In just a few weeks, thousands of students will go off to a residential liberal arts college, including two of my own children. So what does success look like at college? Why are the first six weeks so critical? And how do the components of a liberal arts education — academics, co-curricular learning and community — come into play?
Here are six pieces of advice I would offer for getting the most out of your next four years, while setting yourself up to thrive for the rest of your life.
1. Dive into a full range of courses. This is why you are here. An adventurous mixture of courses will teach you more than you can imagine. So lean in. Learn to communicate effectively, especially to write well. Work with numbers and data. Weave disparate ideas into new ways of thinking. Frame questions. Argue. Create. Do research. The true advantage of a liberal arts education is that it will prepare you — and I mean you, as a unique individual — to identify the kind of life you want to lead. It also will help you develop the skills, values, and habits to take on that life and be successful. All of this is built upon a foundation of learning across different disciplines, including some areas of study that will be totally new to you.
Taking a wide range of classes is more important now than ever. It prepares you for just about anything. Professions change. The economy goes up and down. Being a great learner who is unafraid of unfamiliar territory makes you adaptable, creative and entrepreneurial. It helps you do well in life — as a colleague, a parent, a leader, a citizen and a friend. Worry less about matching your major with a profession. Worry more about becoming knowledgeable, discerning, skilled and dependable. That is the job candidate who gets hired.
2. Get to know your professors. Truth is, the most important factor in college is mentorship, and student-faculty interactions are the magic of the liberal arts. So step up, and step into your classes. Build relationships with your professors. Take full advantage of their passion for working with students. The professors who have chosen to teach at a liberal arts college have done so for a reason: you. Liberal arts professors are engaged on the front lines of learning, and they love to see the spark that happens when students get excited about an idea. Seek out faculty who can be your mentors. Say hello before class. Go to their office hours. Invite them out for coffee. And engage them when you are struggling. They are terrific guides through your college experience. I can’t say this enough: don’t be afraid or shy about going to see your professors. They want to help.
3. Bring a passion and develop a new one. Many students select a liberal arts college because they have a particular passion they want to pursue. Maybe it is athletics, or arts or community service. You already know you love it, and liberal arts colleges provide amazing opportunities to keep at it. But it is important to try new things, too. Get outside your comfort zone and experience the ways that testing new waters can make you feel a little vulnerable. Join a club or try an activity that is totally new for you — something you never would have done in high school. Allow yourself to risk failure, and learn persistence by putting yourself in a position to have to keep trying.
4: Do not underestimate the value of your residence hall. It’s just a dorm, right? Wrong. Your residential hall — along with everything else you do outside of class — provides crucial opportunities for learning how to work with others, be a good citizen, resolve conflict, manage your time and balance your life like an adult. So make yourself a part of the campus community by contributing to it, and, in turn, allow yourself to be shaped by it. Focus on getting the relationships right. You will make a close group of friends. But it is a mistake to narrow yourself to only a small group. Make it a point to get to know others across the broad spectrum of people at your college. Embrace the diversity of your campus. For many of you, this may be the first time that you experience the richness of a community with people who have had life experiences that are vastly different from yours. You will be very glad you did.
5: Don’t worry about the stumbles, but use them as part of the transitional process. College is a challenge. Stumbles are a normal part of the process on the way to having a great college experience that prepares you for life. The key is not to avoid those experiences, but to recognize them as learning moments. This means connecting with others and asking for help. Liberal arts colleges are focused on mentorship and support. Talk to your advisor. Go see the dean of students or the first year dean when you have problems. Take advantage of writing centers and academic support. Talk to your residence hall staff and student mentors. However you stumble, reach out to those who are there to support students. They can help you transform a momentary crisis into an educational moment. Managing failure is one of the best ways to cultivate resilience and grit, which are keys to having a successful life.
6: At the same time, be careful, especially during the first few months. Remember that wellness matters and stumbles are very different than tragedies. Many of the “hard to recover from” incidents happen during the initial weeks of college. Ease into college. Get enough sleep. Take an extra moment to make smart decisions for yourself and others, especially when alcohol is involved. I know this makes me sound like a parent. I am a parent, and I am also an educator who has seen too many bad things happen to great people during the first few weeks of college. Keep an eye on your friends and hall-mates. Talk to each other. Reach out for help if you see risky behavior in others, or if you find yourself feeling at risk. And make good decisions on Friday and Saturday nights about social life. Here is a terrible fact: sexual assault occurs with troubling frequency on college campuses, and statistics show that the first six weeks are a time of particular risk. This is a time when it is especially important to be cautious and to look out for one another.
College is anchored by relationships, values and experiences. It is a process of learning to think for yourself. Students who get the most from it develop close ties with friends, faculty and staff members, who help them have a huge range of experiences (expected and unexpected) across their four-year college career.
In doing these things, you will develop into a true product of the liberal arts: an autonomous individual who can think anew, because you know what you value, why you value it and what you want your life to be.