First of all I cant believe that in a little over two weeks we will be bringing in the new year. And let me say, what a year this has been! Honestly, this has been the best year of my 21 years on this planet (that I can clearly remember). Igraduated from college, got my first “real job,” found confidence to kick people out of my life who were toxic, and really started having a crush on myself! lol I became more confident and really starting appreciating life more. So I wrote down 5 things that I learned this year that I believe have made me a better person and have granted me a bit more sanity.

1. Do not underestimate the transformative power of college.

When I graduated I ran into people who honestly questioned why I went to college. “You don’t need a college education to get a good job.” Well first of all, a myriad of statistics refute that claim. The reality is college graduates earn more than non graduates; college graduates are more likely to be employed and stay employed; that the benefits of college extend to the person’s family and 70% of jobs require an education beyond high school. There are several reasons for this, many not related to productivity, but there you have it. However, this DOES NOT mean that a person with a college degree is BETTER than a person without. It just means that they will earn more. The issue is that people connect money earned with personal worth which is major social fallacy.

In any case, people look at college as a way to get a job and I definitely understand the pressure to do so. However, when I reflect on my college years, it becomes clear that there is more to college than job opportunities. How many “jobs” give you grants to study in any country and any topic of your choice with the requirement that you “learn something?” How many “jobs” are characterized by the freedom to learn and grow as a person and as a citizen? How many “jobs” hold the center of intellectual debates and democratic growth for an entire nation? How many “jobs” embody the aspirations and desires of people and have done so for centuries? The answer to these questions lies in my college experience. I would not be as strong intellectually and personally if I didn’t go to college. The environment is conducive to self reflection and taking ownership of one’s life; a stark difference from the “real world” where people just get by, do their 9 to 5, very rarely reflecting and working for personal change.

I tell my siblings to go to college not just for “job” prospects and advancing earning potential. Rather I tell them to go GROW. Go become more confident and take advantage of the fact that the only requirement of you for 4 years is that you learn—that you come out better than when you went in. That you take advantage of debate teams, art clubs, study abroad opportunities, and sports. That you indulge in this freedom, this potential to be your best—because it comes and goes so quickly and if you sleep on it you will lose it for good.

The battle we should wage is to make college affordable so that everyone can have this privilege and to strengthen the colleges that exist to retain and better help students who struggle. It is sickening that the amount of students facing prohibitive debt is increasing and that many colleges act as greedy businesses rather than places of opportunities for growth. Indeed, I recognize that my experience is not so common among my college educated peers; that many barely made it out of college with several dropping out and the ones who did share my experience tended to be wealthy. Fortunately, Congress is taking steps to address this problem—deciding on whether or not to require universities with certain endowments to spend a certain amount of money on financial aid. So there is work to be done, but the possibilities are worth it.

2. Be wary of the nonprofit mystique.

People get involved in non profits for the right reasons (usually). They want to change the world, eliminate social and economic injustice, and contribute to the greater good of their neighborhoods and countries. However, what people fail to realize is that not only is the nonprofit field huge (churches, hospitals, colleges/universities, your local community center, museums) and extremely wealthy (approx. $664.8 billion floating around in the nonprofit sphere in 1997 making up 6.1% of national income) but also each nonprofit is a social institution with its own culture. There are different rules, different types of leadership, and different working climates. Therefore, it is not just a nonprofit’s vision that you should look at: you should also examine how the organization works.

With this approach you will find that many nonprofits SUCK. There are horribly run, greedy, needy, weak, and defunct nonprofits out there that write nice mission statements to snare the optimistic excited young person starting their nonprofit career. Do not stick around at a nonprofit because you think it sounds good. Is it working well? Doing well? If the answer is no then keep it moving. It is ok to assess a nonprofit the way you assess a business. Indeed, since they claim to be in the business of helping people, there needs to be greater accountability.

3. Stay away from romanticizing people/places/events.

We all have people/places/events that we are very fond of. Many of us look back with nostalgia on major milestones in our lives. As evidenced above, I love my college experience and wouldn’t trade it for anything. However, it is all too easy for our love of something or someone to move very quickly to romanticization which can lead to dehumanization and distortion.

For example, how often have we heard stories that glorify poverty in developing nations as being “pure and true” living? How often have we watched people turn a blind eye to the savagery in our inner city neighborhoods because the kids are “so oppressed and can’t do any better?” How often have listened to older folks go on and on about the past—a past that was, for many, characterized by high rates of publicly supported domestic violence and grotesque business practices, laying the foundation for these issues to persist today?

When you romanticize a person, you dehumanize them by eliminating two things that make them human: agency and voice. I can promise you that while people are still dancing and singing in rural Africa at a special ceremony, the occasion does not eliminate their desire for clean water and housing. I know for a fact that kids, while poor, know better than to throw bricks at people and assault their neighbors.

And when you romanticize an event or place, you distort it, ignoring the bad and neglecting to see how far we have come and how much farther we need to go. While the past had its perks, we saw examples of savagery against the poor, against women, and against workers that is unparalleled in modern America (although obviously we still have work to do hence why we nonprofit workers exits).

So it is imperative to see the joy in your life and your community but still remain critical as to not let problems bubbling below the surface explode.

4. Having chemistry with someone doesn’t mean that they should be your lover.

This year I realized that I encountered many men with whom I had wonderful interactions and we both assumed that meant we were supposed to be lovers/partners. However, this doesn’t always need to be the case. In general I am attracted to men older than I am—who is to say that these men can’t be great mentors or friends? In fact, I think the desire to build a relationship off of what could be platonic chemistry actually ruins chances for great friendships. So now I take it slow and try not to underestimate the importance of building great non-romantic relationships.

5. Black pride is more than nice—it is necessary.

There are times when I am in awe of black history and the role of black Americans in the public imagination. A woman from a blog I frequent said it best so I won’t even try to imitate:

Because of my ancestry above all, I have had the drive and ambition to pursue those opportunities to the fullest, and have had a whole cavalcade of role models, from Dr. King and Malcolm X, to Bill Cosby himself, who are not only known to me and other black Americans, but are universally admired, from Thailand to Uruguay to Finland. I have a precious legacy like no other, and my gratitude for it is fathomless.

The mistake that people make is assuming that pride automatically equates to hate/exclusion which is not true. And while black Americans are Americans whose existence is not totally separate from general American culture, we do have a unique history borne out of years of isolation, marginalization, and African origins; in fact I noticed many similarities between black Americans and Africans while I was in South Africa including food, music, hair/fashion, and how we socialize with each other.

But the bigger concern is our collective low self esteem that results in a kind of emotional savagery we inflict on each other that is unparalleled by whites. I have been made fun of for being dark skinned, for being smart, for my choice in clothes, for the way I speak, and for my interests. I have seen hatred by black men and black women towards each other, drastic acts of homophobia and all kinds of violence.

However the tragically low self esteem is not just a result of clinging to notions of whiteness as a guide; it is also comes from focusing on the sorrows of our history instead of our accomplishments. How on earth can we expect blacks to love being black when all we hear about is slavery and Jim Crow? Do people know that King had a PhD and that Malcolm X was self educated? Do people know about the snotty attitude of Zora Neale Hurston—who felt that she was not “tragically colored?” Are we aware of the intellectual power houses that have come before us and continue to be born every day? A positive identity is created not through oppression but through triumph—both experienced and learned.

So we must learn about the many accomplishments of our people and move forward.