Updated: May 24, 2019
My 10 best tips for college graduates, having survived cancer and graduating with two degrees!
Not your normal college experience
Graduation weekend, specifically May 19 is a special day for me. It's my diagnosis day. 14 years ago, I was 21 years old and had just finished my last final of junior year. It was a Thursday. I had moved most of my things out of the Kappa house for the summer and spent the night back home at my parents' house that Wednesday night. The morning of the 19th I got a call from a doctor and he told me over the phone, "I'm sorry to tell you, but you have cancer." The doctor said his secretary would call me for an appointment and hung up the phone.
There I was, standing in my childhood bedroom, speechless. The walls were painted sunshine yellow and my college life was packed around me in boxes and suitcases. I clearly was in shock because no emotions were present on the call or just after. I walked downstairs and told my parents. My grandma was in town for my brother's college graduation, and all four of us sat and stared at each other in the kitchen.
My cancer was malignant melanoma in my stomach, and we hoped to have caught it early. There was no way to tell how far it had spread until meeting with doctors.
I was leaving the next day for a wedding in South Carolina, to return for my brother and best friend's college graduation. I packed my bags and off I went. I didn't want to tell anyone and my mom quickly went to work by calling every surgeon in the state.
How I found out
The mole on my stomach was new and I noticed it over winter break 2004. It was skin color and looked like a mosquito bite. I had been feeling light headed at school and lost my balance a few times in the hall way. Yet, I did not have any of the symptoms to watch for: asymmetry, border, color, diameter or evolving moles. When I first noticed it, I told my mom and said she didn't want to pay to have a skin tag removed. (Don't worry mom, I'm fine now!) Yet, a voice inside me made me ask more questions. When we finally saw my general doctor, she said "no problem, we can just freeze that off", but it only turned black and blue, with bleeding in the days after. I called her about it a week or so later and she said you better get a biopsy. I didn't even know what a biopsy was at that time. So I went back to a different doctor who cut a sample, put it in a jar and said "it's done. We'll call you in 10 days." Moral of the story: you know your body. Don't take a no or "this is no big deal" from anyone if you feel different than the medical advice you are getting.
Fast forward to the phone call from the doctor with the biopsy results. Here I am, 21 years old and I genuinely believe the world is mine for the taking. I had just landed an internship with Fox 4 sports and pictured myself daily on the sidelines as an ESPN sports reporter. Immediately, I had to call and unwind the internship and cancel my summer role as sorority recruitment chair.
In this moment, my life path changed course forever.
Most years I like to forget about this day. But this weekend, as I noticed all the cars on the neighborhood streets, the yard signs declaring what colleges the high school students were going to, and the graduations being celebrated from high school, college, grad school, med school and now even preschool, I realized something invaluable and worth sharing.
That day, I knew that if I were to survive this battle, I would commit my life to constant and never ending improvement. I went to bed that evening with the boldest prayers I had prayed up until then. "Lord, if you help me through this, I promise to serve You and Your purpose all the days of my life."
"That day, I knew that if I were to survive this battle, I would commit my life to constant and never ending improvement."
I have always believed that God brought me into this world for big things. I heard an interview with Oprah early on in my life where she said she knew in her heart as a little girl that she was always meant for big things, and I too shared that small inner voice. I believed my work on this planet wasn't done and that I would prevail. My mom found the best surgeon who opened her schedule to get me in sooner, and we set the surgery date for June 2. (Stay tuned for that juicy story in June!)
That summer I was recovering on a twin mattress of my parents living room and I admittedly told my mom "I don't want to go back to school this fall." She said, "I'm sorry but that is not an option. You're going to get up, get through this and move on." I hated her words at the time and all of her positivity mumbo jumbo she would tell me every day. But, day by day, one positive thought after another, she helped me climb out of the dark hole. So, I lived at home the next semester and commuted for a lighter-than-normal class schedule my senior year.
That final semester, a long lost friend's daughter had a roommate opening second semester of senior year and that was my way back in. We had the best time and she was so patient with me and my evolving emotions. And, just as my mom predicted (read: forced), I walked down the hill with my sorority sisters that May and again in the winter having earned two degrees and a minor.
How did I do it? I decided to go all out; to play in the big leagues every day; to study and to make good grades; and to recognize the gift of life I had taken for granted all these years. My perspective shifted from thinking the bars were cool to bettering myself by eating right, working out and working on my thoughts.
As I tip my hat to all the college graduates this weekend, I leave you with a few tips that I would never had known had I had a normal college life. My wish is that you share this blog with your loved ones who are transitioning from middle school to upper school, junior high to high school, high school to college, and college to real life...as it just might save their life!
Real advice for college graduates
1. Never graduate.
Always be a sponge for information, knowledge and growth. Don't get complacent and overly obsessed with social media. Read the news and trade publications, be aware of what is going on in your industry and where it is headed. Listen to business podcasts, read books with words you don't understand, and sign up for free online masterclasses.
2. Listen to your body.
Your 20s are some of the toughest years in your life. Pay attention to changes in your body and mind and you must focus on your health.
3. You are not invincible.
Wear sunscreen, wear your seatbelt, don't text and drive, don't drink and drive, don't do things that you know are wrong thinking "I'm young, wild and free, what can it hurt?"
4. Don't be afraid to intern.
You learn so much by humbling yourself to the smallest jobs in the workforce. Start here, play all out, and ask as many questions as possible.
5. Take notes.
As a boss, this is my number one rule for my team. You must always take notes. Make a to-do list of your top three things every day and make sure you get them done. Take a note book to every meeting, it will impress the leaders that you care. And, when you get back to your desk, don't open up instagram, but instead write down what you learned from the meeting - who was in charge, what was the agenda, what were the action items, how can you come more prepared the next time?
6. Clean up your social media.
Speaking of instagram, you MUST clean up your act. Archive all photos of you with alcohol, tiny swim suits, ridiculous costumes and shenanigans from your glory days. I don't care if it was your number one liked image, archive it. Every single employer will check your accounts to see who you are.
7. Pay with cash.
Set aside a dollar amount for each of your major spending categories and do not spend more than you allot. Using credit cards will take you down a dark spiral that will take years, maybe even a lifetime, to get out. Paying with cash ensures you only buy what you can afford.
8. Live with roommates.
As much as the free couch at mom and dad's sounds amazing, you MUST move out. Do not fall on the "oh but I can save so much money" sword. Find a few roommates, get an apartment and learn how to pay your bills. There are so many powerful lessons in being on your own. You'll work harder and realize you have to keep the lights on more than getting that designer bag (that you don't need).
9. Live within your means.
Most of the time, your life with mom and dad will be richer than on your own. That's ok. That's totally normal. You cannot expect to have the same things as someone who has worked 40 years longer than you. Pick a place that is nice enough and use it as motivation to get a promotion.
10. Be on fire for your life.
You only have one life. In some cases like me, you have second chances, and the quality of your life is only up to you. You are the only thing stopping you from where you want to go. If you don't have a mentor, study someone who has the job you want. Go on adventures, take risks, keep in touch with your college friends and pick a profession that you are passionate about. The more passion you have for what you do, the harder you'll work and the more fun you will have!
Remember, everyone you meet in life has battles. My battle with cancer was not the only one I've faced in the past 14 years. The key to life is maintaining composure, surrounding yourself with people that build you up (this is the biggest one!), and cultivating a heart of gratitude.
The people who succeed, are not necessarily the people who graduate at the top of the class, have the most money, or have things handed to them. It's people who are adaptable, are committed to growth, and don't make excuses. Ask yourself, "why can't that be me?"
Today, my life's work is to help 1M people dramatically improve the quality of their lives. Share it with your friends, and even if you graduated more than 14 years ago, be on fire for your life and be a student of the game. Great things are bound to happen!