Dear Class of 2022:
Welcome to college. The next chapter of your education story will be very different from all those that came before. College will present you with a rich and expansive range of opportunities. The next few weeks and months will be full of firsts – some intriguing, some a bit daunting, and almost all exciting. As you start your college experience, I want to offer some advice from a college president.
Let me begin with an observation — college experiences vary tremendously. Even for students who pursue the same course of study, college is never a one-size-fits-all proposition. The particular combination of classes and co-curricular activities you choose, along with the residential and social choices you make, will create a unique experience that, if properly prepared, will nourish and sustain you in college and throughout the rest of your life.
The key to an outstanding college education is understanding that you are in control. You will ultimately determine both the shape and the quality of your experience. Focus on a few crucial areas, and you can dramatically increase the odds of leading a meaningful and successful life. College plays a large role in making that happen. There are some simple things you can do in college to enrich your educational experience and help you to become an effective architect of your own life.
I would offer just five pieces of advice:
Take control of your education. College is not a spectator sport. To get everything you can from your education, you need to engage actively and participate fully in every aspect of the experience. This begins with your academic choices. Don’t just glide through your classes. Devour them. Savor them. Academics are the core of your experience.
Go to every class. Do all the assignments. Show up prepared to listen and to participate. Treat every class for what it is — a unique opportunity to learn. Some classes will make this easy. They will grab you from day one and you will be inspired by every lecture and assignment. In others you will find it more difficult to engage; you will have to work harder to find their relevance and maintain your focus. But even the classes that don’t readily motivate you are of great value and offer opportunities to develop important life skills — including the ability to find meaning in and learn from any experience.
Don’t worry too much about which subjects you are studying. Take the first year (or more) to explore a range of classes and figure out what you enjoy. No doubt you will enter college with a set of academic interests and disciplines you hope to pursue. Be open and use college to examine and test out your interests. What you study is not actually a good predictor of success. However, being academically engaged and doing well is connected to achieving success in all aspects of your life. You will have plenty of time to focus as you move along in your college career. So plan to cast a wide net.
Likewise, it’s important to get involved outside the classroom. Find a few activities that interest and motivate you. You may like a particular sport or be active in the arts. Or perhaps you are community-minded, politically active, or interested in entrepreneurship. Nurture those interests by getting involved in campus organizations and/or the local community. If you do these things in depth, they will be more meaningful and rewarding. Also, you will develop valuable management and leadership skills.
Don’t limit yourself to activities and areas of interest you already know and enjoy. Use college to explore and develop new pursuits. Ideally, you will leave college with a passion — for jazz music or philosophy or soccer or something that you didn’t have when you arrived. For this to happen, though, you have to push yourself to try new things, and be open to, even excited about, reinventing yourself a little.
For many students, something you will do outside the classroom is hold down a job. That’s great. Treat the job as part of your education. Use it as an opportunity to better understand yourself and develop work-related competencies. Try and keep the same job for a period of time and ask your supervisor for feedback on your performance.
Pay attention to management styles and work dynamics present in the organization. Invite people you work with to go to lunch and get their advice about jobs, careers, and important skills. Be intentional about exploring what you can learn, and how it may connect to what you are studying, activities you are pursuing, and what you may want to do after college.
Cultivate meaningful relationships. Too often we think of college as being only about classes, programs, extra-curricular activities and projects. At its core, though, college is really about relationships. Your experience — and what you do or don’t get from it — is really a product of the relationships you cultivate. And, regrettably, of those you don’t.
By far the most important relationships you will make are with faculty. Seek out opportunities for mentorship. Starting with your faculty, look to connect with knowledgeable people from whom you can learn in a variety of ways over time. We have incredibly compelling data from research like the Gallup-Purdue Index and books like How College Works that documents how having a close relationship with a faculty member dramatically increases your performance in college, professional success, and well-being throughout your life.
The impact of forming meaningful personal relationships at college also extends to your peers and the friendships you form. Most of us seek out friendships with people whose life experiences are close to our own. To be sure, connections to people with whom you share common interests and backgrounds are important and will play a vital role in your transition into college life (and beyond).
But it’s also important to forge friendships with people whose life experiences are different from yours. We call this lateral learning. You stand to learn a lot from a wide range of peers, especially those who see and engage with the world from different personal, cultural, and social perspectives. And at no point in your life will you be as likely to have such ready access to people from so many different backgrounds as you will in college.
One of the things our colleges do especially well is to bring students with a wide array of life experiences into the same physical spaces — classrooms, residence halls, student unions. However, it is incumbent upon you to take advantage of this opportunity. Learning to work and live effectively with people who see the world differently requires effort and initiative on your part. But mastering this important ability will add great value to your life and help you to be more successful professionally, personally, and civically.
To begin this crucial process, my advice is to commit yourself to the following:
Make it a point to have a one-on-one conversation with each of the faculty members teaching your classes during the first few weeks of the term, and make it a point to develop one close relationship with a faculty member during your first year in college.
Identify two or three people in your residential hall whose life experiences are most different from your own and make it a point to get to know and forge friendships with them.
If somebody says something in a class that is shocking to you, invite them to lunch or out for coffee and just sit and listen to them explain their view. Start by asking about their life experience. Often people’s views come from their backgrounds or what we might called their lived experience.
Push yourself to explore new subjects and activities without being afraid of failure or getting embarrassed. Take classes in subjects that are new and might be difficult or uncomfortable for you. Your education will always benefit from a wide range of courses and an expansion of your boundaries beyond what feels safe or easy. Developing broader skillsets and a more inclusive worldview will better prepare you for life in every way.
Also, be sure to try some activities outside the classroom that are new to you. Audition for a play or a cappella group. Try out for a varsity sport or join an intramural team. Write for the student newspaper. Run for student government. If it doesn’t work out, try something else. Failure is just one step on the road to success.
Commit yourself to developing self-awareness and a healthy and balanced lifestyle. To do these things effectively, it’s important to be actively involved in all aspects of your college life, but not overly so.
Finding a healthy balance between the academic, co-curricular, and social dimensions of your life is crucial. So too is developing a sense of self-awareness — understanding how others see you and what it means to take care of yourself physically, mentally and personally. If you know that you are prone to over-extending yourself, then use college to learn to narrow and sharpen your focus. If you are apt to be less involved, use college to develop ways of being more engaged that work for you.
To find that balance and gain true self-knowledge, you have to commit yourself to practicing real self-reflection. Set aside some time at the start and end of your day to take a deep breath. Think about all the experiences you are having in college, and what they are adding up to. Consider what are you learning about yourself and the kind of person you want to be.
Think about the life you want to lead. If you are struggling, ask for help. Ask often, early, and loudly. Believe me when I say that you will not be the only one. The vast majority of students have difficulty with some aspects of college – especially during the first year. College campuses are filled with people who are there to help you and want to see you succeed. Reach out to them and others. You will be glad you did.
And my last piece of advice — make good social choices. Especially during the first few weeks as you are finding your footing and figuring out how things work on campus, the pull to “fit in” will be powerful. The problem is that until you know more, you can’t actually determine what that means. So, take a minute to get your bearings and size things up. Then make the decisions that are right for you. Likewise, look out for those around you. Step up and speak up when you see other people getting ready to make bad decisions for themselves or others. Ease into college and be good to yourself, your friends, and each other.
Finally, remember to have fun. College will push you and challenge you in all sorts of ways. But it is also a time that can and should be rich with joy and discovery. It is a wild and wonderful journey. I wish you much happiness and success along the way.
Dr. Adam Weinberg joined Denison University as its 20th president on July 1, 2013. He previously served as president and CEO of World Learning, one of the premier international education, exchange and development organizations. World Learning works with young people from more than 140 countries, helping them develop the ability to address critical global issues.
Previously, he was vice president and dean of the college at Colgate University, where he was a member of the sociology department for more than a decade. A native of Texas, Dr. Weinberg’s passion for ice hockey took him to New England, where he attended Deerfield Academy and Bowdoin College, graduating magna cum laude. He studied at Cambridge University before earning his master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology from Northwestern University. Dr. Weinberg resides at Denison, with his wife, Anne, their three children and a new puppy. (Source: Denison University website.)