Dear Darling College Freshman Girls

First and foremost, my oldest son will be among you next year. He is JUST A BOY. There is a 100 percent chance you are more sophisticated than him. Be gentle.

That out of the way, I want to say some things to you. I can literally feel the feelings I felt when my parents and all my siblings drove me to college. (I was the firstborn. My youngest brother drove himself to college and didn't check in for two weeks.) It took around five minutes for me to figure out: Oh. My. Word. I can do what I want! No one is my boss! I am entirely out of bosses! It was, quite frankly, amazing. My freshman year will go down as one of the best of my life.

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Me (bottom right) and my college girlfriends in 1994. Hair game ON POINT.

I cannot possibly overstate how for you I am. College students are my favorite, and those first steps into the collegiate world are unprecedented. You'll have plenty of change in your life, but rarely this extreme. All your systems, all your practices, all your rules and rhythms and relationships are about to experience full upheaval. I cannot think of two more unalike adjacent years than high school senior -> college freshman. This year is big.

I've combed through my experiences, plus my friends', plus those of the students I've adored through the years -- and compiling this shared data, I have a few thoughts to impart. All of us Old Ladies ahead of you, we've learned things; some (most) the hard way, some by observation, some involving hindsight. Outrageously, we are now parenting kids your age or nearly, so we think of your generation as all our daughters.

Let's start with this: Go ahead and jump into college life with both feet -- one giant war-whooping, big-splashing, no-going-back cannonball in the deep end. College is completely unique in relation to the entire rest of your life; you'll never have years like these again. Open your arms to this season and embrace it with all your might. Don't hang back, don't nurture fears. In short: Don't sit this one out.

College is incredibly vibrant. I just drive by a university and my antennae start buzzing. You'll be surrounded by fresh thinkers, big dreamers, rising leaders. The average college campus contains so much innovation and creativity and adventure. You could just punch the clock and get your degree, but go all-in instead. Join clubs, take spontaneous weekend trips with your new friends, sign up for intramural softball, try out for the improv group, study abroad one semester, paint your face at the football games, watch '80s movies with your roommates until 4:00 a.m.

You'll get out of college what you put in. This is the time to take calculated risks, to go for it. You won't regret it. It might be tempting to play it safe, but find your niche and thrive. I graduated college in 1996, and I am still laughing about the shenanigans and hijinks we embraced those four years: Let's drive to Colorado! YES! THIS IS SUCH A SOUND IDEA! Let's take a picture in our bras in front of the President's house! YES! BECAUSE THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS SOCIAL MEDIA YET! WE SHALL DO THIS SMART THING! Let's renovate a house, Roommates! YES! WE ARE 21 YEARS OLD! WE CAN DO ANYTHING!

Oh, college.

Next, I realize certain high school teachers, sometimes parents, even several earnest middle school teachers have wound you pretty tightly about academic success. Some of you sense your entire future is hanging in the precarious balance of the Dean's List, and if you fall short, better sign yourself up for the night shift at Wendy's.

Trust me, lighten up. I was a nearly straight-A college student who graduated with honors, and that has mattered zero times in my adult life. My husband Brandon, on the other hand, trounced through college with the motto "Cs get degrees!", and he went on to be an equally employable member of society. Work hard, absolutely yes (some of you will require grad school, so you can't be quite as WOO-HOO) -- but I promise your future involves more than a collection of good grades. Success will encompass a cocktail of your personality, contacts, life experiences, creativity, courage, and your degree. So don't lighten up so much that you forget to graduate, but seriously, lighten up. (When I wrote my BFF's son a post-high school, pre-college letter, I said, "Skip class sometimes." I am a terrible advisor.)

And, to be fair: While some of you need to lighten up, others need to tighten up. You know what happens when you blow your parents' tuition money on an expensive semester of partying? You get to come home and live in your childhood bedroom with the One Direction poster hanging above your bed. Good times.

Onward. I was at my kids' high school today, and it occurred to me: Those years were not very fun for some of you. There is a type of girl who seems to nail it in high school; she hits certain points with some marketable characteristics that ensure popularity in the finicky 14-18 demographic. But outside this bull's-eye, high school can be lonely and awkward and even devastating. Individuality, artistry, quirkiness, quiet gentleness, strong conviction, good old book smarts... these qualities don't always create the best high school experience. You may be moving into college with social wounds, having failed to find your tribe in the homogenous world of high school.

Well, let me tell you something: College is going to be your jam. If you didn't thrive in the stereotypical world of high school hierarchy, you are about to find your people. College is infinitely broader, more diverse, and more nuanced, and the very characteristics that made you an "outsider" in high school will be connecting points at your university. You will discover whole groups of artists, entire schools of mathletes, bands of young minds dreaming big dreams beyond Friday Night Lights. Diversity in college is generally celebrated -- a major departure from most high schools. The compulsion to press everyone into a preset form gives way to a certain grace, and students discover the beauty of variety.

Sister, you do you in college. Won't that be great?

Next, you will soon be given the chance to increase your exposure: new kinds of people, new ideas, new perspectives, new experiences. When I graduated from high school, I'd been around the same type of kids, same worldview, same demographic, same lifestyle, same, same, same. I was completely underexposed to the rest of the world, and the unfamiliarity made me anxious (which initially presented as judgment). I worried new ideas meant mine were wrong, but different doesn't equal wrong... it just equals different. Now, 20 years north of college, I cannot imagine where I'd be without all the fresh input I've embraced over time.

College is a spectacular microcosm of new. You'll go to school with kids from all different cities and states and even countries. Don't be threatened by what you don't understand; be fascinated. Listen. Ask questions. Make friends outside of your comfortable same. This doesn't mean you abandon your own values or worldview, but it gives you a broader understanding of the planet and all the beautiful people who live on it. It is good to be stretched. It is good to be challenged. It is good to be a citizen of the world, capable of broad understanding beyond narrow perception. College is a wonderful time to practice living open-hearted and brave instead of tight-fisted and scared. This will undoubtedly make you uncomfortable, but comfort is a terrible life goal.

Finally, if at any point in college you find yourself slipping -- if you get tangled in a nasty relationship or addiction or environment -- this is no time to go down with the ship. With such unprecedented freedom sometimes comes struggle, and you needn't bear it alone. If you get lost, get help. If you start going under, reach out. Your parents and teachers and counselors and professors are for you and love you, and there is no shame in hardship. On the contrary, it is incredibly brave to call in the troops when you need them. Trust me, every parent would rather field a devastating phone call from her daughter than find out later that she suffered alone, even in a mess of her own making. We love you, sweet young things. If you need help, your people are here to see you through. (And newsflash: We know you aren't perfect. Most young adults think their parents are quite clueless, but we know what you did last summer. It's OK. We never expected you to be perfect, because guess what? We aren't either. We never were.)

So go forth, dear freshmen. We believe in you! We are cheering you on like you cannot imagine. Nothing speaks more highly of any generation than raising up the next to be strong, smart, courageous, confident. You are our prize. We are thrilled to run this race beside you, eagerly awaiting all you will create, all the gifts you will offer this Earth. As you go, don't mistake our tears as regret or sorrow; we loved raising you, and are watching our very hearts drive away into adulthood. Bear with us. It's a lot of feels. But mainly, our tears say, "We are so proud. We are so grateful. We are so excited for the big life that awaits you...."

Go get it, girls.

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