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A friend of mine recently asked me to write a sorority recommendation letter for her daughter who is heading off to a big state school this fall. The personal information packet I received to assist me in writing said letter was staggeringly impressive and surely required the postage of a September Vogue. The thick gold foil envelope and its slickly formatted contents put to shame every wedding invitation I’ve received this season and, frankly, many of the résumés that have crossed my desk in my recent search for an intern. Luckily, she was just as impressive IRL (that means “in real life” if you’re 17) as her transcript and headshot portrayed and writing the letter was a cinch. However, receiving this artful blend of biography and design that, less than a decade ago, was neither common nor expected, caused me to reflect on a larger trend: how tuned-in, connected and resourceful young adults have become in a world that demands they convey a shiny well-roundedness across dozens of media platforms. The experience took me on an exhilarating ride down Memory Lane and inspired me to share some things that might be helpful for anyone beginning this convoluted, transformative journey that is “college.”

The Collonade is the iconic W&L façade and has also been the nucleus of student learning since the middle hall — Washington Hall — was built in 1822. Image: Submitted

When I began college at Washington and Lee University in 2008, iPhones were not yet omnipresent (what up T9!?); and when I graduated in ’12, Instagram had barely just picked up steam (my entire senior year I thought it was just a photo editing app without realizing I was posting to a public feed). And because of the unique nature of my school’s social life, we often left our phones at home, knowing that we would run into everyone we wanted to see at the one party happening that night. We adhered to a centuries-old W&L tradition of speaking to and *gasp* making eye-contact with everyone we passed on campus or in town. These circumstances created a connective tissue among students, professors and townspeople that I largely took for granted then, but now, with the clarity of hindsight, I cherish.

I’m now eyeballs-deep in a digital career that requires a keen tenacity regarding technological trends. But there are some backward steps we can take to a more unfiltered, unplugged time when life wasn’t projected on a screen. I am scared to think what I might have missed had today’s App Store of a world existed 10 years ago. My memory of college is filled with colors and rocky peaks, strands of microfiche (Google it), busted speakers, smiles and tears and dirt and fires and books … stacks of books … and nights creeping up on mornings. I can only hope that gold-envelope-girl and everyone in this incoming class will experience even a sliver of the magic I did. Here are a few pointers I hope you will pack up with you.

Take time to unplug and connect with people and nature — in nature. Writer Zoe Yarborough is shown here hiking with three friends.

Writer Zoe Yarborough is shown here hiking with three friends on the iconic House Mountain. Image: Submitted

  1. Take a random class on something you love. Does social psychology really rev you up? Graphic design? Basket weaving? Spelunking? 19th-century British lit (who, me?!)? Take a class or find a club. There is nothing more inspiring than a passionate teacher who knows way more about something you love than you do.

  2. Take handwritten notes. If you type more efficiently (who am I kidding … of course you do), then at least turn off the WiFi and close your tabs. I recently revisited some old notebooks and was flung back in time reading the notes-to-self, messages to friends sitting adjacent and doodled names of fleeting crushes. The personal hierarchy of the circle, the underline and the highlight is tough to translate on a computer. Similarly, write your deadlines in a weekly planner alongside your social calendar so you can, like, finish the paper before the mixer and avoid an all-nighter.

  3. As tempting as it may be, don’t take the shortcut. Read as much of the book as you can before resorting to the online summary. Pick up the phone if a text won’t suffice. If you can walk instead of drive, walk. If staying quiet is easier, but you know something’s wrong, speak up. Train yourself to embrace the harder, messier thing. It’s the only way to grow and stand out.

  4. Call your parents when you don’t need anything from them and when you’re not distracted.

  5. Get outside of your school (and your school within your school … you’ll know what I mean). Whether you’re in a big city or a tiny mountain town, it’s easy to get stuck in the bubble of your major, Greek organization or dorm. Branch out. Befriend some weirdos. Go to a show or a restaurant in the next town over. Submerge yourself in nature as much as possible.

  6. Don’t be afraid to be a nerd. Your education will continue after four years — formally or informally — but you will never get these years back. So sip them slowly, but slurp them up at times. Be vulnerable, proactive, willing to change your mind, and never ever stop learning.

Zoe Yarborough is Charlotte native, Washington and Lee graduate and Nashville transplant of six years. She manages recording artists full-time, teaches Pilates part-time and independently writes and designs. Join in on the adventures at zoeyarborough.com

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