At the Mouth of the River
“The lessons I learned will always stay with me and steer me in the right direction.”
I ended up with a most dreadful gown tan at graduation, but it was totally worth it. The day was out of the brochure W&L sends prospective students in the mail. I remember sitting with my fellow graduates, roasting in the sun, thinking “Yes! It’s the end! It’s the end?” As President Ruscio delivered his commencement address, I couldn’t help but wonder about the river to which he compared Washington and Lee — constantly moving away from its source, providing life to all it touches, carrying the same water to exciting new places. It was a beautiful metaphor, one I think of often as I wake each morning to go to work… and not class.
I have a feeling most graduates get a taste of what I now call “wandering syndrome.” It is the realization (and possible denial) that your college river has reached its mouth on the edges of a big, scary, real-world ocean.
“Wandering Syndrome” began like Lexington’s spring rainstorms: quick and unannounced. I was five weeks into my current Elrod Fellowship position with a non-profit called Linden Resources. I had just emailed my “ex” professors updates about working to find employment opportunities for people with disabilities and wounded veterans. Walking out to my car after a long day, I greeted an older man on the sidewalk with a smile and “hello,” realizing from his confused reaction that the Speaking Tradition was not universal. A lot of things outside of Lexington struck me in that moment as totally foreign to non-Generals.
I cook all my meals now (okay, most of them). The wonderful sorority chefs aren’t around to make mac and cheese for me anymore. I had to pay for my gym membership. The barista at Starbucks still doesn’t remember my order. I paused on that sidewalk, mid-step, and felt like I was back on the graduation stage, diploma in hand with, what was then, my entire world in front of me. I realized nothing, from that point on, would ever be like my time at Washington and Lee.
There is something freeing about graduating: the world is yours because it has to be. But it’s scary, too. There is no going back — admissions won’t have it, and that’s not how this river metaphor works. It can be challenging, too, with the pressure to be the same successful student you were on campus, but without the constant support network.
The more my experiences at W&L become memories, the more I realize how the lessons I’ve learned in those four years are perhaps the best protection in the “harsh conditions” of my new reality. I decided to pretend as if the Speaking Tradition was universal after my sidewalk revelation. I bring W&L with me now like a little lifejacket to keep from drowning. I keep in touch with my professors and, unsurprisingly, they all write back. I hold myself to the Honor System. I occasionally listen to a recording of “Oh Shenandoah” by the University Singers when I’m feeling really blue. The song says it all:
I long to see you,
Away you rolling river.
I long to see you,
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri.
Even though I’m thankfully only ‘cross the Shenandoah River, the song speaks to the longing I have for what is familiar, what is home. I never imagined I would feel so connected to a well-constructed pile of red bricks; however, I cannot fathom who I would be without Washington and Lee. I’m in D.C. now because of the University’s Elrod Fellowship program. I am who I am because of the amazing opportunities that were so generously made available to me.
I finally understand why so many graduates fervently hate change when it makes news back on campus: It feels like our time there is becoming history, our water source is drying up. That version of the story seems far too morose to be the story of us gentlemen and gentlewomen. I want to think that like that gown tan I still have, our memories of Washington and Lee travel with us forever, the water that carries and sustains us. The feelings and appreciation we have now are what remain constant for future graduates — the bonds that connect graduates throughout the years.
You can take the woman out of Washington and Lee, but you can’t take Washington and Lee out of the woman. I might submit business reports instead of term papers now, but the lessons I learned will always stay with me and steer me in the right direction. Because of Washington and Lee I can comfortably say I have no idea what I want to do after I finish my fellowship. But it’s okay. As I sail out into the open waters, I’m not scared. I know, somewhere in the sometimes dark waters below me, at least one of those currents originated from our enduring alma mater. I’ve decided wandering isn’t so bad after all. And if I ever get too lost, I at least know our Annual Fund committee will always find me.