In spite of the fact that it is the month my workplace becomes complete and total chaos, I have always loved September. It is still hot and summery, but there’s a gradual shift in the air. If you get up early enough in the morning, you can feel just a hint of a cool, invigorating breeze. When the sun warms your shoulders, it does so with kindness instead of a searing burn.
September feels like a wake-up call.
Perhaps I also feel that way because I work at a university. Each fall, new students swarm the campus and immerse themselves in all it has to offer. Fresh high school graduates dip their toes into the college waters, transfer students pour in from the local community colleges, and returning students start anew. There’s just an excitement in the air this first month of school, almost like a low and steady hum, that doesn’t happen any other time of year.
It is a time that makes me reflect on my experiences – both as a college student myself and as an adult who has worked in university settings for almost two decades now. Colleges are like little microcosms of the world, and when you spend as much time in one as I have you see a lot of things change over the years.
I look at this year’s crop of new students and think that there’s much I’d like to tell them of the mistakes I made, the things I’d do differently, and the challenges and resources their world brings to them that were never a part of mine. Here are a few of those things.
1. Do It All
My friends and I used to jokingly say “there’s a time for everything, and its called college.” This was our motto and our excuse for Animal House-esque parties. If Van Wilder had been around when we were students, we would have been his best friends.
I hope today’s college students live by the same motto, but in a slightly different way. Now is the time to explore your mind and your heart in ways you might never have the luxury of doing again in your adult life. Now is the time to take those extra classes just because you’re interested in them. Now is the time to try to plan a study abroad experience. You probably won’t have 3 months to go overseas and explore another culture once you’re working a full-time day job. Now is the time to try to make friends with other students who seem nothing at all like you, and be amazed by just how much you have in common.
2. Take Responsibility
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that parents are more involved in their childrens’ college experiences than ever before.
When I was a student, I paid most of my way, cobbling my tuition and rent together from a mishmosh of part-time jobs. I chose my own courses each semester. I decided to drop a class here and there to make room for more hours to work. I bombed a biology class because I didn’t study enough, and my mother didn’t lose it when she saw my transcript.
I was a student, but I was also a grownup. I was old enough to go into the military, so my parents figured I was also of an age that I should be able to plan my education and pay a good chunk of my own way. The majority of my friends were in the same boat.
Today, my co-workers and I talk with parents daily. They help their sons and daughters select classes – sometimes overriding the students’ choices. My parents might have thought I was nuts for taking Russian instead of a simpler language to meet a graduation requirement. They were right – Russian was too hard for me to master on top of all my other classes and 30 hours of work a week. I switched languages. But if I hadn’t tried, I wouldn’t have learned a little bit of Russian. When I see students disagreeing with their parents about their class choices today, most of the time momma and poppa win the battle. When students do poorly in classes, their parents call their professors. When they wait until the last minute to register and then struggle because their first-choice classes are full, their parents attempt to intervene.
On the one hand, I get this. The world is faster and busier and a lot more complicated than it was twenty years ago. And college is a lot more expensive. We look at young adults as “not grown up” a little longer than we did a few decades ago in part because there’s so much more being thrown at them. There’s definitely a need for more guidance and support.
With some of these more involved parents, I see a wonderful blend of guidance and leading by example. The parent may plan WITH the student and be involved in their decisions. But the student is actively involved and is taking responsibility for his or her own actions. With others, I see the parent doing the question-asking and the decision-making while the student sits looking lost and aggravated and texting her friends. I wonder what will happen to these students when they graduate and get their first jobs, and their mothers and fathers can’t go to their staff meetings or sit in on their performance reviews.
Take the guidance, support and advice of your family and other mentors and use it wisely. But take your own actions.
3. Earn something
I hated working through college. Not only did it cut into study time, but if I also wanted to party it meant I didn’t do much sleeping. I was jealous of the few students I knew who had full scholarships for room and board or who came from rich families and had to work for nothing other than their grades.
But I learned so much from that experience. My degree meant ever so much more to me because I not only worked hard academically – I earned the money to pay for the damn thing. I came out of college knowing how to manage rent and utility bills and tuition. Getting out of school was actually a break for the money management side of my life, since I had one less BIG bill to pay.
Today, I see more students who go through their entire college career without working. Money is an abstract concept studied in economics class or pulled from a magic machine by sliding in dad’s credit card.
Even if you are fortunate enough to be in that situation, learn the value of work. Volunteer for a cause you believe in. Put extra effort into your academics. Gather experiences through classes, internships or part-time work. Eventually, you’ll need to get that first job, and you’ll want something to make you stand out in the search. You’ll also want to learn what types of work environments you enjoy and which you’d prefer to stay away from. Trust me, discovering that a certain type of work environment makes you miserable is NOT something you want to wait to do until you are relying on the paycheck to live.
4. Get out there
When I was in college, there was no internet, no smart phones, no texting. The world was face-to-face.
Today, I see students milling about texting and playing with their smart phones constantly. They are always in contact with someone, it just seems rare that the person they are talking to is actually walking beside them.
Technology has given so many advantages to us all. The world is so much more open to today’s college students than it ever was to me. But I hope all that great wide electronic open doesn’t keep you from missing all the discoveries right under your nose.
Talk to classmates. Go to the library and browse those musty things on the shelves called books. Pull one out, find a little nook where you can see book-dust dancing in a ray of sunlight through the library window, and read. Find that outdoor place on campus where you and your buddies meet between classes to just sit and shoot the breeze. You’ll be so glad you did one day when your sunlight hours are spent in an office or cube.
5. High School is Over
You might have been the jock or the cheerleader, the goth chick scribbling angry poetry or the shy kid who walked down the halls with his head down just hoping no one would notice him. You might have been the prankster or the drama queen, the artist or the screwup. You might have been constantly surrounded by a circle of friends or always on your own.
None of that matters now. Well, what you learned from it does. But only the pieces you WANT to follow you to college need to come along for the ride.
In high school, I was one of the few kids from my area in the honors classes. To my honors classmates, I wasn’t quite “one of them.” To the kids in my neighborhood, I was the goody-two-shoes smart kid. I had friends, but most of them were a year or so ahead of or behind me in school. In my own class, I was shy and quiet and did my best to go unnoticed.
By college, that experience had made me define myself as a “writer geek.” So I scoured campus for other “writer geeks” to befriend. It took me a semester or two to realize that all those preconceptions I had about myself because of my high school experiences had absolutely nothing to do with how others now saw me. My college roomies and neighbors and classmates didn’t carry around notions about me that were based on my awkwardness in freshman gym class. The slate was fresh, and if I opened up to others they might just do the same for me.
Enjoy the ride, soak up the experience, and discover all you can about the world and yourself.
Happy fall semester to all the new and returning students. And happy fall to the rest of us, because that discovery can go on long after we leave the classroom.