I wrote this a few years ago, thinking about all the high school graduates out there who are moving on to college. These are a few words of advice from my own experience in college.
Jedd and I graduated from our (separate) Universities in 2005. Looking back, six things stand out in terms of the decisions I would make again in a heartbeat. Everyone’s experience in college is unique, to be sure, but hopefully these thoughts will connect with a few people and help them find their own way in this pivotal time of life.
1) Studying Abroad
My junior year, I did a summer school program in Florence, Italy and then a Fall semester in Paris, France to complete my French major. Having the opportunity to live and learn in those cities cannot be beat, in my book.
Although my best friend started her own study abroad program as soon as I returned from Paris, and we essentially didn’t see each other for all of Junior year, we both agree it was totally worth it.
Being a college student affords you some rare benefits for living abroad. One, scholarships and student loans can sometimes be applied toward a study abroad program, just like any other semester. Even if not, tuition in other countries is often lower anyway, so you end up saving money on the academic side that you can apply to weekend travel costs while you’re abroad. You effectively come out even compared to the cost of a normal semester- a lot of people don’t realize this. Also, many countries require visas for a foreigner to stay long-term, and you will often have easier access to get in with a student visa than if you were to try to get in down the road as a long-term “tourist.”
The point is, I 100% recommend taking advantage of study abroad opportunities while you’re in college. Jedd did not and says it is his #1 regret (although at that point in his life, just going to college away from Hawaii was a culture shock in itself). You don’t have to be a language major, either. Plan your classes out so you’ll be able to take a bunch of electives or work towards a minor during your semester abroad.
2) Taking Electives
As an undergrad, my electives ranged from Group Fitness, rock climbing, choir, and black and white photography, to calculus (yes, it was voluntary), Philosophy of C.S. Lewis, and Italian. I didn’t have to take any of these classes. But they were all things I was interested in, and it didn’t cost any extra to tack on one or two more credits per semester.
In my opinion, the value of college these days lies less in gaining concrete skills for a job and more in self-discovery and becoming a well-rounded human. Most technical skills you learn on the job anyway – they don’t even teach half those things in class. As long as you come out with a degree in your pocket, critical thinking skills, and some practical background knowledge, that’s about as far as college is going to get you for job-seeking purposes. Might as well pursue some things you’re interested in, too, while you have the chance.
3) Minoring in something interesting
Similarly to the electives point, I think you might as well get the most out of your tuition dollars by adding some minors. In my case, the core curriculum for all students required us to take four Philosophy courses, which got us more than half-way to completing a Philosophy minor. I believe we were also required to take two social sciences, which counted toward my Psychology minor. For me, nearly all of the additional credits I had to take were about topics that fascinated me anyway and could apply broadly to just about any field of work.
Note that I’m not recommending over-loading your schedule. I think it’s really important to keep a manageable workload and leave enough time in your week for socializing and spontaneity. Otherwise, you’ll burn out and lose energy to keep up with your studies. However, if you do have wiggle room in your schedule and it doesn’t take that much more effort to minor, then go for it.
4) Getting involved and work experience
College is about so much more than academics. And I’m not talking about parties. I landed some really cool on-campus jobs planning large scale student events or writing e-mails in French for my professor. I helped out with freshman orientation, led students retreats, sang for the non-denomination worship band, volunteered on the Relay for Life planning team, coached Special Olympics, read stories to second graders, etc.
I had so many different, amazing experiences on campus outside of the classroom. (But I wouldn’t have had access to them had I not been a student.) These types of structured activities allow you to test out your passions and interests, gain more skills (and confidence), and create awesome memories. Again, I’m not endorsing that you max out your free time with back-to-back activities but don’t waste your time sitting in your room staring at a screen all day, either.
5) Being myself
In my experience, peer pressure and cliques were a lot more prevalent in high school than in college. Although college students still gravitate toward other people who are like them, the boundaries between groups are more blurred and easier to cross. For example, it was no big deal for a jock to talk to a nerdy Star Wars fanatic and maybe study for a class they have together.
This is good news coming out of high school because you can let your guard down a little and be yourself. In fact, college is really a fresh start for you to be who you want to be. You get to choose the friends who are going to influence you over the next four years. You get to start new habits and project the person you want to be among your new community. Be intentional about it and be true to yourself.
6) Mission Trip
The final “best decision” I made in college was to go on a mission trip with my church senior year. I knew I loved to travel but I wasn’t so sure if going to developing countries was my thing. There was a Spring Break trip to the Dominican Republic coming up, and I decided to give it a try.
That experience changed my life. I ended up interning with the organization in the D.R. for the following two summers (a total of six months), learned Spanish in the process, and discovered a sweet spot where my passions and skills could meet real needs in the world. Not only that, but it changed my whole view of the world and my place in it. I never saw things the same after that, and it put me on a trajectory toward other passions like global citizenship, advocacy, and international development.
A special note: College isn’t for everyone, and that’s ok. I loved my college experience, although not necessarily for the conventional reasons of landing a career. If you’re not sure if paying big bucks for college is the right step for you, check out this new alternative school in Portland called Wayfinding Academy. It’s designed to help you find your own path and prepare for real life without the massive debt and cookie-cutter curriculum.