The 5 things I learned in college that actually made a difference in my life today

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  • Some of the most important life lessons that the college experience can offer to students will arise outside of the classroom.
  • Here, author Kelly Laffey reflects on the five things she learned as a college student-athlete that actually made a difference in her life today.

I’ve found that the saying “the days are long, but the years are short” is particularly resonant when reflecting on my college years.

I’ll celebrate my 10-year reunion in 2020, but when I think back on my undergraduate experience at Wake Forest University, it’s hard to fathom that nearly an entire decade has passed since graduation.

As a student-athlete on both the cross country and track teams, I can attribute that feeling to the fact that so much of who I am today has been shaped by lessons I learned in school. Though the academics had value, it’s the soft lessons that have ultimately carried the most weight for me.

Here are the five things I learned in college that have actually made a difference in my life today:


1. Time management and how to ask for help

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Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design/Flickr

Student-athletes have to balance academics with hours-long practice sessions and weekends away at competitions. Being on a team instilled in me the importance of prioritization, and of being disciplined.

It also taught me how to ask for help. My teammates and I tended to put immense pressure on ourselves to both run well and to perform well in school. Seeking guidance is an important component of growth.


2. The importance of teamwork and friendship

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Being on a team means that you have to work with all different types of people toward a common goal. Those same collaboration and leadership skills are priceless in today’s world. Wake Forest track has also given me lifelong friendships, and a network of people who can relate to my undergraduate experience.

10 years ago, my teammates would push me through tough workouts or reward me a with cheeseburger for running my fastest 400m. Though we’re at different stages of our lives today and living across the world from each other, the bond of logging hundreds of miles together each year is one that cannot be broken.


3. Don’t put limits on yourself

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Strelka Institute/Flickr

At the end of my senior year, I pulled my only all-nighter to finish my thesis paper. At track practice later that afternoon, I found out that the whole team had to run a surprise one mile time trial. After unsuccessfully petitioning to run it the following day, I reluctantly began my warmup and was so tired that I tripped and skinned both my knees.

Figuring that the worst was behind me, I decided to give it my best effort, and I lined up at the start. I ran the best mile time of my life that day. I think back to this experience almost daily, as there is always a reason not to do something. It’s often our attitude that is the greatest barrier to reaching our potential.


4. You are your greatest advocate

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I walked onto the team, which meant that my participation was at-will. I almost quit midway through my freshman year when I realized that my times weren’t fast enough to qualify for the conference meet. Instead, I talked to the head coach about my frustrations. She and I both decided that I should try switching from middle distance to long distance.

Instead of leaving the track team, I became a three-season athlete and joined the cross country team as well. My times and stress level both went down, because I had found an event and an environment that was a better fit for me. If you’re passionate about something, find a way to make it work.


5. Everything really does happen for a reason

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This may be the most cliched lesson in the book, but reflecting on my college experience gives me a very tangible way to think about cause and effect, and to realize how day-to-day life, with its mixture of both uncertainty and joy, can ultimately lead to positive lessons.

I can directly attribute my time at Wake Forest to my love of college football and basketball, both of which I now follow intensely; and to my passion for writing, which has shaped my career. It’s easy for me to point to specific situations – the plans I have to run in Central Park with a former teammate, for example – and to realize that I wouldn’t have that small but fun experience to look forward to were it not for college.