Olympic Lessons for the College Bound

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As I write, the Tokyo Olympics have just drawn to a close. I followed the big stories, but – like many Americans – I didn’t watch as religiously as I have in the past. Instead, my focus has been on other concerns, like the return to in-person work, which for me means welcoming students back to campus at the university where I’m a dean.

I’ve also been thinking about my younger son, who is about to leave home for his first year of college.

And maybe that’s why, as I think back on the headline stories of the last two weeks, I wonder what these Olympics can offer him in terms of lessons. Here’s what I hope he and other college students will take away from the games:

You are more than your medals (or your grades, or your accolades). After withdrawing from the all-around competition in women’s gymnastics, Simone Biles confessed that it took the experience to make her realize, “I am more than my medals…I am a human being.” In college, you will have days (or weeks, or semesters) where you can’t perform up the standards you’ve set for yourself. Maybe you’ll wake up the morning of your orgo test with a stomach flu. Perhaps you’ll get strep throat the week of a major performance. And sometimes an intolerable loss or a bad breakup will affect your grades. Your college experience (like Biles’s Olympic career) runs wider and deeper than your GPA. Believe that you are more than the letters on your transcript.

Someone doesn’t have to lose for you to win. Just ask Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi, who agreed to share the gold medal after each jumped 2.37m in the high jump. There’s a reason admission to selective colleges is labeled “competitive.” The process, with its compulsory exercises (SATs, ACTs), difficulty ratings (APs, IBs), and rankings can seem like the Olympic Trials. But now that you’ve proven yourself, the scoreboard’s been cleared. In high school, your friends were likely taking a lot of the same courses, pursuing the same “major” (i.e., getting into college), and perhaps chasing the same coveted spots at the same coveted schools. In college, the bottleneck opens up. Your college classmates will be taking hundreds of different classes in dozens of different disciplines in thousands of different combinations. There’s room on the podium for everyone.

You belong here. These Olympics were filled with stories of athletes who defied odds and expectations. Weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz is the 5th of 6 children born to a tricycle driver in the Philippines, a country which had never won a gold medal prior to her win in the 55kg division. During lockdown, her gym closed and she had to train with a water bottle attached to a bamboo pole. Trap shooter Alessandra Perilli scored the first-ever medal for San Marino, a country with a population 1/10th the size of Wichita, Kansas. Alana Smith was a groundbreaker twice-over, as the first out non-binary Olympian and part of the first team to complete in their sport (skateboarding). You may be the first in your family to go to college, or the first to leave your state or country for college. You may not see a lot of people who look like you, identify like you, or love like you.You may not enjoy the same privileges and resources as your classmates. But know that you have put in the hard work, done the training, and passed the qualifying rounds. You belong here. Seek out the friends, professors, and mentors who remind you of that every day.

Weird is wonderful. In addition to skateboarding, the Tokyo Olympics saw the launch of surfing, sports climbing, and karate as Olympic sports. Some events (wrestling, gymnastics, fencing) are evergreen, having appeared in the Olympics since 1896. Others have come and gone, like tug-of-war (!), pistol dueling (!!!), and solo synchronized swimming (?!?). So, whether your academic interests tend toward the modern (Cybersecurity) or the classic (um…Classics), study what you love, and don’t be afraid to try something new (like Molly Seidel, who won bronze in her third ever marathon). When others question your choices, remind them that three-time gold medalist Shaun White started snowboarding years before the halfpipe became an Olympic event. A well-rounded college education will prepare you for jobs that don’t yet exist, if you let it.

Not everyone is on the same timeline. Oscar Swahn won a silver medal for Sweden at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. He was 72 years old – 17 years past the life expectancy of the time. Sixty-six-year-old equestrian Mary Hanna competed in her sixth Olympics this year, and hopes to compete again in Paris in three years. The youngest athlete at the Tokyo games was 12-year-old Syrian table-tennis player Hend Zaza; she lost out to her 39-year-old opponent in her first match. At my (very traditional) university, about 1 out of 8 students graduates off-sequence. Some graduate early, some late. Students defer enrollment for gap years, or take leaves of absence for military service, missionary work, or financial/personal/medical reasons. The college clock allows delayed starts and restarts. Even Michael Phelps needed a break before the Rio Olympics, where he won 6 more medals. It’s ok to wait, or press pause, to get the most out of your experience.

The blessing of the bronze…or the B-. For 25 years, researchers have observed that bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists; the former group, in general, focuses on its accomplishments, and the latter on what might have been. It can be easy to fall into this trap as a high-achieving student, and to be disappointed by an A-. The most rewarding grade on my undergrad transcript was a B- in Microeconomics. I tanked the midterm, and had to rally for the final; most college grads I know have similar stories. And so we return to Simone Biles, who said that she would cherish her bronze on beam “a lot more” than her four golds: it was harder-fought.

If the Olympics, which ordinarily signal excellence, elite company, and doggedness, can teach us about humility, inclusivity, creativity, and freedom, then college should offer these opportunities in spades.  Work hard, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Forge your own path, with faith that it will take you where you’re meant to be. Look out for your friends, and let them look out for you. And have some fun along the way.

Sue Lorenson is Vice Dean for Undergraduate Education in the College of Arts & Sciences at Georgetown University.

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