The Best Advice I Never Followed

I was eighteen years old and planning my college career when I had a very interesting conversation with an old mentor of mine.

This man, let's call him G, was about six years my senior and had been a star distance runner in high school and had gone on to have decent college running career afterward. I had met him when he was still in high school, but at the time of this particular conversation, he was donating some of his free time to being an assistant coach to my own high school cross-country team.

Because my school had never had a particularly great running program, it did not tend to garner a lot of attention from college athletics recruiters. As a result, I had to spend some of my time as a high school senior writing letters to college athletics programs in which I was interested, making them aware of both my interest in their program and my athletic career thus far. I certainly had the race times and competitive results to qualify for an athletic scholarship. What I didn't have was the attention of any of the recruiters.

So, as I went through this letter-writing and phone-call-making process of attempting to get an athletic scholarship, G presented me with a rather novel idea. At the time, my focus had been on local schools, where I wouldn't have to pay out-of-state tuition fees and would be close to home. G questioned my approach.

"I went to an out-of-state junior college for my first two years," he told me. "You save a ton of money on tuition, because you're at a junior college. If you get good grades for those two years, you can get an academic scholarship to a major university, no problem."

It got better. "Everyone [that was, all of the best high school distance runners - ed.] goes to a four-year university straight out of high school. You'll be a big fish in a small pond, one of the best runners at the junior college level, and then you'll be able to get a great scholarship to a four-year college once your two years are over."

His argument swayed me immediately. Part of it was the fact that it was a good argument that made a lot of sense, but I have to admit that the main selling point to me - which he never mentioned - was that I'd be able to escape the rather oppressively conservative Utah culture and hopefully find a place I'd fit in better.

After my conversation with G, I excitedly presented the argument to my parents. To my great disappointment, they poured water all over the idea. That alone was frustrating, but what really broke my heart was that they presented no argument for their case. They simply became angry and shut the conversation down. For reasons still unclear to me, they did not want me to leave the state. I guess they wanted me to stay nearby. I invested a couple of frustrating hours just trying to get them to admit to the bare minimum: that even if I didn't take G's advice, it was still good advice for somebody. My parents stubbornly dug in their heels and refused to admit even that much.

I stopped pursuing the idea and eventually found my way to a local university. I spent one year on an athletic scholarship, running for the team, but the environment was a bad match for me. Surrounded by the same "Happy Valley" culture from which I was desperate to escape, I eventually slipped into depression, quit the team, and found my destiny elsewhere.

In hindsight, though, I now wonder why I didn't completely disregard my parents' irrational insistence. Why didn't I just take up G's advice and go out of state? I was the one reaching out to all the college-level coaches, so I could have easily written a few letters to some out-of-state colleges. Had I been offered a scholarship from one such college, I would not have been reliant on my parents' money for my education. I could have found my own way there. In short, I can think of no reason why I didn't just do it anyway.

In fact, later in my university career I would spend summers taking "general education" courses from junior colleges, anyway, because the tuition was much less than what it would cost to take the same courses at my university. I'd take my diploma-track coursework during the Fall and Spring semesters at my university, and the gen-ed courses at a junior college during the summer while I was working. This, of course, highlights the fact that junior colleges are in many ways a much better deal than four-year universities. This was the late-nineties, and we were just discovering this; by now, it's common knowledge. G was ahead of his time.

College is a time for young people to find themselves and start out "on their own." Perhaps I just wasn't ready to cut the cord during my senior year of high school. Still, if I had done so, I would have avoided years of depression, saved a ton of money, and probably would have spent more years running in college. I'd likely be a more independent person than I am today.

G's advice might have been the best advice I ever received. I'll never know.