Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Heading Back to Campus? Don't Screw It Up!

“Youth is wasted on the young,” George Bernard Shaw is quoted as saying, and never is that more clear to me than at this time of year when young people are headed back to college.  People told me that whole “best years of your life” thing all the time when I was starting college back in the late 1980s, but I just couldn't see it at the time.  To me, I was spending a lot of money I didn't have, to do a megaton of studying in a field that I wasn't even sure of at first.  I was torn between education, political science and journalism when I first started at the University of Maine in Orono in the fall of 1988, and while I was registered as an education major, the other two constantly sang their siren songs. 

College Life

On top of it all, I was 18 idealistic years old, and wanted to be free.  High school was over, and it was time to find out who I was and what I believed.  Yet each morning, I woke up in a UMaine dormitory, more often than not put on a UMaine t-shirt or sweatshirt, and headed off for breakfast in a UMaine cafeteria, which I ate off a tray with the UMaine logo.  Then it was off to full days of UMaine classes, punctuated by study sessions at the UMaine library and other meals at a UMaine cafeteria.  To my young mind, this was vaguely cult-like, nothing like the freedom for which I yearned.

It’s not that I didn't like UMaine.  I really did.  I don’t think I would have felt differently if I had gone to school anywhere else.  And I fully understood that I was going to need a college education to get where I wanted to in the world, wherever that was.  The problem was, I wanted to get to that place in the world right now.

My sophomore year, I made some changes, transferring to the University of Maine at Presque Isle, and getting a living situation independent of school.  These things helped me feel a bit more of the freedom I thought I was yearning for, but they also set up a sort of emotional fence between me and school.  I kept my distance from almost all aspects of university life beyond academics.  College became like a drudge job for me: something you had to do and get over with so you could enjoy other things.  That outlook was a huge mistake on my part.

The college world is very different today than when I started back in 1988, but some things hold up no matter how much time passes.  If I could go back and give my freshman self some advice about starting college, I’d tell him/me these five things:

  • Study.  It goes without saying that an education is what you are in college for (and what you are paying those steep tuition bills for), so taking your classwork seriously should be a top priority.  I’d qualify this, however.  I spent a LOT of time studying, but it was not necessarily the best use of my time.  Develop some study strategies, set aside regular times to study, and maybe even find a group with whom to study.  More is not necessarily better when it comes to studying, though.  Quality counts more than quantity.
  • Diversify. College is a great time to broaden your horizons.  Take advantage of opportunities to get to know people who come from different ethnic, religious, and/or socioeconomic backgrounds than you.  Try listening to some different music.  Read different books.  Go to different movies.  Sample some different foods.  It’s a very big world out there.  This is the time to open your mind wide and check it all out. 
  • Do active stuff.  Most likely, you are never going to be in better physical condition than you are in your late teens and early twenties.  Take advantage of that!  Ski, skate, run, hike, swim, dance!  This is the time in your life to climb mountains or ride your bike across the state during summer break.  Trust me, when you get older it will be a lot tougher to do these things.
  • Take concrete steps toward your dreams. Okay, going to college is one example of this, but I am speaking about more specific things.  I recently read about a pair of siblings who spent their summer interning in Texas where they worked directly with wild tigers and bears.  They were over the moon with enthusiasm about their experience.  Keep your eyes open for internships, exchange programs, volunteer opportunities and similar things that give college kids the chance to start living life more fully.
  • Get out there. These are the years when some of the best lifelong memories are made, and college usually provides ample opportunities do make them.  Go to concerts, lectures and sporting events on campus on a regular basis, and bring people with you.  Attend parties (responsibly!) and other social events.  Join groups and organizations that interest you.  Get involved in social causes that mean something to you.

During my own college years, I dreaded Labor Day Weekend and the whole back-to-college thing, due to faulty thinking on my part.  College was just work to me, a means to an end.  Getting a degree was something to get out of the way so life could really start.  Little did I know at the time that life had already started and I was letting some very important parts of it pass me by.

Now in my mid-40s and firmly ensconced in the world of work and middle age, I find myself envious of the young people I see on the roads in early September who have packed their stuff into cars in a physics-defying way, headed off to campus.  I just hope they see that it’s an adventure they’re on.  A really great one if you choose to make it that way.  Take it seriously, but never, ever forget to enjoy it!

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