As students prepare to go off to college, either as first-year students or returners, I'd like to share again something I wrote for my students last year. As most instances of advice, take what is helpful to you and ignore the rest.
I wrote this as a letter to the students of the class of 2012, the last class of seniors I taught at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy. The content of the letter has remained basically the same, although I may have tweaked a point here or there.
I hope you're all enjoying what, as I look at the calendar, seem to be the waning days of summer vacation. Most of you will be leaving for school within two weeks. Make the most of your time with your family these weeks and do your best to prepare for the adventures of college.
It is hard to let the teacher part of me go, so please indulge me once more as I offer a few words of advice. Do as you will with.
1. Books: you need them. DO NOT BUY AT THE BOOKSTORE. You will only succeed in being financially plundered. Instead, do this:
a. Get a copy of your class schedule.
b. Get a pen and a piece of paper.
c. Go to website for your college's bookstore.
d. Most schools allow you to pre-order your books.
e. Pretend you are going to pre-order. Write down the Names of the books and their ISBN numbers.
f. Now, check Barnes and Noble, Amazon, etc. to see if you can't find your books for a better price. In my experience, you'll save a bundle.
g. Do this now. You will beat the rush and you can bring your books with you (especially texts like Biology, Chemistry, and Physics where there's little question that you'll use the book immediately).
2. Books: In my experience, it is dumb to save most books. I saved my theology and philosophy, some history, and a few novels. Generally, though, you don't need to hang on to the texts. If you can rent: great! E-Books are something to consider as well. The benefit is that you have an easily searchable text. The downside? Well, I'm old and like books.
3. Technology in the Classroom: You have, undoubtedly, purchased a new computer and convinced your parents that you simply must have an iPad in order to make you a competitive student. You are excited because you think your laptop will enable you to stream YouTube videos and music...errr, I mean, study...anywhere you go. Some thoughts:
a. Unless your professor directs you otherwise, leave your laptop at home. You've done very well taking notes by hand. Continue this. Why?
a1. Because laptops are tempting. You can hide behind them or, when the professor proves less-than-interesting, you will spend time on Facebook or other sites that will distract you. Even boring professors have something to contribute. As Saint Matthew writes, "The spirit is willing, the flesh is weak." Don't put yourself in the position to be tempted to iChat and hours of candy crush.
a2. This goes for your iPad or Tablet. I'm taking a German course this summer and I'll admit it: when our instructor belabors some point I mastered, I turn to Angry Birds. The stakes here in this course are far lower (I'm not really being graded) than they are in college. Discipline yourself to stay focused!
b. I beg you, please, leave your cell phones in your dorm room. There is nothing more rude to a professor than to have a student texting during class. It, too, proves to be a great temptation. Give yourself the edge over the other students: don't PUT obstacles in your way. Unless you're expecting the death of a loved one, I strongly encourage you to leave your phone at home. Go to class unencumbered with baggage.
c. For the first few weeks of class, don't bring your iPod with you either. Wait until you walk across campus and see the enormous number of socially isolated students who bury themselves behind phone screens and iPods. It's sort of sad - you are going to university to expand your horizons...why put barriers between you and others?
4. Class: This is where we separate the wheat from the chaff. I would encourage you to attend every class. Sit toward the front (not the exact front - I always regarded front-sitters with suspicion). Rows 2-3 are usually good. A few other things:
a. Read and do your homework. Your instructor will be thrilled if you look like you're prepared.
b. Ask smart questions. Avoid being the guy who tries to outsmart the instructor by asking questions such as, “Can God make a burrito so hot he can't eat it?" Handy litmus test: If it made you laugh on Twitter or if you saw it on a Facebook, it probably does not belong in a college classroom. Save it for use as a lame pick-up line when you're trying to impress a girl while holding an empty red solo cup because you can't figure out how to use the keg.
c. They pay actual professionals to work in the writing lab. Most of them are graduate students who eek out a marginal living by reading your papers. Take advantage of them.
d. DO NOT CHEAT. It is better to take an honorable '0' than to plagiarize. The stakes are so high in college and I have personally caught a number of students - and heard of countless others - who have dropped out after being flunked for cheating. Instead, give yourself a few days (if not weeks) to write your papers and to prepare for exams. Work on your studies little-by-little and you'll find that you make great progress.
e. I'm of the mind that college is not pre-professional training. You'll seldom use anything you learn over the next four years. Thus, don't EVER say, "When am I going to use....". Instead, use each course as an opportunity to develop new sides of yourself, to learn more, to deepen your thoughts, and to become more interesting. Read poetry. Study philosophy. Take a course in music or dancing. Be adventurous, at least once per year, in your courses.
f. Dress professionally. I'm not suggesting a tie every day, but please don't roll into class (late) wearing your pajamas or something that looks like pajamas. Dress in a way that shows that you are serious about your pursuits and that you take your role as a student seriously. "How you do anything," an instructor once said, "is how you do everything." Dress and act professionally.
g. Be polite. Be on time to class. Further, do not expect your professor to respond to you immediately...odds are, he or she is not one of Pavlov's dogs who responds to the immediate stimulus of an email. If you need an extension on a paper or are having trouble, I would suggest going to see the professor in person, during office hours.
5. (Anti) Social Media: You're going to come staggering home at some point and want to Tweet or post something you think is funny. Don't. Don't post pictures of you with a Red Solo Cup (great song, bad photo). Don't Tweet your ignorance. If you're going to have the Twitter, lock your profile.
Contemporary social media blurs the lines of public and private. Do not risk your well being by doing something ridiculous AND THEN posting it. On the internet, you cast a permanent "digital shadow" that can follow you forever. When you're applying for an internship and the recruiter Googles your name, what do you want to appear? A kegstand while balancing a bowl of chips on your feet, or wearing a thong and a sombrero, might be fun at the time. It will not be so much fun when you're asked about it during an interview.
Before your post anything:
- Do you want this to haunt you?
- Will you be proud of this tomorrow?
- If it is about someone, are you using that person's name? How would you feel if someone said this about you?
- What would others think about you if they saw just this? What if a recruiter/future employer saw this? If you're going into public service, is this going to hinder you in the future?
a. DO NOT SHUT YOUR BEDROOM DOOR DURING THE DAY. Especially during the first few weeks, lots of students will be trying to find friends. How can you make friends if you are locked behind a door with your laptop? Keep your door open. Mingle with other students. Invite people to go to the cafeteria with you. Accept invitations to go to the cafeteria.
b. Wash your clothes and bathe daily. I am currently living with some foreign Jesuits who, apparently, never got this message. Horrific. Febreezing your underwear is not a substitute for washing.
c. Brush your teeth. Use deodorant (Men's deodorant, not Axe). I used to tell my freshmen, "Men, this is Axe. Never too much, too often."
d. Be nice to your roommate. If you have a conflict, sort it out immediately so it doesn't fester.
7. Social issues:
a. It is natural to have "Buyer's Remorse" and to contemplate transferring at the end of the semester. Don't. Stick it out (unless you're wholly miserable). Before you do decide to transfer, seek out all other options. I say this as one who transferred and who still regrets it.
b. Be the nice guy. You're going to see a lot of guys who try to take advantage of young women and will do anything they can to hook-up. Feel pity for them and try to be the stand-up guy, the one other students respect. College is a time both for strengthening your mind AND for building your character. Be true "Men for Others."
c. Go to Church. Most campuses have active campus ministry programs (or Newman Centers for Catholics). Get in with the Church crowd - most of them are nice kids. College Masses tend to be aimed toward your issues, and it's a good discipline to have. If offered, go to the "last chance Mass" on Sunday nights or the 9:00/10:00 Mass: these tend to be pretty fun. Go out for coffee after. Going to Mass gives you a chance to re-connect with your interior life and, when you go home at Thanksgiving, you'll be the darling of the family when you can talk about your take on liturgy on a college campus.
Finally, do stay in touch. This can be an overwhelming experience. Know that you are not alone and that help will always be given to those who ask for it (echoes of Dumbledore...I'm reading Harry Potter in German). I'm very proud of you guys and I'm excited for your futures. Be men of integrity, of intellectual curiosity, of faith, and let these next few years help to shape you ever more into "Men for Others" who live for God's Greater Glory.
You - and your families - will be in my prayers these next few weeks.
With Great Affection,