not be your fate for a number of reasons. You have parents who care about you and have taken tremendous measures to ensure that you have and will continue to get a good education. The pedigree of your upbringing, primary education, and your engagement with the system have set you up for continued success in effectively any university you want. Your Dad is *incredibly successful in a white collar role; he offers you access to a vast network of other professionals who can help you get to where you want to go. That doesn't mean something as meager as an internship. That means access to people with influence; people with capital.

Most people don't have a single one of these things, let alone the entire combination. That fact may be difficult for you to see because of the box you've lived in -- growing up in a small, wealthy state. A state where many homes are second and third homes of the ultra-wealthy. Surrounded by that kind of opulence can easily and quickly distort one's ideas about what we "deserve" and what is "fair". Remember that.

The Best

When I went to school for engineering, it was my second go. I had already earned one of those random degrees and found that without access to people who could help me, the degree, and even my professional experience, got me nowhere in a down economy. So, I went back to school, but for engineering this time. Being an older, mildly less hormonal student had some advantages, including that I could observe some of my classmates more objectively. The absolute best student in my graduating engineering class is someone whose called Nicole. She wasn't the best because she was the smartest or even worked the hardest. She was the best because she was the kindest, and the creative thinking she applied toward helping herself learn difficult concepts- she applied that same level of energy and creativity towards helping others learn. I recommend any student who wants to solidify their knowledge, particularly in STEM areas, to follow her lead. Tutor others at every opportunity, paid or not.

What do you get?

What will you get out of school? Because of your privilege, you are about to gain access to something that is elite. This is something you can cultivate that will serve you for the rest of your life - a network. You will, of course, one day de facto become part of the alumni group for whichever school. But before you get there, you can build the bonds of relationships that will serve you the rest of your life, regardless of the path you choose.

By the nature of the institutions you have access to, many in your cohort will be imbedded in the same, or even better, types of networks and relationships like your Father has.

How will you use your privilege for good?

Back to actual schooling for a moment. This is true regardless of where you go to university: There are shitty professors, and there are phenomenal professors. At all schools. What you get out of their class remains up to you.

How will you choose to learn and engage?

If you find yourself in a class where all you want to do is "mail it in" and get the grade, why would you waste your parent's money or your scholarship money, and precious time taking it? For a grade that won't matter a decade from now? Find a way to get out of it. Transfer. Drop it. Take something else that fills the requirement. These things *are negotiable. One time, I wanted to take Numerical Methods in the Mechanical Engineering department because I wanted to the opportunity to take a class with Dr. Kaw. He had a reputation as a phenomenal professor. In order to get credit for it, I had to go talk to both departments and get some papers signed. But they agreed. I got the credit I needed, and got to take my course with Dr. Kaw. This was entirely worth the effort.

And if you have a shitty professor (and you will) you still have a choice. You can choose to learn and get what you need out of the class. It may not be from that professor, but you can get it by studying with classmates or a tutor.

In the end, you get out what you put in.

It's really that simple.

Which brings us to more important questions...

What is this for?

Why are you doing this? Why are you going to University?


Because you want a degree?

Why do you want a degree?

It's not because you need one. There are plenty of examples, extreme examples, on the absolute most successful end of the spectrum, of folks who don't have degrees. Arguably, many of the jobs of the future related to programming, automation, machine learning, AI... you don't need a degree. You can get one and it will be obsolete almost immediately.

So, what is it for? Why are you doing this?

Dig into underlying reasons of why some of your classmates go, not the canned answers. When we ask people why they go to university, what might be unspoken?

  • I'm going to university because "they" said I should. It's the only way to be successful.

  • My parents expect me to.

  • Because I want four more years of hanging out with friends and going to parties, only hopefully there are drugs this time.

  • Because I'm afraid of going into the real world.

  • Because I'm afraid without it, I won't be successful.

  • Because I don't know what else to do.

These are all real reasons. But they're not good reasons to blow 10's or 100's of thousands of dollars to get that piece of paper.

Once you can answer the real why for yourself - for you - not anyone else's "why", then everything else in the decision making will come together more smoothly.

What does all of this mean?

It means that you have choices. I don't mean simply which university or major. Your choices are bigger than that. They look something like this:

How will I choose to pursue my passion?

How will I choose to use my passion to help others?

How will I choose to use my privilege to help others along the path with me? Not because I have to, but because I can.

These questions are at the heart of your movement forward. How you choose to answer these questions is far more important than the major you select or which Ivy League school you choose.

Smart People

Through others' lenses of experience, we may see reality more clearly. If I could get you to do anything, I'd have you read a small hand full of books this Summer *before starting University. It's worth taking time to reflect before embarking on this next phase of your life and all the implications it has for your future.

I won't wish you luck because I know you won't need it. I know you are smart and dedicated. If anything, you need reminding that you shouldn't let perfect be the enemy of good. Doing and shipping will always be better for your learning, engagement, and overall success versus overthinking and editing to get to "perfect".

Happy trails, and I hope our paths cross one day.

blank letter on blue envelope with a small yellow flower

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