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College Success: The Life Skills Advantage
(Continued from 1)

Suffering any emotional trauma while trying to focus on school work can be excruciating. I went through a major breakup right before I started Berklee College. Was I crushed? Absolutely. Did it hurt any less than when I suffered heartbreak at 20 or 25? Nope, it still hurt like mad. But here's the thing: As a career woman, I learned I couldn't afford to dwell in my emotions at work (at least not without serious repercussions to my career). I was able to compartmentalize my post-breakup grief, finish my schoolwork and heal myself in what little downtime I had. I won't say it was easy, but it was definitely achievable with a little focus.

It also helped that I had been in college once before and had left home years ago. Although I experienced a sort of culture shock living on the East Coast, I didn't suffer from the homesickness or separation anxiety that my younger counterparts were feeling.


Life in my 30's was much more stable than in my 20's. After earning my first degree, I traveled through Southeast Asia alone and relocated to Japan to teach English. My Japan trip turned into a complete disaster. The English school did not pay what it owed me, and I ran out of money and time on my visa. When I returned to American corporate life, I spent my share of late nights and extra weekend hours at the office (see aforementioned job above). I knew how to handle responsibility...whether I wanted to or not. I also had my share of failures in life: the Japan fiasco, broken friendships, work presentations gone bad. I wasn't sure I could succeed in this prestigious music school, but I knew how failure felt,
and that I could cope with it and adapt and move on if needed.


While my younger counterparts complained at the local coffee house about their "psycho" dorm mates, I remember thinking, "This is so great. My apartment on Huntington Avenue may be a boarding house for mice, but at least I'm not living in a 200 square-foot box with three other freshmen, fighting over toilet paper and last night's pizza slice." I had priorities and focus. I could concentrate on more pressing matters, like working through music theory and sitting in the practice room for hours working my songs and voice.


Of all the surprises that life hands us, "screwing up" our timetables is one of its most, um, challenging. I had learned to adapt and redraw my various game plans over the years. I tried to let go if things were not coming together for me on my schedule. That is, after all, life. I knew it was up to me to decide what I was going to do about it.

So when my songs weren't coming together or my high notes sounded breathy and thin, I knew enough to just work at it, day after day. Did it suck that the 20-year old next to me could hit her high C effortlessly, with beauty of tone and a gorgeous vibrato? It absolutely sucked, but again, that's life. Some people reach their goals before we reach ours. I learned to accept this fact and keep doing what I was doing. Whether I was the tortoise or the hare in any given situation, at least I knew I could arrive at the finish line.


At 32, I felt I had a decent grasp on my strengths, weaknesses, and limitations. Take the concept of pulling "all-nighters". Pulling all-nighters at the ages of 18, 22 and 32 were, trust me, all very different experiences. The older I got, the longer the bounce back factor. And the proof became increasingly easy to spot: At age 18, pulling an all-nighter meant I had no visible signs on my face and was a tiny bit sleepy the next morning. At 25 I looked as if I had a restless night's sleep and needed to cover the dark circles under my eyes with a heavy-duty concealer. The after-effects at age 32 were horrifying: it looked as if I had lost a barroom fistfight and had ended up with two shiners. The dark circles under my eyes sported a sort of "raccoon" effect that was immune to any sort of concealing agent. It was downright ugly. In business, I learned to plan what I could in order to try and avoid this scenario. In school, most deadlines are set at the beginning of the semester. Hallelujah - I could plan! I knew when midterms, finals and quizzes were coming. No all-nighters necessary (except for the late-night recording sessions - a different story altogether).


During various points in my life I had been both in and out of the money. As a student at a private music college, I was again, out of the money. So I economized, trading my favorite colorist for a box of L'Oreal "light auburn #9" (because I'm worth it). I polished my own nails, wore out my favorite pair of corduroys, and lived with roommates. I found free things to do around Boston, and hung out with the younger students. We had wonderful conversations about life, music, art, and politics. Hanging out with 20 something's is wonderful! These talks kept me young at heart and nostalgic about the days when I thought I knew everything. I stretched my meager dollars to the limit and relished everything I was learning. Knowledge became the richness in my life. When I did what I loved to do, my material wants (as in, I must have those new DKNY jeans), seemed to magically disappear.

The transition from businesswoman to re-entry music school student was not easy, but it was a whole lot easier than I had imagined. My life experience became the most valuable tool of all. My age, instead of a hindrance, became a wonderful asset. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing.

Renae Collins is a singer/songwriter, vocal coach and writer who teaches and performs in New York.

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