In the course of my work I attend many luncheons, dinners and receptions. I think of it as a never-ending perquisite of culinary delights. The great food is topped off by fascinating conversation. When I meet people in these settings, the discovery of my professional role invariably leads to stories about earlier college experiences or sometimes those of family and friends. The stories I take the most interest in these days, however, are focused around the journey of the college search. I am, of course, curious to learn more about how families approach the process, as well as impressions they have formed about various types of institutions. I suppose it would qualify as an ongoing informal qualitative research project.
As I was spying the feast at a recent reception, I was approached by a woman who recognized me from another setting where we had become acquainted. After we exchanged pleasantries she noted her daughter was beginning the college search process. I congratulated her and asked, “How is it going?” Sometimes when I ask this very open-ended question the response is rather vague or unemotional. It’s the, “I’d rather not talk about it,” response. In these cases, I simply offer a reassuring smile.
Others, by contrast, are eager to get my perspective on the experience as one who is an “industry insider.” This mother was eager to talk. As I listened she expressed a bit of concern about the two questions her daughter is constantly asked, “What are you going to major in?” followed by “What career are you going to pursue?” My reply to her comment took her by surprise. I said, “Don’t worry about these answers now. High school students almost always get them wrong.”
The initial look on her face was filled with anxiety, then suddenly melted into comfort as she realized her sense of struggle with these questions really didn’t matter all that much. I then noted many students wisely enter college undecided about major and career. I asked her, “Did you have it all figured out at the age of 18?” Her broad smile and light chuckle made it clear that the expectations placed on her daughter are simply unrealistic, as they were for her many years ago.
Whenever I think about the experience of students, a particular image comes to mind – Chutes and Ladders. Many will remember the children’s board game from early days of play. This game finds it origins in ancient India and was known previously under the name Snakes and Ladders. Perhaps our modern adaptation is a kinder, gentler version. Wikipedia offers the following history of the game:
Snakes and Ladders originated in India as part of a family of dice board games, including pachisi (present-day Ludo and Parcheesi). It was known as moksha pAtam or vaikunthapaali or paramapada sopaanam (the ladder to salvation). The game made its way to England and was sold as “Snakes and Ladders,” then the basic concept was introduced in the United States as Chutes and Ladders (an “improved new version of England’s famous indoor sport” by game pioneer Milton Bradley in 1943).
Known as Moksha Patam, the game was popular in ancient India and emphasized the role of fate or karma. A Jain version, Gyanbazi, dates to the 16th century. The game was called Leela and reflected the Hinduism consciousness surrounding everyday life. The underlying ideals of the game inspired a version introduced in Victorian England in 1892.
Moksha Patam was associated with traditional Hindu philosophy contrasting karma and kama, or destiny and desire. It emphasized destiny, as opposed to games such as pachisi, which focused on life as a mixture of skill (free will) and luck. The game has also been interpreted and used as a tool for teaching the effects of good deeds versus bad. The ladders represented virtues such as generosity, faith, and humility, while the snakes represented vices such as lust, anger, murder, and theft. The morality lesson of the game was that a person can attain salvation (Moksha) through doing good, whereas by doing evil one will inherit rebirth to lower forms of life. The number of ladders was less than the number of snakes as a reminder that a path of good is much more difficult to tread than a path of sins.
Setting aside matters of world view, philosophy and religion, the simple and practical lessons of Chutes and Ladders remind us that things don’t always go as planned and in the end it turns out better than we expected. The college version of the game (at least the one I imagine) follows the travails of students through self-discovery, achievement, failure and resilience.
Parents of prospective college students have a version in mind that focuses on the ladders. This is completely understandable since we all aspire to see our sons and daughters accomplish great things on the way to a rewarding life. Those of us who serve as faculty and administrators in colleges, however, have the task of reminding us all that just like the game there are a few more chutes on the board than ladders.
When we gather the stories of our lives together with others we know from close friends and family, we know that the best classes we had were not necessarily the ones in which we received the highest grades, but the ones that stretched us the most. The unexpected career-ending injury leads to a new focus and a new set of opportunities. The relationships we were once certain would shape much of our lives ebb and flow with time and are sometimes lost or redefined. Our view of the world changes, as does our understanding the roles we will play in it.
Later during that reception I had an extended conversation with an accomplished and very successful business leader. He noted that when he started college he didn’t have it all figured out. His first attempt to pursue an undergraduate degree ended prematurely with a withdrawal and a long hiatus from higher education. As he pursued his career he later found the timing was right to extend his journey of learning and he finished his degree. It did not happen with the timing he originally anticipated. It did not happen in the place he originally anticipated. In his late days of adolescence and early days of adulthood he found more chutes than ladders. Yet eventually the ladders did appear, and at the right time he was ready to climb.