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They say that cancer patients do so much better with it and I have a friend who is living proof. Kids need it the first 18 years of life, and then as we grown into adults we rely on it to get by, too. I’m talking about Support – support from friends, family, mentors, and those who have walked in your shoes before. I believe it’s imperative to success, and necessary to get through new territory.

I recently had a chance to reflect on my college days. Going away to college is a major rite of passage. It can be a great time, with opportunities to create new friendships, explore new subjects in classes and experiences around campus, and  for most of us it was a time when we got our first true sense of the independence that is associated with living away from the folks that raised us the first 18 years of our lives.

When I think back about what I learned in college, one of the most meaningful lessons was the importance of building a support network. I recently told this story to a group of young collegiate athletes. I went to college a mere month after losing my father to a two-year battle with cancer. My mom, brother and I were all devistated, as you would expect. There are no words to explain the pain of losing someone close to you (my dad and I had a very good father-daughter relationship to boot). Although you eventually reach a ‘new normal’, it takes lots of time to heal. I went away and started a new life in a sense. My mom tells me she and my brother didn’t have the same luxury to get away and start over like I did. Maybe that’s partially true. But a luxury it was not. Newness abounded. I made friends, I went to classes, socialized, and joined the rowing team.  Still there was deep pain and a loneliness that, although I tried to hide, persisted.

An avid athlete in high school, I knew I wanted to join the competitive club rowing team in college. So I did, and I liked it ok. A slew of us ‘novice’ rowers (and yes, you’re actually called novices, for the entire first year in fact) would run 2 miles to and from the ‘boathouse’ which was really an out of use hockey rink, to learn to row on an erg, and eventually in a boat and we learned to row on the water.  I wouldn’t exactly say I was instantly hooked. But, soon I got to know some of my teammates, and as the numbers of girls on the team dwindled (after we learned practice would be switching to 5:30 am) I got closer to my teammates. At the same time, about 2-3 weeks into the semester, I went down the hall and talked to my RA, and told her what was going on. Lucky for me, I got a great one. She listened empathetically and supportively encouraged me to tell my coach too. I should say, I was resistant to tell anyone what I was going through because I didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for me or giving me special attention. I can laugh at that now, but that attitude could have closed me off if I didn’t eventually tell someone. Because I did reach out, I garnered support I needed to get through this difficult time. My coach was also incredibly supportive and took the time to tell me his personal story about losing his dad. And, I knew he’d probably understand when I wasn’t 100% there mentally, or got teary in between intervals (which I did).  It was like there were a few mentors or adults looking out for me when I really needed it. Sure, a lot of people say when you’re 18 you are an adult, but really, so much of my wisdom came from the years 18-25, a time when you’re on your own but inexperienced in many aspects of life. Unless you have very involved parents or older siblings, there’s a lot of learning by trial that goes on during that time.

Over time, I made great lifelong friends in college, and they supported me too. But having those more experienced adult figures in my life made so much difference. My varsity college coach (the next 3 years of my rowing career) was also a huge support. As were the leaders of a service trip I took my junior year.  Ted, Monet, Dave, Kevin and Trina – thank you all for being there for me, and for being a big part of my support system when I needed you most. As Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. In my case these individuals will be remembered for making me feel supported.

The need for a support network never goes away. Often times family can be the basis of support, but sometimes that’s not the case, because we need support in an area where they may not be well versed (ie such as in business or athletics). It’s so important to seek out not just friends, but also mentors and those who are willing and able to support us because they care and/or they’ve walked in our shoes before. I believe it’s human nature to help each other – we just don’t always know when others need us most, so speak up. Ask for help, confide in those you trust, and know that by doing so you’ll be in a better position to be your best self. And, if you can be of support to someone less experienced than you, take the opportunity to make a meaningful impact on that person’s life.

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