An Open Letter to College Newbies

Over the weekend, I spent the morning riding my bike nearby downtown Madison and its surrounding neighborhoods. Since it’s almost September in this college town, scattered among the neighborhoods was a collection of moving vans, trucks, and jam-packed cars being unloaded by eager college students. Their nervy disposition revealed that many were probably incoming freshman (– the “helicopter parents” unloading the Pier 1 swag was also a big give away). During some instances in my journey, I came across heartwarming final goodbyes; the last-minute advice being offered by teary-eyed parents as they drove away leaving their “babies” behind.

It got me thinking what advice I’d share if I was leaving my “babies” behind. Here’s some of what I would share :

Learn to Learn. Some of the best advice I got when I entered college came from a faculty member that was retiring after 31 years of teaching. I was in her last class. She told me that college is more than learning about a specific subject; it’s about learning how to learn. Yes, you might never have a need for a certain math algorithm or the chemical symbol for Sodium (it’s Na by the way) in your career. But you will employ the skills you used in order to apply them. Learning a skill is one thing; application is quite another. Focus on application.

Speak Up: I’m talking to you – yeah you, the person sitting in the back row. As a professor, one recommendation I give to all of my new students is this: EVERYONE has something important to contribute. I find students often fear their experiences aren’t relevant or that their perspectives are trivial. To the contrary, I often find students that share the least often share the most. Remember, it’s about quality not quantity.

Do It For Yourself:  I often hear Latino students say they’re getting their college degree “for their parents, family, grandparents, etc.” While I can appreciate this desire, I often tell Latino students that you need to get this done for yourself. The desire to make your family and loved ones proud is admirable, but I’ll bet they’ll agree with me – do it for you.

Leave the Comfort Zone: We love our family, our friends, and our culture. But sometimes we need to experience new things. Leaving our comfort zones, of course, can be scary sometimes.  And fright is uncomfortable. Many of us have a hard time with that, with discomfort. In life’s succession of choices, many of us will avoid the risks involved in moving toward what we want in order to play it safe and stay comfortable. This fear of finding ourselves outside of our comfort zones only leads to more and more dread — and smaller and smaller comfort zones.

Action Not Words: Be bold, commit and act.  Because, often, the intensity of our commitment and action will determine the intensity of positive response we get from those around us. Be focused on the final goal – your degree.

Face the Fear: While in college, in the end, people either have excuses or experiences; reasons or results; buts or brilliance; they either have what they wanted, or they have a detailed list of all the rationalizations why not.  Almost all such excuses and reasons are motivated by fear: fear of fatigue, fear of not doing it perfectly, fear of looking foolish, fear of mistakes, fear of losing, fear of being let down, fear of facing unworthiness, fear of getting angry; in short, fear that we might be uncomfortable.

You’re Already a Winner: I admire you. You’ve already made the hardest choice of all – a commitment to further your education. And I know, far better than most, the hidden costs of that academic excellence.  The lonely night hours of study, long after everyone else in the house is fast asleep; the equally lonely early morning hours of review, long before anyone else in the house in awake; the missed parties; the forsaken movies; the time away from loved ones.  That was the main thing for me, right there.

The time.  All that time.

Ultimately, I suppose, that’s the single most important commodity of life, isn’t it?  After all, among all those things which we value in life, time is the only one that can never be regained or replaced once it is spent.

But in this case, it’s a wonderful investment.

Good luck to you.

PHOTO: By J.L. de Diego, via Wikimedia Commons