My niece has recently begun her matriculation at a large state university and this fact has brought back memories of my first year of university back in 1984. I also attended a large state school, numbering some 50,000 undergraduate students with 10,000 more graduate students.
I had attended an academically rigorous private high school and the coursework at the university was no more challenging than what I had already suffered through. However, like many 18-year-olds leaving home for the first time, I was emotionally and psychologically unprepared for many aspects of college life. The first year, and especially the first semester, were extremely difficult for me, as I struggled with loneliness, despair and depression.
Here are some tips for my niece and other college freshmen undertaking the university path:
1) Attend class. Really, it was amazing to watch the students in my classes gradually drop away as the semesters progressed. Class attendance seemed to decrease by 5% each week until only 50% of the students showed up on any given day. Teenagers and young adults given an amount of freedom that they were not used to often resulted in apathetic attitudes toward classes. Obtaining a baccalaureate degree is not that difficult, and going to class is the first and foremost requirement to achieving your goal. Hung over? Tired? Bored? Suck it up and go to class.
2) Find a good counselor. During my four years, I had someone who I could ask specific questions about classes and prerequisites and so forth, but nobody who got to know me well and could truly advise me regarding my strengths, weaknesses, abilities and desires. A good counselor will not be shy about telling you, “Perhaps you should consider another major,” even into your sophomore or junior year.
Don’t feel embarrassed about changing your major. Few people are clear about the goals and direction in life at that age. I could have, and probably should have, changed my major, but stick with it for the wrong reasons.
3) Attend summer classes at least once. The pace is accelerated and it is intense, but not unbearably so. You will get ahead of where you should be, or perhaps catch up if you have fallen behind in your goal to graduate in four years. Furthermore, the smaller class size and faster pace encourage a greater sense of camaraderie with your fellow students and you will make friends in those classes.
4) Study abroad. Go for a year if possible, or one semester if that is all you can manage. Start planning early or time will fly by and the opportunity will pass. All big schools have universities in other countries with which they have partner programs. Choose a country that sounds exotic and which you know little about . It will expand your horizons and enrich your university experience.
5) Have fun, but don’t get caught up with the ‘party crowd.’ Look around you at the wide range of students at big universities. Most of them don’t come from rich families. Some don’t have family members with a college degree. Many are making a big sacrifice to attend college and aren’t there to fool around and party. See the students with their heads bowed over a book at the library at 10:30pm on a Friday night? They understand why they’re there.
6) If you’re concerned about your GPA (and who isn’t?), use the pass/fail option when you need it. When I learned about this during my sophomore year, I exclaimed “hallelujah.” I knew I was going to struggle with some classes, such as French, and when those ‘C’ grades add up, it can drag down your GPA fast.
7) Big universities all have non-credit, informal classes which are offered in whatever available spaces the university has. Take advantage of them! They are usually very affordable, sometimes ridiculously cheap. I think the most I ever paid for an informal class was $40. I took Karate, yoga, dance, typing, and other great classes with that system and loved every minute.
8) Chat with your professor. You will have classes in which there are 200 or 300 students sitting in an auditorium and if you don’t make the effort, you will never meet the professor. Don’t let this happen. Visit him or her during office hours. Don’t let the professor be just some disembodied voice speaking from a stage.
9) Get an on-campus part time job. I worked for the catering department of the student union. If you are taking a full class load, you won’t have time to work more than 10 or 15 hours a week, but you will make friends and have some extra spending cash.
10) Make friends from other countries. A good way to do this is to live in an international co-op.
There are some classes which almost all freshman and sophomores are funneled into. However, if you can manage to avoid them, try to stay away from:
A) Psychology 101. You will be in class with hundreds of other bored kids, learning from a boring text and listening to a boring teacher. If you are particularly interested in this subject, check out Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams” and Jung’s “Man and His Symbols” from the library.
B) Sociology 101. See above.
C) World History 101. This is like learning history from the history channel, only more superficial.
D) American history and American literature. These are hard to get around, but you don’t need a professor for this material anyway. Read Howard Zinn’s “A people’s history of the United States.” For literature, the only names you need to know are Thoreau, Emerson, Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, and Robert Frost. Read ‘ Civil Disobedience’ and ‘Walden’ and ‘Leaves of Grass’ by Whitman.
Thoreau. He’s as relevant as ever.
Now, for the classes you absolutely should take:
A) Art History. The material is fascinating. If you’re lucky, you will have a professor who is passionate about the subject and can really bring it alive. I looked forward to this class like few others, and was hooked from the first day.
B) Photography. Few young people today associate the word ‘photography’ with the word ‘art.’ Fewer still have heard of Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams. This is unfortunate. With each new advancement in the technology of cameras and photography, and the proliferation of cameras to most of the world’s population, the quality of photography has gone down. Way, way down. First instamatic cameras, then digital cameras, and now camera phones have degraded photography immensely. With the ease of deleting photos and the cheap cost of taking hundreds and thousands of pictures, few people bother to take the time to frame a good photo. Learning to take good photos is fun and you can develop skills in a short time with a good teacher.
Ansel Adams, Yosemite:
C) Gymnastics. Yes, it’s not just for olympians. If you can learn just two tricks- the backflip and back handspring- as I did, you will be walking on air. Take the plunge and go for it.
D) History of the movies. My university called this class “The Development of the Motion Picture” to make it sound more academic. Whatever. Sit back and learn the tricks of the filmmakers and see who really influenced who and why today’s directors still worship at the shrine of David Lean and Akira Kurosawa.
E) Astronomy. If I had to choose my favorite course, this may well have been it. I was a tad nervous going in, not knowing if I would need to know a lot of math. I didn’t, and I quickly became swept up into the mysteries of the cosmos. The professor was predictably and irritably scornful of astrology, but that was ok. I took this course in the old days before the hubble telescope. It must be unimaginably better now.