In the ancient days before I became a mama, I was an academic guidance counselor for a season. For several years before that, I was a high school English teacher. For six blindly blissful years before that, I was a college and graduate student (“College! No parents!”).
Ah, the trials and joys of young adult life. Bless your little know-it-all hearts (young Prissy: that’s you).
So, drawn from my own experience and from situations I’ve had the privilege of coaching others through, I have compiled five academic lessons I wish I’d known before I went to college. Because the challenge of trying to coordinate your roomie’s bedding with yours before move-in day is just the tip of the iceberg.
1. Find your library. I don’t mean locating the library on the campus map. I mean finding your library, the place that’s your home away from home, the place where you will actually do the thing your parents are paying for: L E A R N. Especially your first year, if you think you’ll go back to your dorm to do your work, we all know what will happen. There’s absolutely no way your Chemistry textbook can compete with the flag football game taking place in your hallway or the Real Housewives marathon going on in your suite. Or, if you’re like me, it’s way too tempting to take a nap after you’ve read that paragraph for the fourth time and it still makes absolutely zero sense. So find your library.
My favorite library was actually the science and engineering library (where I would check out hubs from afar!), but I chose it because it had long, pretty tables with lamps and a bookish vibe. Imagine that, in a library of all places! Basically, it looked like Hogwarts, and I liked it there. Armed with a snack and my favorite Pandora station, I started to go there in between classes to knock out my reading or do my homework rather than go back home. I may not have always loved it and I may not have always gotten everything done, but I can guarantee I always got more done there than I would have snuggled in my room watching You’ve Got Mail for the four-hundredth time. Plus, I don’t wanna blow your mind or anything, but there are other cute and cool people at the library. It’s SOCIAL. You got in a chapter of reading in and topped it off with at least 15 minutes of people watching? Bonus. You win at college for the day.
In all seriousness, there was one year where a good friend and I both had kinda terrible living situations. We had a standing library night almost every weeknight because we just didn’t want to be at home. A lot of nights we were there until it closed at 2 a.m. Think it’s dorky to close down the library in your yoga pants and sweatshirt instead of the bar most nights? Well, maybe we were dorks. But we had a lot of laughs, no regrets, and the best grades of our college careers to show for it.
So find your library and show it some love.
***(A college life lesson: Don’t give your mothers premature heart attacks by walking home late at night from the library by yourself. Does your college have a safe ride system? USE IT. Can you walk with a buddy? MAKE IT A DATE. I know you think you’re invincible and that nothing bad will ever happen on your college campus. Do it for the sake of your sweet mama who birthed you from the corners of her very being.)***
2. Get to know your professors. Remember when you were in high school and not only did your teacher know you, but he or she knew your parents, too? Yeah, these are not those days. They don’t know your life! Especially if you find yourself in a giant survey class or one of those huge introductory seminars that most freshmen have to take, your professor has no idea who you are and has no pangs of guilt about flunking your quiz because you’re such a nice student and you really try hard. If you’re struggling, who better to talk to about what you’re not understanding than the teacher? If you’re excelling, who better to connect you with other people who might help you land internships or job opportunities?
Further, as a former educator, I’m just going to guess that your teacher would love to get to know you. Sure, some professors are kind of jerks, but the vast majority are awesome folks who love what they teach and love who they teach (that’s you). They’re real people who have amassed years of experience and resources to help you when you’re facing big challenges or navigating major life decisions, and I guarantee you’ll need help with both of those things during your college years.
My husband tells a story about a professor he had who offered a standing invitation to his students to go to lunch. One day he took the professor up on his offer. You know what happened? That professor picked him up in his convertible and took him to lunch at a swanky golf club off campus. And then he connected him with the best advisor in the department.
Don’t let those argyle socks and elbow patches fool you: professors are a cool bunch.
3. Take classes that make you a whole person. If you have room in your course load, try to take at least one class a year that pushes you to try or learn something different. While I had plenty of classes to take to fulfill my degree requirements, I had the fortunate experience (and fortunate requirement at a liberal arts university) of also taking classes outside my majors just because they were interesting to me, like anthropology, music, art history, religion, and yoga. Did I end up using those classes in my career? Nope. But here’s the thing: I’m not yet thirty and already my career path has changed. You don’t always know what awaits you in life, so while you have the opportunity, take advantage of the chance to learn about the world around you. Like to listen to classical music when you study but have no idea what a symphony is? Take an introduction to music class. Fascinated by the stars in the sky at night? See if you can fit astronomy into your schedule one semester. Your whole college path does not have to lead straight to your career, and your career does not make up your whole life.
4. Your summer is not your time off. One thing I wish I had started earlier was preparing myself for the career world by taking advantage of short-term experiences like internships to help me learn what I liked and didn’t like in particular fields. I didn’t start doing internships until my third year, and by then, I felt like I was way behind my peers both in terms of connections in my potential career field and in terms of self-knowledge of what I wanted to do when I “grew up.” Internships are great, low-risk opportunities to get your foot in the door of a particular industry (and sometimes at really big institutions!) without committing years of your life to doing something that wasn’t really your thing in the end. One of the most influential internships I had was at a major magazine in New York. Prior to that mini-internship, I had dreamed of writing for a magazine; the life seemed shiny and glossy and glamorous from the outside. Just one week in the city taught me that my heart wasn’t in it, and I left that experience grateful to have learned that when I still had the opportunity to change course.
The one disadvantage of many internships is that they are unpaid, and maybe you can’t run all over the world during your break because you’re a student who has to have a paying job during the summer (hey you! a word? you’re doing it right). Does this advice still apply to you? Absolutely. Try to find a job that allows you to work (or at least give you experience with the skills you’ll need) in your desired field. Think you want to be a teacher? Try to get a job at a summer camp or a kids program at a local museum. Are your sights set on a vet school? What better experience than to work at a local animal hospital or even a grooming shop. Hopefully, in addition to a paycheck in your pocket, you’ll come away with experience that will help you apply the lessons from your college classes or, just as helpful, the knowledge that that particular career field isn’t for you.
5. Your whole life does not depend on your job after college. Despite what I just said about the importance of landing good internships and all that jazz, I want you to know that finding your *perfect* career path after college is not the ultimate end of your college experience. (Parents, don’t hate me just yet!)
Are you about to enter your last year of college? About to graduate? I want to take you back to another, similar turning point in your life. Remember when you were a senior in high school and everyone kept asking you what you wanted to major in and your most honest response would probably have been “err…uhh…I mean…[shrug]…??” Yeah. That’s probably how you feel right now. Maybe you’re one of the lucky few who has had the stars align in your courses and internships and you have a job connection lined up after graduation in a career field that you absolutely love. YAY! YOU ROCK! (Seriously!) But some of your classmates also hate you just a tiny bit. Why? Because making career decisions and landing your first job is hard stuff. Like, “you’re a real girl/boy!” adult stuff. Stressful. DIFFICULT.
As for me, during my last year of undergrad I worked myself into such a frenzy about my future career plans that I ended up in the emergency room with what I thought was a heart attack. Turns out all the stress and anxiety of hinging all my worth and success on this one big decision was, like, the dumbest of all my ideas, EVER, and my body let me know it by waging a giant temper tantrum known as a panic attack. As a type-A control freak with a pretty perfect report card, it was a blow that led to a hard season for me, but it was a hard season that taught me so much. You’re not going to be able to plan everything perfectly, and even when you do, sometimes things aren’t going to go as planned. This is how life goes. We humans can only do so much.
I’m gonna let you in on a little secret: You’re probably twenty-two, twenty-three years old. Your pre-frontal cortex (the part of your brain that makes helps you make reasoned decisions) isn’t all that mature yet. You probably don’t have too much life experience. Despite all your big-time collegiate learning, you don’t know all about you yet. You want to know something? That’s ok. YOU’RE OK. All you can do is work your tail off and make the best decision you possibly can. Give yourself margin to make the wrong decision. If you find that you’ve made the right one, be grateful and excited and milk the experience for all it has to teach you. If you find that you’ve made the wrong one, be grateful and hopeful and milk the experience for all it has to teach you. Either way, you’ve done it: you’ve made the brave, hard choice, and you’ve learned from it. Take the lessons and keep going, whether down the same path or on a different one.
One last note, perhaps for any of my former students who might be reading this: If you’re a believer in college, I hope you’ll recognize your career decision as a beautiful opportunity to lean on the strength of the Lord as you approach your first big thing in your adult life, and that despite your fear and your anxiety, that you’ll let His peace wash over your heart. Because it’s Him–not your job, or your first salary, or your first apartment–it’s the Lord who will provide the security you’re longing for. And if you’re in the doubting, questioning, unbelieving stage of your faith, much like I was in college, I pray you’ll have someone in your life who will speak this truth into your life, and that it will keep washing over your heart like the ocean tides until your doubt is stripped away.