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Last week I sat on our high school bleachers for much longer than my back preferred and watched my oldest son and his friends file into the gym in their graduation gowns while “Pomp and Circumstance” played. I watched him walk across the stage and accept his diploma. And I traipsed all around the school grounds afterwards to take pictures of him smiling, arms around the classmates who are scattering off to new places in the fall. 

I was emotional because that little boy I raised is now a six-foot-four man, and also because time really is an enigma: it doesn’t feel that long since I was the one wearing the graduation gown. (Even if my back disagreed.) It doesn’t seem like that long ago that my parents were helping me load the car and dropping me off in my freshman  dorm room.

While browsing in the graduation section of the greeting card aisle last week, I found myself annoyed at almost every card for its trite wishes of congratulations, achievement, and future success. Success? What is success? A good job, money, wealth, an easy path?  Is that what I want for all these graduates? Is that the message they need to hear right now?

I’m a notorious saver, and in the many bins in my basement is the complete collection of the 1997-1998 Hope College Anchor newspapers, in which I made my debut as a freshman staff reporter.  My greatest hit was a column I wrote titled, “All I ever needed to know I learned in my dorm,” which was a  spinoff of Robert Fulghum’s popular book,  All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  While some of the list is very “you had to be at Hope College in the 90s,” others still apply. 

And so, in honor of my son and the Class of 2024 and rather than a greeting card wishing continued success,  here’s an updated list (with a couple repeats that I still agree with my 18-year-old self about) which I’ll call, “Not all. . .but a few things I hope you’ll learn in your dorm.” 

Stories matter. Listen well. • Call someone if you need a ride. • Be curious. •  Pick up your trash. • If you’re praying to win, your opponent probably is, too. • Sleep is underrated. • Sleep is overrated. • Always return your shopping cart. • Get an internship. • Ask more questions. •  Play intramurals. There won’t be any parents watching. •  “’We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.” – Carlos Casteneda • Travel abroad. • Look beneath the surface. • Wear a coat. It’s really not that cool to be cold. • Look up. • Take a class you know will be hard. • Take a class you know you’ll enjoy. • Humility wears well. • If your grandparents reach out, reach back. • Multitasking is a myth. Pay attention. • When tempted to climb any ladders of success, look down to see Jesus beckoning you down several rungs. • Drink water. • “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” – Anne Lamott • Ask for and accept help. •  When someone near you is hurting, they need your presence and silence more than the right words. • There is always more to learn. •  Reach out to your younger brothers; they’ll miss you more than you know. • Pray. •  It’s helpful to restock toilet paper and toothpaste before you run out. • Get comfortable with uncertainty. •  Apologize when you mess up. • You will mess up. • Use the campus writing center. You pay for it. • Your weaknesses are also your gifts. • In order to give grace, you must accept it. •   You’ll always have a place at home. • “Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate you from the love of God.”  

Readers, what else would add? I’d love to hear your additions in the comments.

Dana VanderLugt

Dana VanderLugt lives in West Michigan with her husband, three sons, and spoiled golden retriever. She has an MFA from Spalding University and works as a literacy consultant. Her novel, Enemies in the Orchard: A World War 2 Novel in Verse, releases in September 2023.  Her work has also been published in Longridge Review, Ruminate, and Relief: A Journal of Art & Faith. She can be found at and on Twitter @danavanderlugt.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    This is so like the readings from Proverbs right now in the Daily Lectionary! Here’s one: What you say about someone will come back to you.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thank you, Dana. Here’s one I’m sometimes OK with and sometimes not: “We don’t really change. We just become more.”

  • T says:

    Give up your need to be right.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    Thanks, I also had a column in The Anchor at Hope in the 1980s, called Food for Thought. Lots of good advice from your old self and your new self. I would add: Your greatest strength can also become your weakness; No experience in life is wasted, it will all be used at some point; Drive safely; Don’t be a jerk.

  • Ruth E. Stubbs says:

    A good list—for graduates and the rest of us. I love your book Enemies in the Orchard.

  • June says:

    This is so great. I’m getting a copy to my three beloved grandchild (high school) graduates. Thank you.

    • Jack Ridl says:

      When I asked the dean at the first college I worked for what he said as a little boy when people asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said, “I said, ‘kind.'” That reads on his gravestone.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Oh why were you not my mom! And of course you would insert the toll on your back at graduation. Always gently human.
    Always firm that the sacred surrounds us.
    For your list: “When your back hurts, hang in there.”
    Here’s to your son! To all of you!

    And you took me right back to Hope.

    Thank you, Dana. Listening to your voice in these pieces brings renewed quiet strength.d

    • Thank you, Jack. I should have added “Wherever you are, be WITH.”

      • Jack Ridl says:

        When I asked the dean at the first college I worked for what he said as a little boy when people asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said, “I said, ‘kind.'” That reads on his gravestone.

        It truly is one of the most remarkable insights. Imagine, every single philosophy, ethic, religion, theology is right there in that little unassuming preposition.
        Even love.

  • Christa Mooi says:

    “Call your mom once in a while. She misses you.”

  • Sarah says:

    Communication is key in most relationships – including roommates. And aim for talking in person, not just texting.

  • Michelle says:

    “What is popular is not always right and what is right is not always popular” Albert Einstein
    I had this posted on my wall as a teenager, not sure how I felt about it then when I prayed to be skinny, sing like Whitney or have all the money to buy guess jeans…but it stuck with me!

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