Susan Packard: Making a mark

Susan Packard, entrepreneur, speaker and writer, earned an advertising B.A. and M.A. at MSU. She has helped launch such networks as CNBC, HGTV and Food Network. Packard received the Outstanding Alumni Award in 2003. ComArtSci asked her to reflect on her career and life by writing a letter to her former self as a student at Michigan State University. 

Dear Susan:

Look at you, toiling away in the library, cramming for finals. You are very lucky—you walk home from there every night and don’t question your safety. Today you would know to not walk back alone at night, but that’s because the world will change a lot in the coming decades.  in some ways the changes will be amazingly good, but in other ways, troubling.  Don’t worry; you will weather it all and grow strong.

While you’re there in college, you will do the first bold thing of your life. You will defy your parents and your teachers and pretty much everyone and quit college before completing your first year. It’s a pivotal moment for you because it’s a courageous one. It just feels somehow urgent to do.

When you quit, you’ll move to California for two semesters, and work the graveyard shift of a diner to pay your bills. Two important things will happen: One, you’ll lose your virginity, but why we felt we needed to go 2,000 miles to do it I still can’t explain. Surely there was a Spartan man willing to oblige. And two, you’ll realize you’re a terrible waitress. Then it will be time to return to college.

…So there you are, back in school, and I can hear you thinking: I want to make a mark. This feeling comes from that inner need of ours to achieve.  You will help to create businesses that are still around today, and you’ll write books and mentor women, men and young adults.

You’ll have a happy marriage, and adopt a little boy overseas you and Bill will name Andrew, which means “strong”. He’ll need it when you arrive back with him to the United States, as he’ll be on life support for many weeks due to a disease he brings back with him. You will doubt God and learn God’s ok with that. Andrew will become a fine young man.

And at the end of 2019, you’ll come back to MSU and give the Winter Commencement speech to the graduates and their families. That will be a highlight of your life.

Remarkably, you’ll still be alive to give that speech. It was a close call for many years, as you tried to fix your inner chaos by yourself, with external things. By the time you show up there, in the winter of 2019, you’ll have learned: there’s really very little we can fix by ourselves. We only get better through our communities of belonging.

You’ll get your MA in Advertising, hoping to write ads. That won’t happen, but some amazing other things will await you because of a friend you met at MSU. She will introduce you to an industry called cable tv, and you’ll help to grow it from the ground up. As a leader, you’ll teach others that kindness and compassion are how we best succeed in life.

Your heart will break. You’ll lose those you love too soon. But in the quiet of grief, you will break open to a new life away from corporate work. A little retreat house on a mountaintop in Tennessee will be key, and there you will begin to heal.

I’m proud of the young you, who has been bold enough to strike out on her own.  I think you would be proud of who you are today too, as you are back in college!  This time our classrooms are Collegiate Recovery Communities, (CRCs) where students choose to live sober as they experience college.

The older you is collecting their stories for a book we are writing to honor them. Perhaps if CRCs had existed in your time, you wouldn’t have spent decades fighting the cunning and powerful demon of addiction. Your life will restart when you meet six women, who are still your best friends today, and you’ll understand the power of love and belonging. Now you’re teaching others the lessons they’ve taught you.

Because of these things, you will make a mark, an imprint on a few other lives, and you’ll be happy and at peace with your own.