Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Hobbies are not just for College Applications

When it comes time to fill out college applications many students panic at the thought of having to list their extra-curricular activities. They question whether they have enough activities, the “right” ones, and if their list will persuade the admission staff of their commitment to these pursuits. “If I don’t have a passion, will colleges even consider me?” is the unproductive thought that plays repeatedly in many students’ heads. Sometimes I wonder if the pressure to pursue “extra-curricular activities” actually discourages less confident or rebellious students from getting involved. The shame of it is that engaging in activities often becomes more about impressing college admissions than finding pleasure and meaning in one’s non-academic pursuits. The focus on figuring out what colleges want to see is misguided; the more important question is: are you developing and exploring interests and hobbies that provide personal satisfaction and which will continue to enrich your life, even beyond college?

We engage in hobbies for a variety of reasons, but largely for personal fulfillment and to give purpose to our lives. It’s about choice, not obligation. Whether social or solitary, active or sedentary, philanthropic or artistic, the things we do that are individually meaningful can trigger the release of pleasure-inducing dopamine or lead us to form new social groups with people who share our interests. But one of the best things about hobbies is that it is never too late to discover new ones. Take it from me; last year I more or less traded in my running sneakers for cycling shoes. I signed up for a college counselor bike tour in southern California because it seemed like a great way to visit colleges, share the experience with colleagues and get some heart-pumping outdoor exercise. What I had not anticipated is that I would become hooked on cycling.

This summer once again I am participating in the college counselor bike tour. Our destination is to the south: North Carolina colleges and universities. Last year at this time I was marking off the days to the trip, filled with a mix of excitement and trepidation. New to cycling, I had concerns about keeping the pace, conquering hills, carrying my own gear and releasing my toe clips with sufficient time before a stop to avoid falling. I had premonitions of an embarrassing Arte Johnson moment, toppling over on my bike in a klutzy move reminiscent of the Laugh-In tricycle routine…a self-fulfilling prophesy.

With just 12 days until this year’s trip (and counting), I have no anxiety and feel only the excitement. I have already experienced the adrenaline rush that for me comes with the joy of cycling and sharing the ride with other adventurous counselors. Hobbies can also motivate us to challenge ourselves and improve our skills. I am a stronger rider today and therefore, more confident. I am happy to report that I no longer get stuck in my toe clips.

Many of my friends from last summer have also decided to participate again this year, anticipating another action packed week of great cycling, plenty of laughs and lots of support. The cycling trip takes us to Duke, NC State, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Elon, Guilford, High Point, Wake Forest, Catawba, Davidson and Queens College. We carry our own clothes and gear, and stay in dorms; it will be as close as possible to a true college experience. I actually visited many of these colleges as recently as two years ago, traveling by bus with a group of independent educational consultants. Even so, it never occurred to me to pass up this bike trip. The cycling, the camaraderie, the exercise, and yes, the professional benefits inspire me. I always gain something new from subsequent campus visits, whether it’s a different perspective or the reinforcement of something I had previously learned. This time around my vantage point will be different; after all, I will arrive on each campus by the power of my well-trained legs, my bike and my determination.

There is no one path to uncovering our passions and interests. I first happened upon the counselor bike tour and took up cycling after reading a posting on a college related listserv. One’s interests are sparked through exposure, receptiveness to new things, a suggestion from a friend, but most importantly, through self knowledge and an understanding for what makes us happy. When the interest is genuine, the commitment and endorphins will follow. That’s what will get a college’s attention.

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