Do you have kids going to college next year? Here’s a powerful conversation I had with Henry Yampolsky about whether we should send our rising Freshmen off to college in the fall under the current circumstances. Henry is the Assistant Director for Education, Outreach, and Conflict Resolution at Virginia Tech, a Conflict Resolution Consultant, and the President and CEO of the Living Peace Institute.
DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed by Henry Yampolsky are his own and not of or on behalf of Commonwealth of Virginia and/or Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech)
Henry Yampolsky: Thank you. I think I have to preface this response with a few things. First of all, I’m no expert in higher education. Am very new to it and my role in higher education. I work in the. So essentially what is a civil rights laws? And I direct the conflict resolution program within the civil rights office and teach people how to deal with conflict and also how to create a more equitable, diverse, accessible campus where every member of the campus community feels welcome and feels like they can express themselves in whatever way they express themselves. So that’s that’s my role. With that said, I think we are at times when life is really pointing to us that we don’t know. You know, people say that these are uncertain times. I’m not sure I’ve seen ever certain times. Times are always uncertain. But certainly this is for our generation, for this generation. And I mean, we were generation don’t just be an age. I mean, people who are alive right now, people who are going to school, you know, people who are parents. This is really unprecedented. So we don’t. No one knows how this is going to play out and turn out.
Deb Blum: So the question many parents of rising Freshman is – do we send them? I hear your invitation for them to maybe get out of their own “me-mind” like “I was supposed to go to college and it was supposed to have this experience that I was supposed to be able to go and party with my friends in the frat parties and blah, blah.”
And you’re inviting a possible other way of looking at this. One of the things that you also mentioned earlier that was really helpful for me is remembering we can look at this from a bigger view about what can it teach our children, what’s available to them. We have this idea of what college is supposed to be. And then we’re afraid that their experience won’t be that. But you’re saying there’s something else that’s happening.
Henry Yampolsky: So one of the greatest invitations that I could extend to anyone, and especially to young people who may be entering college now. Is to live the life without SHOULDS. You know, because when we are living in shoulds – my experience should be this way, this is what college should look like – then we’re not HERE. We’re constantly trying to project into the future. What is a projection? Projection is taking someone else’s experience from the past and repackaging it, right? So the invitation is not to reject what the experience should be. And then when we drop the word should, it’s it’s actually very violent word because it says that the world needs to be a particular way for us to be happy with it. There is a possibility of freedom in that – if we could live the life without shoulds and then we start tuning into the way things ARE and seeing things as the way things ARE.
And maybe your children’s experience is not going to be the same as someone who went to college two years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago, or will go to college five or 10 years from now. That doesn’t mean that their experience is not special. That doesn’t mean that their experience is not meaningful. That doesn’t mean that that experience doesn’t bring gifts and lessons and opportunities. And so when we say should, we’re putting the world in a box. We are saying, I know what this world needs to look like. And if it doesn’t look that way, like for me. Well, then things are very bad. Then the world is a very bad place. But actually, in actuality, nothing is going to look the way it should. Everyone’s marriage as your kids get older and they get married and they enter relationships. I hope their relationships are not someone else’s shoulds. I hope their relationships are their own unique expressions of a bond with another human being. I hope they have careers and pursue things that they like, not because you or someone else told them that they should pursue them.
But because they’re expressing their unique passion and abilities and capabilities. And I hope, you know, at the end of their lives, at the end of each of our lives, we don’t just say I lived a life that someone else told me I should live. But we can say that I had my own path. My own experience I created with it. I did my best with it. I experienced things that were unique to me. And that’s what made my life special. That’s what made my life meaningful. Not that we put a checkmark that, you know, at this age or at this point in our life, we attended a college party or something else. That’s not what makes our experience meaningful. Actually, it’s just the opposite effect. Our experience is meaningful when it is unique to us. And so I think these times, especially these times, present an opportunity for all people to start leaving without shoulds, to liberate themselves from this world. And then they could see things as they are and when they see things as they are, the biggest gift is then to engage with them fully, whatever they may be.
Whatever they may be, that’s what life is about. Because if we are stuck in shoulds, we’re always trying to live someone else’s experience. And that’s not helpful to anyone.
Deb Blum: I’m so glad we decided to go here because I think that’s so helpful. And I do think that’s an edge – I can feel that you’re you’re like a little bit of sandpaper on my edges right now, you know, you’re helping me to erode a little bit of something that’s in there that’s kind of like “but but, but, but but…it was supposed to… But it was he was supposed to have this experience…. It was going to look this way…. His freshman experience was going to look this way…. And we’re spending that much money…” And I hear people talk about college – that it’s a waste. Like, it’s no longer what’s needed in the world and we need to change our education system.
But, you know, this is exactly where we are in life right now. This is where we are in life. And maybe it’ll be our kids who are part of evolving education. Or maybe it’s the coronavirus that’s evolving education. And I see what you’re saying is this invitation for all of us. It’s not just for our children. It’s for every one of us to say “What is it?” How can I be in this exact moment? Not layering upon the idea of what this moment should look like. “I was supposed to be the captain of the team this year. And I’m not” OK. You’re not. That’s true. It’s actually really true. And this also invites grief for people – the idea that we do have to sometimes grieve things that we were attached to in order to also move on to what’s real and what’s here and what’s available to us.
Henry Yampolsky: So the one thing I would just say, you know, one of my teachers, as you know, I spent a lot of time in India and a lot of time in Ashram and doing yoga and having a very, very deep yoga practice. And my teacher, Anand Mehrotra, said something very profound. The sign of a yogi is infinite adaptability. And this is what this world is calling for right now. The challenges we face, the challenges that your children will have to be dealing with as a generation. Are truly unprecedented.
I don’t want to downplay how challenging and difficult this time is for so many people. And yet this is bringing us tremendous gifts. Because if we are stuck in shoulds, we’re not going to be able to see things as they are. We’re not gonna be able to adapt to them and ultimately we’re not going to be able to address them. If we drop the shoulds. Then we can be absolutely present with what is with the current experience and being absolutely present with what is – only then can we fully engage with the tremendous issues, both related to this virus and the tremendous inequalities that this virus is creating, to other challenges like climate change, immigration, the world refugee crisis, the world’s rivers, water shortages. So my invitation to folks – to younger people, to your children. But actually to all of us. Again, expanding, from what our experience should be and what it should have been and shift to a broader aspect. How can we, in this moment, each of us be useful? How can we be creative? How can we do something that uplifts, that it contributes peace, that contributes? Or from Anand Mehrotra, how can we lead without a title? It doesn’t matter if someone is a college student or someone is it is a high school student or mother or, you know, whatever, whatever role we have to play in life. How can we use this to bring more of whatever we want into the world? Look, Nelson Mandela, spent nearly 40 years in prison. I’m willing to bet that his life did not go the way he thought he should go. Martin Luther King went through all kinds of struggles. Again, his life probably did not go the way maybe he thought in his high school year his life should go. But the very beauty of these individuals, that to this day, you know, we in some ways honor, perhaps even worship is because even though their lives did not go the way probably they thought, probably their loved ones thought, that it should go. They made their lives and just not just about themselves, but about something bigger. And then, whether their lives went the way they should have gone or not. Their lives became much greater than the container of that one person.
You know, we talked earlier about Buddha. He didn’t have an easy life either. He left his family. He left his child. He was going around and being a rich prince. He gave all of that up – again for something greater. This is again to say that we need to move away and make a very clear distinction of what is us and what is ours. So the experiences that we should have, we should have had. Are ours. These are accumulations. These are ideas we acquired from somewhere else. This is not us. And if we can become greater than these accumulations that these ideas and not be defined by these ideas, great things can happen.
Deb Blum: There is so much in there that is so helpful. And so it sounds like there are many invitations – the invitation to expand and that that includes expanding our perspective. It also includes expanding the way that we imagined our life to look and expanding outside of this fixed idea and into this bigger questioning place. And I really love that you also mentioned adaptability.
And I think, as you know, we were talking about before we got on here about how the one thing that we can count on in life is change. And as you said, you know, people call these uncertain times. But have we really ever been in certain times? So, our ability to be adaptable is actually a pretty important marker in our lives.
I’ve always said we have to stop “shoulding” on ourselves. You know, we have to stop shoulding on ourselves. And I think people should on their children and they should on themselves. This is an invitation in some ways for us to sit with our children as the leaders of our family to say, like, hey, isn’t this a cool, amazing time that you’re in? And of course, there are people who are different circumstances. But anyone who’s really talking about their kids going off to college and making that decision, they’re probably in a place where they are, you know, there are opportunities ahead of them that they’re excited about.
And when we look at this, this opportunity for our children, we have a chance to help them frame it in a way that does offer them new possibilities. And to enter college from a blank slate – like what we don’t even know what we’re co-creating as administrators and as, as you said, beyond the title. We are just a bunch of people trying to figure out how to become educated and educate and what would it look like if we were all part of that? What if I was part of something new? It’s an invitation to be present. And an invitation that I think is so critically important for each one of us to be part of some bigger change that we care about in this world and to align our lives around something that matters to us that’s really deeply meaningful and to remember that we don’t have to do something epic. There are tiny little steps each one of us can take in our minute by minute day that can change the course of life – our kids don’t have to be out there, you know, like leaving their homes and going to another country and doing something. They can they could do things in their homes right this minute. They can just even show up differently in their attitude and their frame of mind. Just that can be a massive shift. And of course, the invitation is for everyone, not just our kids. I’m just you know, it just happened to be these conversations about our teenagers. Of course, it’s about everyone.
I know a lot of people are talking about this topic, but what I’ve seen so far has been mostly fear-based thinking mostly “I wouldn’t send your kid off to school this fall because there is going to be all kinds of disruption and we’re not going to be ready to educate your kids in this way.” or “It’s going to be a waste of money.” And I keep on getting this tug that says, no, there’s so much opportunity. And this is going to be an experience that’s defining moment in our kids’ lives. And how we and they respond to it will be so important.
Henry Yampolsky: One more thing that I would add. Don’t expect anyone to teach your kids. People can present information, sure. But ultimately, ultimately, that’s not what, at least in my experience, what true education is about. It’s not about someone presenting information to that. And so when we focus on how this information is gonna be presented or how it’s going to be framed, I think we are missing the whole point of education. The whole point of education, in my experience, in my view, is not to go acquire some information. Actually, that’s irrelevant right now. All the information is on Google.
Your children and most children are probably quite good with just getting information. So it is a complete waste if they are going to college just to acquire information now. Sure, there is some specialized knowledge, you know, that people want to be engineers are counting computer scientists. There is some specialized information that can be very, very relevant to their field. But beyond that, if we look at education, it’s just a process of acquiring information. And we’re talking about education in the context of how that information is going to be conveyed, what it’s going to be online, or whether it’s going to be through books, whether it’s can be in a classroom or through Zoom or some other means, we’re missing the point because the point of education, in my experience, is to actually connect with what we talked about earlier, to connect with our ignorance, to realize how little we know, to develop lifelong curiosity. To develop adaptability.
To learn to connect with people on different levels, different ways – to learn to connect with people who may not look like us. They may not think like us. And learn to be creative. And learn to adapt. That’s education to me. And then it doesn’t matter what we do and then it doesn’t matter what the setting outside of us brings to us. We are able to deal with it. We’re able to use our ingenuity, we’re able to use our creativity. We’re able to learn. That to me is the purpose of education, and so in that sense, in that sense – I can’t think of a better time to be going to school. I can’t think of a better time where students can really be co-creators of their education and can really take an active role and can really take absolute responsibility, not just sit there and expect someone to pack them with information. Okay, I’m here, I paid my tuition. Okay, now teach me. Now teach me. Why aren’t you teaching me in the way that I expected? But now this is an opportunity for them to really become their own teachers, to use their ingenuity, to use their knowledge of technology. To use all of these, to become a generation of people, to become a generation of people that is more connected, that is more humane, that is more compassionate, that is more even connected with the fact that all of us ultimately will die and therefore can use their college experience or any other experience, not just to take the checkmarks. You know, they attended so many parties or, you know, they’ve had their homecoming or prom or this game or that. But to really use it to expand and to bring to the world a very different consciousness, a very different level of connection and maturity that the world needs right now. So if you ask me, I couldn’t think of a better time. To go to school and to learn and to adapt to new ways of teaching and learning.
Deb Blum: What a beautiful picture that we can perhaps see for our children – we don’t know what that would look like, but just that something is available and it’s emerging. And we’re part of this.
WHO IS HENRY?
Henry Yampolsky is a peace educator, mediator, conflict coach and TEDx speaker who currently serves as the Assistant Director for Education, Outreach and Conflict Resolution in the Office of Equity and Accessibility at Virginia Tech. Henry has worked with hundreds of complex conflicts around the world and has lectured and spoken at Columbia University School of Law, the National Museum of American Jewish History and at the Sattva Summit in Rishikesh, India. A master-level instructor of Sattva Yoga, Henry utilizes the deep wisdom of Yoga in his work. Henry’s TEDx talk on identity, conflict, connection and dialogue is available on TED.com and on YouTube.
CONNECT WITH HENRY