Sunday, September 26, 2010

Advice From The Times to College Freshmen

College is your chance to see what you’ve been missing, both in the outside world and within yourself. Use this time to explore as much as you can.

Take classes in many different subjects before picking your major. Try lots of different clubs and activities. Make friends with people who grew up much poorer than you, and others much richer. Date someone of a different race or religion. (And no, hooking up at a party doesn’t count.) Spend a semester abroad or save up and go backpacking in Europe or Asia.

Somewhere in your childhood is a gaping hole. Fill this hole. Don’t know what classical music is all about? That’s bad. Don’t know who Lady Gaga is? That’s worse. If you were raised in a protected cocoon, this is the time to experience the world beyond.

College is also a chance to learn new things about yourself. Never been much of a leader? Try forming a club or a band.

The best things I did in college all involved explorations like this. I was originally a theater major but by branching out and taking a math class I discovered I actually liked math, and I enjoyed hanging out with technical people.

By dabbling in leadership — I ran the math club and directed a musical — I learned how to formulate a vision and persuade people to join me in bringing it to life. Now I’m planning to become an entrepreneur after graduate school. It may seem crazy, but it was running a dinky club that set me on the path to seeing myself as someone who could run a business.

Try lots of things in college. You never know what’s going to stick.

— TIM NOVIKOFF, Ph.D. student in applied mathematics at Cornell

Chances are, if you are taking the time to read this advice, you already have the quality necessary to undertake the intellectual challenges of a college education — a seriousness of purpose. What I want to speak to is much more mundane, but it will make your transition into college easier: amid the thrill and vertigo of change, be kind to and patient with yourself.

Remember to take some time away from campus — from the demands of schoolwork and the trappings of the college social life. Explore the town you’re living in. Meet people who are not professors or fellow students. If you spend all of your time on school grounds, then it becomes too easy for the criticism from an occasional unkind professor or the conflict with a roommate to take on a monstrous scale. And to let that happen is to suffer from a mistake of emphasis; college should be a part of, but not the entire scope of, your existence for the next few years.

In Virginia Woolf’s novel “Mrs. Dalloway,” characters are troubled and traumatized by their inability to maintain a proper “sense of proportion”; ordinary tasks — life itself, for one of the characters — become outsized and unmanageable.

I mention this not because I think your situation will be so dire if you don’t heed my advice, but mostly because “Mrs. Dalloway” is a great read, and I highly recommend it.

— WILLIE X. LIN, student in the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis

Universities are places where facts are made. Research is a collaborative process, so scientists need lab assistants, humanities researchers need library aides and graduate students need all the help they can get. A curious, competent undergraduate can always find work assisting a researcher.

Regardless of the field and the specific project, helping them helps you. The obvious benefits are new skills and invaluable experience. But there is also something powerful in seeing how the right experimental or analytical approach can sort through a mess of observations and opinion to identify real associations between phenomena, like a gene variant and a disease, or a financial tool and the availability of credit. With a window into the world of research, you will find yourself thinking more critically, accepting fewer assertions at face value and perhaps developing an emboldened sense of what you can accomplish.

Most important: research experience shows you how knowledge is produced. There are worse ways to prepare for life in an information age.

— AMAN SINGH GILL, Ph.D. student in the ecology and evolution department at Stony Brook University

I asked my kids about the advice found in the article linked to above. My son, Joel, had this response:

The first entry could just as easily have read "try new things". Also, I find the call to date someone of a different race and religion to be, well, stupid. Going out of your way to date someone because their identity is new and exotic is offensive and insensitive. If you want to date someone, date them because you jive and feel something, or even because you're inexplicably attracted to them, not because they add to your portfolio of friends, acquaintances and experiences. That's just plain creepy. I'd even be okay with 'don't be afraid to date someone from a different background', but the call to actively seek out someone because of it is weird. And I say this as someone who lived in a new and diverse community intentionally.

For the most part, these are things that I think are relatively true to a point, but are difficult to convey to a first-year. Generally I find that such advice offers little, because frankly you have to experience all that stuff yourself. I live with two people in their first year out of school, and I'm hearing back everything I experienced over the last year. But, while I think my advice is relatively useful, there's a point at which I can't tell them anything other than 'what you're going through makes sense, it's legit, don't worry, you'll come out okay', because they just need to go through it. You know why nobody writes these articles and books about the first year out of college? Because we don't have any money as a demographic and because it's depressing and just difficult. And that's if you're lucky enough to have a fulfilling job! "This stuff is going to be hard, but good for you" doesn't convince anybody (these days), they just have to live it.

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