Dr. Kristine Duffy
Life in college will be like no other time in your life—I can guarantee you that! This is your time to explore who you are, who you want to become, and how you wish to play a part in this world. Don’t squander this unique time in your life. I hope to share some thoughts that might help you avoid regrets when reflecting on your college years.
I want to be clear—there are many paths through college and we know that no one path is right for all. You may be starting at a community college, taking courses part-time, starting college again after an unsuccessful start, or returning to education after many years away, but no matter who you are or what path you’ve chosen, make the most of it.
I took the fairly traditional path. I graduated from high school and went directly to college (which was three hours away from home). Because I wasn’t really sure what else I should do, I chose to be a business major by default. My parents thought it was a good route to take and would lead me to a good job (mainly to ensure I made some money and didn’t live with them forever).
There are three things I learned quickly in college:
- I had lived a very nice life, but in a very homogeneous environment.
- There were people different from me.
- Although I was a decent student, I had a ways to go to be a good student!
Learning to appreciate what you have is just as important as earning As on exams and papers. I share this because part of college is preparing for life, not just a job. Ask yourself some questions:
- What’s important to me and why?
- What do you know about other people’s lives, beliefs, and passions?
- Are you confident in your abilities to study, listen and learn, take notes, and be a learner?
Is it only to make money to buy things? If so, do you truly believe that money makes everything better? Don’t be fooled by that. Yes, money certainly makes life more comfortable, but it absolutely doesn’t buy happiness. I had friends in college that came from a significant amount of money and they would have traded it all to have a family they can depend upon and love in their homes. Consider this very carefully as you dream of the life ahead of you.
You are not the center of the world. You should be confident and proud of who you are, but be humble and be open to others’ experiences and worldviews. Take classes that stretch you, maybe even make you uncomfortable. In the end these types of classes will test your assumptions, beliefs, and make you a more well-rounded and interesting person. The roommate or classmate that is different from you can teach you about yourself. Be open to this.
Remember, if college were easy, everyone would do it! You have full control and responsibility for your learning. Yes, your professors have the responsibility of teaching well and helping you learn. But they cannot and should not do the work for you. Part of college is learning to learn: learning to study, listen better, take notes, and most importantly asking for help when you need it.
In my own research I have learned that students are confronted with a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, students in high school are warned that college will be hard—the professors won’t care if you do the work or not, and you need to do it on your own. However in reality, college professors and support professionals do care and will tell you to come and see them if you need help.
So what is a student to do? You may feel bad in class if you just aren’t getting it and are embarrassed to ask for help. Stop that thought in its tracks! Colleges offer many opportunities for help and in almost all cases, for free! Professors offer office hours specifically to address students’ questions and tutoring is available to help you do better, not to punish you for not getting it. Remember you are paying a substantial amount of money for your tuition; find out what resources you have and take advantage of them. Be a mature learner, take advantage of everything your college offers, and hold your head high for doing so. There is no shame in asking for help. I always compare it to a job. When you start out on any job there is usually some type of training to teach you how to do that job. College is no different. We are teaching you how to be a student—you’ve been practicing since Kindergarten, and doesn’t end when you get to college.
Finally, here are some words of advice based on some of my regrets when I reflect on my college experience:
- I didn’t study abroad during my four years of college.
- I didn’t do any type of internship.
- I didn’t get involved with many clubs or organizations.
- I didn’t get involved with any type of research opportunities until graduate school.
Whether it is a short-term experience (some are as short as three weeks) or a semester to a year—do it! This goes back to my point about understanding people different than you. The United States is a great nation, but we are not the only nation and our world is filled with amazing stories to share. One of my favorite quotes by Neale Walsh is: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” (2010). You will not miss much being gone from your college for a short period of time, and you will return from your adventure a changed person. How do I know this if I didn’t study abroad myself? I know many who have and the end result is the same for all—no regrets, life changing moments, and better appreciation for the world we live in.
Going to college in the 80s was different than today. The job market was relatively strong and the push for an internship or co-op was not as strong. But if I had gotten some hands on experience and discovered my likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses, I would had more direction for my career when I graduated. In addition, there is nothing more frustrating for a college graduate than to go on job interviews only to be told that you can’t be hired because you have no real experience. So talk to your professors, academic advisors, counselors, and mentors about getting some internship experience while in school or during the summer. There are many companies that welcome interns, and you may find the direction you are seeking.
Clubs and Organizations
For years employers have been surveyed by colleges to ask them what type of skills they are seeking in college graduates. Although having discipline specific skills are important (in other words, the courses you take in your major), employers are very consistent in seeking out employees with what they call “soft skills,” such as writing well, public speaking, getting along with others, and having leadership abilities. You’ll develop these skills in your courses, but you can really hone and apply them by joining a club or organization on campus, where you will have opportunities to work with others, lead efforts, and have something to show for it—a campaign you ran, funds you raised, or an event you organized. Colleges offer many types of clubs to attract students in areas of interest. For example, if you are a business major, you could join the business club. More than likely the activities the club offers will allow you to meet business leaders, go on field trips to learn more about the business world, and meet people who have similar interests as yourself. I was a college athlete so my time was limited, and while I support athletics in college as an opportunity to continue your passion and to grow and learn, try to make time to join a special interest group. Take a leadership role in a group, and later, when you go on that job interview, talk about your leadership experience. The employer will be impressed and it may determine whether or not you get the job.
Finally, develop your research skills. You may think that research is most important in the sciences and medicine. But research occurs in all fields of study, and much of what you do in college is research in some form. If you are a music major you may need to research how other musicians developed their talent, the history of genres, or new ways music is applied in our world. Problem solving through effective research and knowing how to test your ideas and hypotheses will make you a very valuable employee and citizen of your community. If your professor offers a chance to work on a special research project—sign up.
Question everything, and don’t take the answers at face value. Question how people come to their conclusions, develop your own set of research questions, and be willing to dig to find the answers. This is not only important as a student but as an employee as well. Strive to be an engaged citizen in our world and don’t believe what everyone tells you. An adult needs to make informed decisions to buy products, pay taxes, and vote for government leaders. Don’t be complacent and put your life in the hands of others without fully researching the pros and cons—draw your own conclusions.
In conclusion, come to the classroom with an open mind and a willingness to exercise your right to take full advantage of all a college offers. Done correctly, college will be challenging and frustrating, and will test every part of you. Life will be the same way so use this time to practice, practice, practice.
Reference: Walsch, N. D. (2010). Neale Donald Walsch’s little book of life: A user’s manual. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads.