There’s a popular American saying that the college years are the best four years of your life. Having spent eight years in higher education and the past six years working with college students in Canada and the U.S., I know from experience that these wonder years are possible, but they are not guaranteed. For all the fun, opportunities and achievements that college can bring there are also challenges so intense that they reduce capable, sensible young adults into people their loved ones hardly recognize. The college experience can be tremendous, abysmal or something in between. The key to achieving the best four years of your life is in the approach. To help you get a good start, I’m offering some tried and true professional advice for the new college year.
Chose Well – Making good choices is fundamental to a successful college experience. Success begins with choosing a college that is good fit for you, meaning that it provides an overall experience that will both challenge and nurture you personally and academically. (Notice that the focus is on your needs and desires, not those of your parents.) The same principle applies when choosing a major. Ask yourself, what major matches my gifts and interests? What do I want to learn? What motivates me? What are my goals? The answers to these questions should lead you to a major. While you shouldn’t ignore how a specific degree will lead to a job and a sustaining income, neither should you become a slave to the rigid ideal of finding the “right” major. Most of us will walk down several career paths in life and most of those paths will have no obvious link to our college major. College is not just about what you learn but about how you learn to think. These four years are packed with huge choices – where to go, what to study, how to manage your sexuality, how to have healthy relationships, how to handle money, etc. If you can use these years to learn how to make decisions that build up your life and the lives of others, then you will reach graduation ten giant leaps ahead of your peers.
Build a Support System – Too often a common denominator of students in crisis is a lack of support. To ensure that you healthfully navigate the inevitable challenges of college, you will need a support system. Imagine yourself in the center of a web of relationships. With whom can you openly share your joys and struggles? Who loves you enough to be honest with you when you need perspective or correction? Who loves to laugh with you? Who can handle your tears? These are the people you need to stay connected with. Be bold and ask a few people to make a commitment to be available to you and to check in with you periodically. Remember that a support system is only as good as the information they have to go on. If you never share your needs, how can anyone know you need help? Forcing yourself to be vulnerable to others is a necessary step toward effective support. Vulnerability initially takes courage and long-term practice to become comfortable. But if you share regularly with people who truly care for you, you’ll find yourself better able to cope with all types of challenges.
Take Charge of your Academics – Students often blame their advisors and professors for messing up their class schedule and graduation date. Usually much of their distress could have been avoided if the students had taken the time to inform themselves by reading the academic catalog, mapping out a four-year plan and making a specific list of questions/concerns to present to advisors, department heads or the registrar. You need to consider that Colleges and departments are in a constant state of flux due to credentialing, staffing, budgets and the general desire to offer you compelling and competitive academic packages. This isn’t high school where your education is dictated by others; you’re now in the realm of adult education where you have both choice and responsibility. The money you forked over for your education may be staggering, but that doesn’t mean you can or will be catered to on an individual basis. That may be a hard message to swallow, but you need to accept that the professionals that assist you have expectations and limitations. So take charge of your education and you’ll be much happier along the way.
Reserve a Column for Mistakes – We all fail. Period. In my six years of working with college students I ran across too many people who were incapable of dealing with their failures or mistakes. When “the worst” happened, my students would do everything but accept responsibility (which is called denial) or they would act like their life was over (which is despair). I understand the problem – it’s difficult to be motivated toward excellence academically or goodness personally and then fall short. The healthy way to deal with failure is a cathartic action between denial and despair. A wise professor of mine once said, “We should always reserve a column for mistakes.” For me, this simple sentence was a breakthrough. Accepting – even expecting – mistakes and acknowledging that I am not perfect or in control of every outcome, would help me deal with the inevitable failures. It’s helpful to picture mistakes as pebbles and stones on the pathways of life, failures as the rocks and boulders that might trip us up or stand in our way. The good news is that these obstacles can be overcome and rarely end our journey along the path. Filing a column for mistakes next to the column for success in our brains allows each of us to throw up our hands and say with abandon, “I messed up!” Then we look in the mirror and say, “I messed up, but I’ll have another opportunity to do better.” We become wiser every time we live out the lessons learned from past mistakes and failures.
Go Residential – With the rising cost of higher education, more students are saving money by living at home and commuting to local colleges. While this is not detrimental to a positive college experience, those who live at home miss out on one of the treasures of college: living on campus. There is no experience to match living in a residence hall; it’s where all the spontaneous fun and good conversations happen that build life-long friendships and memories. If you can, go residential for at least a year. It’s especially helpful to live on campus your first year because most residential schools have programs and resources designed to connect you to the pulse of campus life.
Have Fun – One of my college roommates buried herself in her books, almost literally, so she could get straight A’s and get into medical school. She slept sporadically, rarely socialized, was involved in nothing and was often sick. Never have I seen such a pristine academic record or a more miserable person! I don’t think my roommate enjoyed her first two years of college but she eventually learned that it is possible to have fun and succeed academically. In fact, some of the best students I’ve known have balanced their life with healthy habits and lots of fun.
Sleep – To function optimally, our bodies need regular patterns of work and rest so it’s unfortunate that college life has the honored tradition of midnight pranks and sleepless nights cramming for exams. Exhaustion is an epidemic on campuses that negatively impacts students academically, physically and emotionally. Going without sleep for 24 hours has the same impairments as being legally intoxicated! I’m not saying the occasional midnight food run or study group will derail your entire college experience, but habitual lack of sleep can be detrimental to far more than your grades. Be kind to your body, mind, relationships and grades by getting adequate sleep as often as you can.
Tap into Resources – Colleges are stuffed with professionals, departments and programs that equip students for success in college and beyond. Resources like rec sports, clubs, career centers, peer tutoring, computer labs, service opportunities and counseling can usually be accessed for free or for a nominal fee. There is no reason to be bored or feel helpless when all the resources you could need or want are within reach.
Communicate for Healthy Relationships – Few things can build us up or tear us down like our relationships can. Since relationships are vital to personal wellness, it’s important that we do what we can to have healthy ones. I’ve witnessed some very ugly and depressing scenes on college campuses – roommates destroying each other’s property, threats of violence, theft, false accusations of mental illness, screamed racial slurs and the heartbreaking loss of once-cherished relationships. I observed that most of these horrors stemmed from a lack of communication. Feelings, assumptions and misunderstandings were never acknowledged or clarified in a timely fashion within these relationships. Avoidance led to more hurt feelings and more assumptions, which fueled frustration, anger and pain. You can only hold all of that in for so long before it blows. And when it blows, it’s often ugly. If you want roommate experiences, friendships and romantic relationships to enhance your life in college, then you MUST communicate. Learn how to acknowledge hurts and concerns to others in ways that do not point the finger of blame or twist the knife of revenge. If open, honest communication is the foundation of your relationships then you’ll rarely get to the ugly and irreparable.
Study Abroad – College’s across the country offer programs to spend a semester abroad. When I was in college, I spent a summer term in the Middle East and a full semester on a study tour of Europe. Both experiences were invaluable because I got to learn about the history, culture, politics and art of other societies while in them! No well-written text-book can transport you in the same way. If you can, grab the chance to study abroad; it will broaden your mind and worldview and open your heart and imagination to all kinds of new things.
Nurture your Mental Health – Many of the above suggestions are ways that you can maintain good emotional health. Unfortunately, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and cutting are common among the college population. In my student development career, I supported students in emotional crisis, many of whom had reached the point of contemplating suicide before they sought any kind of help. No one should get to such a point of helplessness. If you’re feeling sad or scared, anxious or confused, then see if your student health center offers counseling and sign up. Even if you are coping well with the demands of college, counseling is a great way to process doubt, confusion and hurts, both past and present, with an objective professional. On another note, many students come into college already taking medications for various behavioral and emotional conditions (ADD, ADHD, depression, anxiety, etc). I’ve seen students quickly sink into a deep pit of depression or academic failure and withdraw from school because they have gone off their meds without the consent and supervision of a medical professional. You may have moved into a dorm overnight, but your new “adult” status won’t coincide with a sudden healing from your condition. Make good choices about your medication and care for your mental well-being.
Prepare to be Tempted – Alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling, and hooking-up are just a few of the potential perils of college life. Some need to be abused to be harmful, most are inherently so. Research shows that the above are common issues on campuses across the country whether the institutions are large or small, private or public, religious or not. Nothing can sink your success faster than one bad choice. A few years ago, one of my favorite students was drinking with his friends off campus. Intoxicated with his judgment impaired, he decided he was okay to drive home. He drove his friend’s car through a fence. Thankfully my friend was not physically hurt, but he is still dealing with the consequences: the loss of friendship over the ruined car, his arrest, the cost of damages, fines, legal fees, a DUI on his record, suspension of his license, community service, tanking grade and the sense of shame that made him keep this mistake a secret from all of his friends. I know my student deeply regrets his actions and that this incident tainted his whole college experience. Unfortunately, this story is common with college students. Temptation will be all around you in college. Intelligent people make single decisions that worsen their lives. The best advice I can offer you is to think ahead about how you will deal the above issues, and choose wisely.