Along the road to college admission…

Watch where you’re going!

The college application process can have many unfortunate effects, and one happens when students run around madly padding their resumes with yet one more activity, one more shot at leadership, one more service moment.  The problem is not only that this kind of scattershot business does little to enhance their applications, but also that they seldom stop to ask the important questions: why am I doing this, what does it all mean, where is it taking me?

Watching this mad runaround brings to mind one of my most favorite college presentations, done by an esteemed colleague and good friend at Brown University.  She reminded prospective students that the journey matters, not just the arrival; that as a high school student moves towards college and the next phase in his or her life, thinking and engaging and playing around with ideas along the way is as important as ultimately getting accepted.  Being a classicist, she pointed out that even as we cheer for Odysseus to find his way home to Ithaca (not only those dreaming of Cornell!), we should remember the wondrous things he saw along the way. So she handed prospective students a copy of the beautiful poem Ithaca, by the modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1911).  It is worth repeating here:

Ithaca


When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,

pray that the road is long,

full of adventure, full of knowledge.

The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,

the angry Poseidon — do not fear them:

You will never find such as these on your path,

if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine

emotion touches your spirit and your body.

The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,

the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,

if you do not carry them within your soul,

if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.

That the summer mornings are many, when,

with such pleasure, with such joy

you will enter ports seen for the first time;

stop at Phoenician markets,

and purchase fine merchandise,

mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

and sensual perfumes of all kinds,

as many sensual perfumes as you can;

visit many Egyptian cities,

to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.

To arrive there is your ultimate goal.

But do not hurry the voyage at all.

It is better to let it last for many years;

and to anchor at the island when you are old,

rich with all you have gained on the way,

not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.

Without her you would have never set out on the road.

She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.

Wise as you have become, with so much experience,

you must already have understood what these Ithacas mean.

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