Senior year is a tightrope.
It is the time when we begin to move from the safe ground of our childhood to the unknown territory of the rest of our lives.
Along the way, standardized tests, college applications, social pressure, leadership responsibilities, and heavy course loads throw us off balance and send us tottering over the abyss of discouragement and self-doubt, where the idea of quitting school and taking up a transient career path begins to seem more appealing than receiving a rejection letter from a college.
This was the perfect time for us to hear from Jess Ekstrom. Jess, 24, is the CEO and founder of Headbands of Hope, a company that for every headband sold donates a dollar to childhood cancer research and gives another headband to a girl undergoing chemotherapy. Since Jess founded the company when she was a junior at N.C. State, she has donated headbands to every children’s hospital in the United States, been featured on the TODAY show and in magazines such as Forbes and Seventeen, and been recognized by celebrities like Zooey Deschanel, Christina Aguilera, and Beyoncè.
With this impressive resume, Jess is the classic picture of achievement. However, instead of being another imposing figure citing all the ways we must be perfect in order to gain respect in the world, she challenged us to redefine what it means to be successful.
When I spoke with her before her presentation, Jess greeted me with a casual air and a friendly smile. As we talked, I began to realize that Jess had an answer for each senior struggle. To those who don’t yet know what their passion is, she said “I think you kind of let your drive decide that for you, because when you’re so passionate about something you can’t help but just start working on it...when maybe you’re not so passionate about something you come up with excuses.”
She smiled knowingly when I asked about the difficulty of balancing hard work and a social life. She advised, “It’s a matter of prioritizing what’s important in that moment...when we think about how much time we’re actually going to be working in our lives, don’t we want that to be something that we don’t feel the need to separate? That we want to have in every moment? That we look forward to? When we train our minds to separate our source of income and what makes things fun we’re putting ourselves at a disadvantage."
Finally, for all of us, she had the good advice to just not worry so much. Looking back on her own high school experience, she said even in reference to her mistakes, “I wouldn’t say that I regret it, because I think that that’s made me appreciate who I am today, but, if I could go back in time, I would just want myself to focus on being the best person that I could be no matter what anyone else thinks.”
“Keep asking yourself what success looks like."
“I think it’s important to keep asking yourself what success looks like to you," she said, "because there are going to be a lot of people who tell you what success should be or what your life should look like. It’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to try something and not like it and do something else." Finally, she advises us, "Try to not put so much pressure on yourself to make all the right decisions” .
As Jess proved through her unusually early success as a youth in the business world, the only stereotypes or doubts or obstacles that can actually limit us are those that we place upon ourselves when we succumb to doubt and frustration. As I listened to her speak, it became abundantly clear to me that no one can tell us that we aren’t good enough, or reduce us to a number, or look down on us because we’re young. Each individual person is in control of their own actions and their own mind, and all of us are capable of great things if we would only choose to take the leap into the unknown.
The only tightrope that we as seniors walk is the one in our own minds; the reality is that we have the opportunity to build bridges with every activity we participate in, every person we meet, and every risk we take in the pursuit of our dreams.
Avery serves as a senior representative on the Honor Council and is Director of Logistics for the Youth Leadership Council. She is a member of the tennis team and a member of Theatre Randolph. Over the summer she works as a camp counselor. You can read about a project she led with the YLC last spring here.