I won’t ever forget the fateful afternoon when the rejection letter arrived. We all knew it was a rejection before opening that flimsy traitor of an envelope. We knew because I’d seen that simple packaging before, but also because my best friend was there in the kitchen with my mom and me, and she’d gotten her big, bulky acceptance package a week earlier. So we knew what success looked like, and we knew this was not it.
Pepperdine was my dream school. I think I had visions of playing beach volleyball and maybe running into Steven Jenkins, the lead singer of Third Eye Blind, my ultimate teen crush from the ultimate pop-punk band.
Pepperdine also boasted the perfect combination of decent academic ranking meets normal kid stands a chance of entry. My high school counselor had dutifully praised high test scores before breaking the news gently that Ivy Leagues would not be impressed with my 3.3-ish GPA.
That was a little bit disappointing, given the East Coast vibe of old brick buildings and autumn-leaved trees were my original ideal for what I imagined campus life to be.
I didn’t know about the who’s who roster, the charity I’d have needed to found, the ten more extracurriculars I’d have needed to slay prior to application time.
No matter. Pepperdine had been catching my eye for some time, and their “lax” admissions standards left me certain that I’d be living the beach life in Malibu, studying poli-sci, sipping smoothies and meeting surfer cuties.
That fateful day in spring of ’01, where I ripped that stupid paper envelope open, forced my eyes over the pre-fab bull of how grateful they were for my interest, BUT. That moment saw me utter the f-word in front of my mother, scandalized all the more for it being a public instance of potty mouth (recall: Pepperdine-bound bestie was right there), and got myself kicked out of the house for the afternoon.
I drove in a rage. Around the western suburbs of Denver, I took my little white Explorer Sport, probably blasting Fiona Apple, crying, and then shaking a raised fist and pledging to prove to all those wimpy West Coast doubters just what they’d passed up.
A huge part of this explosive angst stemmed from the simple fact that I’d been left with no out-of-state options. I’d applied to two in-state schools – the “back-ups,” the “safety schools” – but hadn’t given a moment’s thought to the reality of attending one.
There was nothing wrong with University of Colorado and the University of Denver. They were good schools. I just craved some adventure, and living half and hour from home sounded like the opposite of freedom.
It sounded like a glorified sleepover.
And it was all I had. So I chose DU, for reasons I honestly can’t say, having never visited the campus and not knowing much about it besides it lacked a football team (maybe that was the reason, now that I think of it).
I planned on transferring after the first semester. In fact, several of the schools that sent those dream-crushing rejection slips implied that if I reapplied come December, I could probably score a drop-out’s spot.
That was the plan.
And then I fell in love. I fell in love with DU’s campus, my newfound literary studies major, all these fascinating classes taught by brilliant professors, on the mystery and transcendence of poetry, the happenstance history of language, the quintessence of the novel. I took Art History – and loved it. Even science was suddenly interesting. Where had astronomy been all my life (especially during biology class)?
More importantly, I met amazing friends, and they hailed from all over the nation – there were even some internationals in the mix. They were happy, and weirdly, very un-stressed. These were not the kids who had spent high school on Adderall, sweating blood over 4.0+ GPAs and Honors Band and building wells in India.
They were remarkably well-adjusted; way more so than me, it goes without saying.
And they were wonderful.
By the time December rolled around, you couldn’t have bribed me with a thousand Steven Jenkins and a million Nantucket weekends to leave my home city of Denver.
I am not minimizing the pain of rejection. That knife is real, and it hurts deep. But while this may feel like an irrecoverable loss, the simple truth is: it’s not.
You’re 18 or 19 years old. The possibilities for your life, right now, are utterly boundless. Take a drive if you need to, blast your mad music, drop an f-bomb if you must.
The know that what lies ahead, on a campus or alternate site different than what you’d hoped or planned, can still be a dream coming true. It just isn’t a dream you’ve had yet.