A Letter to the Class of 2021: Ten Pieces of Advice
President, Denison University
Over the last 20 years, I have watched thousands of students take advantage of college — and some who did not. In my experience, your time at college will be defined by a relatively few crucial actions. Let’s call them ten simple things that will make your experience more fun, meaningful and important:
1. Dive into your classes. Of course, you should do the work and go to all the classes. But I urge you to go further. Be fully engaged by participating in classroom conversations, group projects and every other part of your classes. Take it seriously. Treat it like a job, one that you are fortunate to have!
2. Get to know your faculty. Take the time to get to know the faculty who teach your courses and search for a faculty member who can be a mentor for you. Stop by during their office hours and introduce yourself. Having one close relationship with a faculty member dramatically increases the odds that college will be transformative for you. But do not stop at just one. Get to know as many of your faculty as possible. They want to get to know you, too.
3. Take a wide range of classes. Students make the mistake of trying to narrow in on a particular major early. Partially, they do this under the mistaken belief that it helps with jobs (that is the topic for another article). The wider the range of courses you take, the broader the skills and world views you will develop and the better prepared you will be for life.
If you only do these three things, college will be life-changing. But here are seven more!
4. Make friends: Pick good friends who are at college for the right reasons and who bring out the best in you. Who you hang out with matters. Our college careers are shaped, more than anything else, by the people we chose to hang out with.
5. Be adventurous! Most students have something that they love to do that recharges them, such as athletics, the arts, community service, international travel or entrepreneurship. Find a way to pursue that passion in college. It will help you make friends, and by pursuing it seriously, you will deepen your skills. But also experiment with something totally outside your comfort zone, or do something you secretly always wanted to do in high school, but were too afraid or embarrassed to try. College is a chance to figure out who you are and who you want to be.
6. Engage a wide range of people: Colleges are filled with interesting people who bring a wide range of experiences, world views, and lifestyles to campus. Seek out people who are different from you and find ways to learn from them. Hear their life stories and share your own. This is not something that comes naturally to many people and social media has made it even easier to avoid. The risk you take is likely to be well-rewarded by a great conversation, a new way of thinking, and maybe a wider circle of friends.
7. Ask for help: The biggest mistake students make their first year is waiting too long to ask for help. Faculty, academic advisors, residential advisors and others are here to help. They have seen and heard it all before. If you need help, ask for it.
8. Find balance: I often find that students are either not involved, which is a lost opportunity, or they make the opposite mistake and they get overly involved. You can’t do everything. Leave time for sleeping, exercise, friends and other things that also matter. Our culture seems to prize being overly busy. This is not a good habit for college or life.
And here is my last piece of advice. Perhaps it is a bit preachy, but when you work on a college campus you come to care a lot about college students.
9. Save a little bit of time for reflection. At least once a semester, take a few minutes to think about all the experiences you are having in college and what they are adding up to. What are you learning about yourself and the kind of person you want to be and life you want to lead? You can do this with some friends, an academic advisor, a mentor, a parent, or even by yourself.
10. Make good social choices those first few weeks: Take a minute, get your bearings, and size things up so that you can make decisions that are right for you. And step up when you see other people getting ready to make bad decisions for themselves or others. Ease into college and be good friends to each other.
These are my pieces of advice as a college president, an academic and a parent of two college-age children. Your first year will be full of magical moments, where you feel happy and adjusted. Savor them. And there will be times when you feel lost, lonely, and convinced you are in the wrong place. You may believe that you are the only student who feels that way. This is not true; those moments are normal. And they can be catalysts that push you to go see a faculty member to talk about a class, join a student organization to explore something you have never done, or find a way to connect with someone from your residential hall or a class who has had different life experiences.
Use these four years wisely and your college experience will be the platform from which you leap into a successful and fulfilling life. You own your education, and you owe it to yourself to make the best of it.