Letter to a 1st-Year College Student

Dear first-year college student:

Please let me share with you a story I would have wanted to hear when I was starting college 18 years ago, the year that you were born.

The setting is Cairo, Egypt, in another lifetime not long ago -- and the weather is hot on this particular afternoon, as summer still lingers in between the end of dreams and the cusp of a year ahead.

I was in search of somewhere to live for a few months, so I ventured over to the houseboat on the Nile where I had made my home several years before. The boat remained unchanged, and, sure enough, the same formidable "bawaba" (door-woman/manager) with kohl-darkened eyes was still running the show from her hut on the riverbank. She was squatted over a bucket doing dishes as I descended the staircase down the embankment. I kept the gate open in case I had to make a run for it -- after all, I had gender transitioned since we last saw each other and did not know how she would take the news.

I inquired about a flat, wondering what thoughts those startling kohl-darkened eyes were harboring. From the normalcy of her response, though, I gathered that she did not recognize me and had no idea I was the same person she had known before.

Or perhaps she did.

A flat would become available in a couple of weeks, she said. I arranged a move-in date and returned to my hotel.

One afternoon several days later, I was sitting on the balcony outside the hotel reception area, having tea and picking through a book, when a young man sat down near me. He was a 19-year-old American college student, and he was going to be studying for a semester abroad at the American University in Cairo, just as I had done at his age nine years prior.

As we talked, the pang of those nine years grew: how quickly it all flashes by, as moments of life light up for less than an instant, only long enough to form an impression that lives on as a memory that is gone before it even was. (I would recall these sensations when, years later, a friend of mine would point out that the word "moment" is derived from the Latin word "momentum," which means movement, perhaps because time never stops?)

"Will you do me a favor?" I asked.

He nodded.

"Travel," I said. "Take the overnight train down to Luxor with the tombs of the Valley of the Kings and then on further to Aswan (where Agatha Christie set portions of Death on the Nile), catch the bus to the Sinai and climb Mount Catherine (for the sunrise), and visit the desert oases and especially Siwa," I said, thinking of the Temple of Amun, where Alexander the Great is reputed to have visited an oracle of the same name. "Do not wait for anyone else to go with you. Just go. Go everywhere and see everything you can. You will never regret it."

It had been tempting to say a whole lot more, starting with, "When I was your age..." But I held back. I knew he was about to embark upon his own journey, on which he would form a cornucopia of memories that would sustain him for years to come. He did not need mine.

After he took his leave, I sat wondering: Where had I heard those words about traveling and never regretting it, what was the reference?

I could not recall for the life of me until a couple years later, when I was watching The Namesake, a film based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri.

The movie opens on a train in India, where the main character's father Ashoke encounters an older gentleman who speaks of two years he spent in England: "It was like a dream," he reminisces. "Have you ever thought of going abroad? You should. You are young. You are free. I'll tell you one thing, you must go out and conquer the world. You will never regret it."

A decade later, while writing these words, I Googled the opening clip of The Namesake and watched it on YouTube to make sure I quoted the dialogue accurately. The older gentleman's exhortation had stuck with me all these years, but I had forgotten Ashoke's response: "My grandfather always says that is what books are for. To travel without moving an inch."

Alright, so look: What I am trying to say here is that human beings have striven for experience and knowledge all throughout history in all sorts of ways, but you... you are different. You are a generation who have grown up with humanity at your fingertips the entire time you've been on this earth. The proposition that the only limits are the bounds of imagination has never been as true for anyone as it is for you. However you choose to explore the world as it unfolds, you can soar beyond everything that has come before.

Our world is the next chapter for you to write.

Yours Truly,



Zoe Dolan is a trial lawyer and writer. The story in this essay is drawn from her book There Is Room for You: Tales from a Transgender Defender's Heart.