A Professor’s Letter to First-Year College Students
Congratulations! You are embarking on a journey. The people and ideas you encounter and the experiences you have will define you for many years to come. The risks are great, but so are the potential rewards. Some of you have already undertaken great sacrifice to make it this far.
Many students succeed. Others fail academically and some – not necessarily those who fail academically – fail at life. As someone who primarily teaches college freshmen, I have seen what works. I have discerned some general principles to help you increase your odds for success, academically, vocationally, and personally.
Those of you who are my students, you are likely to hear parts of this from me in person. Enjoy this condensed version. Those of you who are not in my classroom, I hope you may benefit from these insights regardless. (And dear parents of my students, if you are listening in, this is a glimpse of what your children are in for.)
1. Set goals and prioritize your time.
The students who I see struggling the most are those whose stated goals do not match their use of time. This means that your long-term desires must consistently trump your short-term plans. If you want to go to medical school, partying on weeknights is not your best option, for example. At the same time, if you desire to cultivate significant friendships from your time in college, you might want to avoid spending every waking moment alone at the library. No matter what, be true to yourself: don’t spend your time in ways that are at odds with your sense of calling.
2. Learn to love learning.
I know that it is tempting to emphasize things that will help you in your career. This is especially true if you are planning on majoring in a field with clear practical implications. You may set goals and prioritize your time in ways that minimize or avoid learning opportunities with nothing to do with your career. But beware of too much practicality. In many cases, the courses that have the least to do with your future job(s) might have the most to do with life. Do not be so consumed with the pursuit of vocational and financial success that you forget to love learning. There are compelling practical reasons for this: those driven by joy and curiosity do not merely excel in their respective career fields; as a general rule, they are happier for it. For the joy set before you, embrace learning whenever you can, both inside and outside of the classroom.
3. Learn to read.
You already have a solid foundation in this, or else you wouldn’t be in college or be reading this blog. But you can read more carefully and more quickly, honing strategies for navigating a variety of texts. Because texts are one of the primary ways in which people convey knowledge and information, your ability to analyze texts will be one of the key factors to determine the quality of your future life, both personally and vocationally, even in this increasingly visual age. Reading is one of the best ways to learn from others’ past mistakes – because it has all been done before and in many cases someone had the foresight to write about the aftermath of any given screw-up. Sloppy and inattentive reading is a mark of mediocrity, while focused and clear comprehension, along with a love of reading, will set you apart for excellence.
4. Learn to write.
Every one of you has room for improvement. I have yet to encounter a single exception. Because writing is a form of premeditated communication, honing your writing skills has the power to increase your ability to communicate, to reason, and to remember. A blank piece of paper is an extension of your mind, a free space for you to ruminate on ideas and come back to them later, a place of flawless memory. Writing is the fullest expression of reading, for in writing, you provide a gift for the reading of others. People will judge you based on their first impressions of you and, in many cases in your future career, people will meet you in print before they meet you in person. Those destined to be leaders in their respective fields are those who can demonstrate professionalism and clarity both verbally and in writing.
5. Learn to be a friend.
You now have the potential to understand and love others with depth and complexity that were simply less feasible in your earlier stages of life. Learn to listen, to empathize, to commiserate, to rejoice, to share, to sacrifice. Such are the things of which friendship is made. You may have many acquaintances, but not everyone with many acquaintances has many friends. Some of your friends here will be friends for a lifetime, though it may surprise you who becomes closer to you after graduation and who fades from your life. And remember: “Happiness isn’t real unless it is shared.”
6. Don’t panic.
You will have crises. We all do. But panicking does nothing to help. That said, don’t feel bad if you can’t exactly stay calm. Some people who really struggle in college manage to flourish afterwards. Others of us, for whom college was a breeze, face harsh realities afterward. Either way, may the Force be with you.
The above recommendations may sound boring, but anyone who thinks that prioritizing, learning, reading, writing, friendship, and not panicking are dull has failed to grasp what those things truly are and what they can do to transform one’s life. These things are like vegetables for your mind and heart. Perhaps you did not like them once upon a time, but that when you were a child and not training in earnest as an intellectual athlete. Eat your vegetables. You might as well. You or someone you love is paying for them.
Those whose hearts are full of wonder, whose free their feet to wander, never truly lose. That is my wish for you.