Five tips to get the most out of your college experience

Big Red Athletics Computer Science Get Involved Politics and Public Affairs
March 1, 2024

Caroline Cavalier ’26 grew up in Vermont; she loves beaches and mountains. Ohio wasn’t even on her radar when she began looking at colleges. But she wanted to swim competitively, and her dad encouraged her to look at Denison, a top-ranked Division III school. 

Soon she had a call scheduled with swim and dive coach Gregg Parini.

“It was the first conversation with a coach who asked me questions,” Cavalier says. “I knew this was my school.”

Now in her second year of college, Cavalier is immersed in more than Denison’s pool. She’s embracing every opportunity to enhance her college experience and her life after graduation.

Here’s how she did it.

College tip #1: Be open to something new

Like many first-year students, Cavalier took a couple of courses to fulfill general education requirements during her first semester. A big surprise awaited her in Intro to Computer Science.

“I immediately fell in love with computer science,” she says. “It was so random.”

Already majoring in politics and public affairs, Cavalier talked to her faculty advisor, professor Heather Pool, about adding another course of study.

Pool pointed out ways the two subjects complement one another. “It’s a classic liberal arts scenario,” Pool says. “We think of these as separate entities, but they’re not separate in the real world. Now Caroline is writing her own story of how the two fit together.”

College tip #2: Do hard things

Being a member of a nationally ranked swim and dive team can be grueling. Cavalier has discovered that putting in the work, day in and day out, cultivates more than technique, muscle, and stamina — it also builds determination and persistence.

Cavalier makes contributions to the team that goes beyond the scoreboard, says coach Parini: “She brings a world-class effort and level of integrity and energy to the pool every day.”

Meeting the physical and mental challenges to excel in competition has boosted Cavalier’s self-assurance.

“I know I can do hard things,” she says. “I have confidence in applying to internships and to achieve my career goals. People are more capable of things than they think they are.”

College tip #3: Ask for what you want

Although she hadn’t taken the prerequisite course, Cavalier applied for — and got — a place on a highly coveted venture to Washington, D.C.

The trip was part of Denison’s Grand Strategy program, organized by visiting fellow Scott Smitson, a former principal strategic advisor with the U.S. military. Smitson teaches students how solutions to complex situations can have impacts far beyond their original intentions and how to understand the whole picture to apply the correct strategies.

During those 10 days in Washington, Cavalier visited the U.S. State Department, Congress, the Pentagon, think tanks, and more. She met with career foreign service officers, military officers, and senior strategists.

From David Castegnetti, a public policy and business strategist based in Washington, Cavalier learned how the private sector can significantly impact policy here and abroad. Intrigued, she reached out to him about internship possibilities.

Castegnetti introduced her to an organization that coordinates private and government partnerships. Now she meets weekly with Tunisian engineering students to discuss far-ranging topics, including the importance of communication skills in their field. 

College tip #4: Say yes to unexpected opportunities

This fall, at Smitson’s invitation, Cavalier traveled to West Point to represent Denison at the 74th Student Conference on U.S. Affairs. The four-day conference brought together cadets and 200 students from 90 universities. Military and strategic experts led discussions about how innovation is impacting American foreign policy.

Cavalier lived in barracks and worked with a diverse group of 15 students. They learned how to craft a policy memo and write a recommendation.

On the conference’s final night, climate envoy and former presidential candidate John Kerry talked to the group about climate change threats to nations around the world and how U.S. foreign policy is making a difference.

“Having someone of that caliber taking time out of their schedule to meet with us was so inspiring,” Cavalier says.

Attending the conference meant missing a swim meet, but coach Parini encouraged Cavalier to dive into the opportunity. Parini noticed a difference when his swimmer returned.

“You could see a shift in her perspective about herself and the world,” he says. “She’s finding her voice, gaining strength, learning to take some risks, and thinking outside the box.”

College tip #5: Find your people

Like many college students, Cavalier didn’t know any of her classmates before coming to The Hill. Joining the swim and dive team gave her an immediate sense of belonging.

Although she continues to make great friends across lots of different circles, “the team is like my second family,” she says. “Everyone went above and beyond to make me feel at home.”

As an only child who is close to her parents, “Denison is the strongest place for me,” Cavalier says. “I knew I could come here and be reasonably close to home but also start a life for myself.

“It’s just what I was looking for.”

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