Note: Elon University, where I am a journalism professor, has a wonderful tradition of recognizing our students’ transition to adulthood by celebrating their 21st birthdays at a group banquet. Called simply the Turning 21 Dinner, students invite a favorite mentor from the faculty or staff to accompany them. A few years ago, I was asked to deliver the keynote address at one of these dinners. This is the transcript of my talk, with some minor tweaks for clarity.
When I first started researching ideas for this talk, I found all sorts of websites teeming with sage advice. Therapist and motivational speaker Karin L. Smithson, for example, offered on Huffington Post a list of 20 things she wished someone had told her at age 20. They’re not bad, and include nuggets of wisdom such as:
1. Hold tight to your real friends and don't forget the closeness that you feel now.
2. Keep the joy of being 'in the moment.'
3. You will miss your youthful body one day -- love it and take care of it.
Yeah, that last one is true.
Of course, there is a Buzzfeed list about the expectations and realities of turning 21 years old. Since you’ve probably already read that one, I won’t recite it here. And there are lots and lots – and lots – of cute little sites about drinking. And drinking and drinking, as if that was the highest achievement of humankind.
That’s the stereotype, isn’t it? Turn 21, and do something legally that you’ve already been doing for five years.
I was an odd duck at 21. That will come as no surprise to my close friends in this audience. I didn’t drink then, and I hardly drink now.
I’ll revisit my own youth shortly, but I want to talk for a minute about my first job as a college professor in rural eastern North Carolina in the late 1980s. The Free Will Baptist college where I taught was pretty provincial then, and many of the students were local kids. The undergraduate population hovered around 500 students.
The school now has a study abroad program and more diversity – geographic, racial, and otherwise. But it was a big deal when three colleagues and I took 13 students on the college’s first domestic study trip ever. Driving two vans, we took these small town Southern kids to Massachusetts. We went to historic sites in Boston, Lexington, Concord, Salem, and other locations.
I drove one of the vans, and as we crossed the border into Virginia, a 19-year-old girl sitting behind me looked out the window said, “Well, now I’ve been out of the state of North Carolina for the first time in my life.”
Her statement startled the rest of us, as most of the students had traveled to other states on vacation or to visit relatives, but I later learned she wasn’t that unusual. She had simply never had the opportunity.
There was a retired college librarian named Mildred Council in the town who was turning 90. I took some students to visit Mildred so we could wish her a happy birthday. We listened as she talked a bit about her life. One thing she said has always stuck with me.
Leaning forward in her wheelchair, bent from arthritis, she said, “If there is any piece of advice I could give to you students, it’s to take the time to travel. I wouldn’t take anything for my memories of all the places around the world I’ve been. It’s one of the best things you could ever do for yourself. Even if you have to borrow money to do it, travel!”
I don't know if the students took that to heart, but I did. However, I didn’t travel out of the country until I came to Elon, at age 45. Friends tease me now about having the travel bug. It’s true. This year alone, I have been to London, Hong Kong, Montreal, Washington, and New York three times. There are students and colleagues in this room who have been farther afield and to more locations than that in the past year, but I have plans to do more traveling.
As I’ve gotten older, it seems to me that Mildred was talking about more than just travel, though, when sharing her wisdom all those years ago. I think she was trying to tell us that it’s more important as you go through the stages of life to collect experiences rather than things.
When I turned 21, I was a junior at UNC-Greensboro. During my time there, I heard the London Symphony Orchestra play, flew in a jet for the first time, wrote for the campus newspaper, acted in plays, and met television, music and film stars who visited campus. I had great experiences.
My birthday is in January, and later in my 21st year I rented my first apartment with my friend Charles. It was $140 fully furnished, and worth every penny. You know those hissing cockroaches from Madagascar? Some of them found their way into my apartment.
Decades later, Charles and I now laugh about that place. We’re also grateful we didn’t catch any diseases during the year we lived there.
For a time in my youth, I had a habit of going to flea markets and buying stuff. I still have hundreds of books and too much stuff, but I’m learning to let go. Releasing that clutter from my life has allowed me the freedom to have more experiences, and more travel, without feeling that I have to hurry back home to tend to my stuff.
I’ve let go of a lot of possessions, but I still have my old friend Charles. I also have many new friends, including the ones I’ve made here. Sometimes friends drop off the radar, but that’s part of life, too.
You’re 21. You’re smart, you’re motivated, and you’ve crossed the state line. As you move forward in life, don’t get weighed down by physical – or emotional – baggage. Travel light, keep your passport handy, and Godspeed for the journey ahead.