Tuesday, August 19, 2014

10 Tips to Make College Count

I've been wanting to write this list for a long time, but the time never felt right. This fall will begin my 20th year (holy crap, I'm old) on a college campus. 4 as an undergraduate, 2 as a graduate student, 4 as a part-time adjunct, and now entering my 10th year as a full-time professor.

I've said over and over again that my job is an amazing blessing. College campuses are beacons of hope. Every August, thousands of new teenagers swarm with their hormones and dreams. Their adult lives are just beginning, and they can be anyone. Travel anywhere. Do anything. Their futures are unmapped. Their soul mates are wandering the planet somewhere. Maybe she's sitting next to him in class. Maybe he's living one floor down from her in the dorms. Who knows? That youthful, Dawson's Creek-esque angst can be overwhelming, but you'll miss it someday. Trust me.

So, take it from an old guy who's been there. These 10 tips can help you get the most out of your seven six five four years in college:

1) Go to class. Okay, so you're already thinking this whole list is just a scam to get you to attend my class, but that's not it. Back when I went to college, it cost like $8 per year. Now it's a million billion dollars. Get your money's worth. Sure, there are bad professors and bad classes, but I promise the good outweighs the bad. Not only will you learn in class, but you'll meet people. You'll make friends. And it never hurts practicing showing up to a specific place at a specific time. Clocks exist for a reason.

2) Live on or near campus. In my 4 undergraduate years, I commuted from home, lived in the dorms, and lived in an apartment off campus. All have their advantages and disadvantages, but it's hard to truly experience college unless you're near the university. There have been lots of studies confirming that the closer you are to a place (both walking distance and driving distance), the more likely it is you'll spend time at that place. Live on or near campus, and you'll be more involved. It's just that simple.

3) Get involved right away and stay involved all four years. Fraternities, sororities, athletic teams, student groups; write for the school newspaper, join the marching band, work on campus. This is the most accurate predictor of whether or not you'll enjoy your college experience, do well in school, and graduate. Students who drive home every weekend to visit a significant other, or just show up for classes, then commute back to their parents' house, are more likely to drop out. That doesn't mean you will drop out, but it's common sense that connecting with the university and other students will establish strong roots that help keep you grounded through graduation day. And beyond. One of the best parts about getting involved is that you're connected to your university for life. Reunions, homecoming parades, alumni parties, returning for football games … falling in love with your university is a magical feeling that too many students miss out on because they spend four years on the sidelines. Get in the game.

4) Get to know your professors. Most faculty members enjoy getting to know their students. You guys are smart and interesting. Your youthful enthusiasm helps us stay young(ish). Some of my students have actually become friends. That gets less and less likely with each passing year, of course, but it still happens from time to time. And even if you're not looking for a BFF, your professors want to help you enjoy college, graduate on time, pursue graduate education, and get a good job. We know people. We can help you network. Dozens of former students are attending graduate school or working internships/jobs because I picked up a phone or wrote a letter on their behalf. And I'm not even important. Imagine the doors that could open if you get to know the most powerful person on your campus!

5) Don't lie to your professors. Faculty members are not out to get you. Our goal isn't to ruin your lives. We want to help. And keep in mind, most of us are pretty smart. We've heard every excuse in the book. Your excuse isn't original or clever. Last year, I had a student who missed an exam, then lied over and over again trying to trick me into letting her retake it. I knew she was lying. I had evidence of her deception. The back-and-forth went on for over a week before she finally gave up and accepted the penalty. What's ironic is that all she had to do was tell me the truth from the beginning and I probably would have let her make up the exam without penalty. But she insisted on acting like a child, so I treated her like a child. Everyone is an adult in college. Your professors want to treat you like adults. All you have to do to earn that trust is to act like one.

6) Don't let your parents choose your career. This one's tricky, because you should certainly respect your parents. Especially if they're writing the university a fat check every year, paying for your apartment, and/or regularly stocking your refrigerator. But you're the one who has to live your life. You can respect your parents while simultaneously charting your own course. Seek their advice, but pick your own major. Pick your own career. Pick your own boyfriend or girlfriend (just not that one loser who's going to treat you like crap … you know the one).

7) Get to know people who don't look, act, or think like you. As long as you attend the right college, you'll be surrounded by thousands of people who don't look, act, or think like you. Different races. Different nationalities. Different religions. Different sexual orientations. Different political parties. College is the time to expand your horizons. I understand that some people want you to think all college faculty brainwash students into being liberal hippies. While I'm sure that happens, most professors I know just want you to learn how to think. Analyze. Scrutinize. Evaluate. Test. Explore. If that leads you to a particular religion or political party, so be it, but you should learn from others who don't share your worldview. That's how you become a well-rounded citizen. That's how you learn to respect others. That's how you begin to love people who aren't like you.

8) Have fun. I like fun. Fun is good. While online education is convenient for many, I doubt traditional universities will ever cease to exist because the "college experience" can't be replicated on your computer (yet). Don't be stupid, of course. Don't make mistakes that can't be undone. I highly recommend against getting pregnant, contracting an STD, attending a university other than this one, smoking crack, or committing a felony, but other than those five catastrophic blunders, enjoy!

9) Understand that some of your most important lessons won't be taught in a classroom. You'll learn how to accept people with different worldviews; you'll learn how to spot the jerks who only want to use you and break your heart; you'll learn how to serve those less fortunate; you'll learn how to be a better friend; you'll learn how to give respect to others and how to demand respect for yourself; you'll learn how to learn, and if you're lucky, you'll develop a thirst for knowledge that will never be quenched. You'll never have another experience quite like college, so pay attention to what the universe is trying to teach you. Many of those lessons will shape the rest of your life.

10) Say yes to memories you'll want to share twenty years from now. This is my rule of thumb that guides nearly every decision I make in life: "Will this make a good story someday?" If the answer is no (that one time when I got addicted to black tar heroin would be a terrible bedtime story for your children), then don't do it. If the answer is yes, then go make a memory. Someday you'll tell your kids and, even if it's just for a fleeting moment, they'll think you were cool. Life is just a collection of memories, after all. Hopefully more good than bad, but those memories are all we have. You'll only be 18-22 years old once. You'll only experience college once. Hell, you'll only live once. And it all rushes by in the blink of an eye.

Make it count.

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