Today, you moved into the dorms at your chosen university. You are a freshman. The next however-many years of your life are going to be something—certainly challenging, hopefully fun, likely confusing, hopefully rewarding.
When I was in your position, I had lofty, culturally-created expectations: I’d make lifelong friends, take grueling classes (something I wanted), go to wild parties, have a college romance or two. Some of this happened. None of it happened like I’d anticipated.
What actually happened: I learned so much in my classes—more than could ever be distilled down to an essay or final exam. Philosophy, political science, English, French, economics, history, design, religion—these courses, their curricula, and the professors who taught them influenced who I am as a human. They changed my orientation to the world—the way I think, behave, create, respond. The texture of my life is specific to the course schedule I designed for myself. So, Brother, the first piece of advice I offer you is this: take this responsibility seriously. Don’t worry only about degree requirements or preferred times of day (though these are important considerations); think too about which courses—and, perhaps more importantly, which professors—will enrich your life. It is important to amass skills that will make you employable, sure; one needs to “make a living.” But one also needs to live, which is a fundamentally different thing altogether.
Dr. David Havird once told us that most Americans go to work to jobs they don’t love, come home, drink beer, eat dinner in front of the television, and go to bed, only to repeat the cycle the next day. That’s how the system is set up. But, he told us, if that’s going to be your life, at least read poetry, too. Make that life meaningful. Make a living, yes, but also make a life.
Learning content you love from teachers you admire makes studying so much more fun, but it does not make it easier. It sometimes even makes it harder. And so here is my second piece of advice: hunker down and commit. Go to class. Do the assigned readings. Assume you’ll spend 40 hours a week on school, and then don’t be surprised when you do. Sometimes, you have to do things perfunctorily; it’s part of life. Do the low-stakes, easy stuff perfunctorily; give your all to the things that are hard. Skim the easy readings; double down on the readings that seem to be (or may legitimately be) written in a foreign language. Even if you think you’re not getting it, keep reading anyway. (This is advice from Dr. Jeanne Hamming, by the way, and it’s something I still go back to.) Enter class with the humility of someone who pressed through the assigned text and has only room to learn—not the hubris of someone who gave up because it was “just too hard.” It’s supposed to be hard; otherwise, what’s the point? Why have classes and instructors if the material speaks for itself, if simply going through the motions, reading the text, and doing the assignments would instill the knowledge you’re seeking?
So, sweet Brother, I strongly encourage you: get to know your professors. Learn from them all that you can. If the class setting is small, engage in dialogue. Ask questions. Take risks. If the setting is a huge lecture hall (sigh), go to your professors’ office hours with thoughtful questions and ideas. You currently have access to folks who are—nine times out of ten—smart, generous, wise, caring, and invested in you. Do not waste this opportunity.
Keep in mind your perspective; think big-picture, long-term. College is all about making decisions. Sometimes—most of the time, actually—the right decision will be the one that prioritizes your academic success. Go to a frat party or study for your quiz? Study; there will be more parties. Take notes in class or browse Reddit? You already know the answer. The trickier dilemmas are the ones that position education against school/grades. Should you take the hard class that you probably won’t ace, or should you go with a class better for your GPA? Should you take the trip that will change your life forever, even though it falls right before final exams? Brother, only you can make these decisions, but I hope my voice is in the back of your head, urging you to do whichever thing will make you a wiser, kinder, more curious person.
I hope you will get curious about everything you think you know—politics, religion, friendship, philosophy, passion, joy. I hope you learn earlier than I did that life rarely looks how we think it’s supposed to look. Take the idealized painting of what your college experience “should” be, and then fray the edges, turn it upside down, pour rubbing alcohol on it, use it as a paintball target, put it away, and come back to it later. Think about the things you want out of this college experience—friendship, learning, growth, independence, love—and question the definitions you’ve been given for those terms. When you realize that the things you want may look differently than you’d once imagined, your whole world opens up.
Finally, Little Brother, a few items of practical advice:
- Go to the counseling center when (not if) you need help. It’s there for a reason. You deserve to be heard and taken care of by someone who knows how.
- If you’re gonna party, do so in a way that is smart and prioritizes the safety of everyone. Protect the people around you who are vulnerable.
- Join an organization. One. Singular. Invest your time wisely.
- Make your bed every day. Just trust me on this one.
- Call me if you need me.
I love you,