How to Thrive in College

So you are an incoming college Freshman and you are a little overwhelmed by the change from high school. You were on top of the food chain as it were; now it seems you've been thrown to the wolves. I get the feeling.  I see it on the faces of my students, often during that first week of classes. 

Acclimating to college involves more than a little adjustment for the average eighteen year old. So let me encourage you that this transition will pass soon. More importantly allow me to offer here are a few thoughts that might help you make the most of this great opportunity you've been given.

First, don't be afraid to ask questions. College is the place where you can explore the world, or as Star Trek put it, "to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before." Seriously, don't just sit passively in your courses, lectures or other college events. Ask questions, dialogue and debate. Your professors welcome it. Your classmates (mostly) appreciate it. But regardless, what we believe and what is true about the world in which we live is found in the context of dialogue; and it involves a life time of exploring and seeking to understand. Take a hint from Socrates, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Ask questions. You will find that the answers lead you to more questions and a deeper understanding of the world around you.  

Second, "Just do it."  In college you will be exposed to new things, new ideas and new experiences. Don't be afraid to try new things and take some risks. Of course, your mother would want me to say, and I agree with her: "make sure that what you do is legal and moral." Good advice. I'm not recommending that you try floating over Niagara Falls in a barrel just to see how it feels. But friends, colleagues and professors will suggest things that you should experience. Even if they are outside your comfort zone, "Just do it." 

When I was in college, I took a trip to Kenya, Africa for the summer.  I never expected I would do this in college and I had no idea what I was in for during those months. It put in way out of my comfort zone and exposed me to cultures and places, and experiences (a scorpion sting for example) I had only seen in magazines and books. Sometimes these new experiences are small: go to a drive in; join a club; experience some different food, sign in a choir, ride a horse or hike up a mountain. Whatever it is, just get out there and do it. 

Third, cultivate friendships. College is a place where you can cultivate friendships that will last a life time.  Such friendships take some effort and trial and error, but the effort is worth it. Roommates, classmates, professors and staff--college is a community of learners.  Put yourself out there and connect with people. Get to know your professors, especially. With a little patience and perseverance, you'll will find most professors open to that investment in their students. After all, that's what we do.

Fourth, read and study (a lot).  In spite of what you're likely thinking, your mother didn't put me up to this point. College is a lot of fun; but I wouldn't want you to neglect the reason you are there—to learn and grow as a human being. And one of the most important vehicles for that growth is books, lots of book. Read your textbooks, study for your exams; but don't let that limit you.  Keep a running book list on your favorite notes app (recommendations that you hear from fellow students and faculty). And just work through that list: literature, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, history, whatever interests you. Just read! Your grades will benefit from this effort.  But more importantly, so will your soul.

Fifth, be thankful for this opportunity. We all know that college is very expensive.  It is paid for by families (yours), your own hard-earned cash, by the taxpayers investing in an educated public and even by the college, which these days subsidizes a lot more of your education than you might realize.  

Remember, not everyone has the privilege of attending college. Perhaps you're the first person in your family to receive a higher education. As you move around the campus, as you visit with people and with your family on vacations and off weekends, remember to thank them in both words and deeds for their help. Thank your professors; thank the staff; thank your Resident Assistants and Directors. All of these people truly have your best interest in mind and are working hard to make your experience the best it can be.  Cultivate an attitude of appreciation for the amazing gift of higher education.   

Sixth, cultivate body and soul.  These days, people know they should be exercising regularly.  It's everywhere. In the transition to college, you may be put out of kilter for your regular exercise program. Or maybe you have not invested at all in a routine like this.  Don't neglect your body. Eat a healthy diet, get the sleep you need and exercise regularly. Schools have lots of training equipment, pools, tracks, tennis course--you name it. Grab a friend and build this into your daily or weekly routine. 

And while you are at it, don't forget the importance of cultivating your soul. Get involved in a local church, attend chapel or services that your college offers. Pray with and for one another on campus. Remember that a healthy person includes the soul as well as the body.   

Seventh, don't stress about the job.  I tell all my incoming advisees to stress less about their job or career path. It's tough because this is likely all you've heard since high school: what do you want to do and what is your major? I remember listening to my son's second grade teacher tell me that they spent a day talking about careers and that she was convinced he was "going to be an engineer." Really? He's like six years old. Back off and lets focus on reading and writing, and keeping him from picking his nose.  

There is this crazy assumption out there right now that we have to figure out this career thing before our first day of class. That is utter nonsense. Talk to anyone over the age of 40 and you will find that most people have more than one job. And many have more than one career. At eighteen or nineteen years old, the reality is that you probably have no or very little idea what you want to do for the rest of your life. Don't stress about it.  

Eighth, serve others. Last, but certainly not least, you will be better off in life the sooner you realize that serving others will give you the greatest feeling and sense of worth and accomplishment in life. Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts said "The most worth-while thing is to try to put happiness into the lives of others."  It is easy to make money and to manage others, and lot of unfulfilled people do this every day. True leadership is about serving others.  

Colleges these days are filled with service opportunities--more than you can possibly imagine. Find something that interests you and help--inner city work, volunteering at a local library or hospital, serving a non-profit that is close to your heart, helping a child learn to read. There are so many ways that you can give back. Don't neglect this. And who knows, in doing so, you may come closer to finding that career.

These four years will be some of the best years in your life.  Make the most of it.