Returning to my alma mater for homecoming last weekend reminded me of my intense but character-building experience in college.
As I walked along the familiar halls and grassy paths of campus, stopping in to see old professors and to watch the homecoming football game (which we won 55-0; go Mules!), I reminisced upon how much more within reach it had been to do it all: to play a sport, pledge a sorority, study abroad and travel generally, keep good grades, make lasting memories with friends, and still graduate in four years.
Like other similarly competitive schools, Muhlenberg’s culture encouraged staying busy and active in all aspects of life. Looking back, I see how that made me more prepared for the real-life balance that’s required to maintain a healthy lifestyle, develop strong relationships, and build a career after graduation. As for concrete benefits, I left with a solid group of friends, fond memories, and a solid knowledge and networking base to start out in the real world.
Here are some of the ways I made the most of an intense college experience.
1. Form real relationships with professors
It’s easy to take your professors for granted when you’re in college, but you’ll be glad you took the time to get to know them after you leave. In the real world, the level of access to mentors who are as close to the top of their field as the ones you have in college is just unheard of. Not only that, your professors long ago made the decision that they so loved their field that wanted to dedicate themselves to fostering learning. Since graduation, I’ve yet to find a group more ready to rally for me and help facilitate whatever ideas I might have. So while you’re a student, take advantage. Know that they mean it when they say that their doors are always open. Ask questions, stay in touch, email them for advice. Those relationships can open doors for you professionally and personally on your journey to paving your own career and maintaining your passions long after you’ve left the classroom. I still exchange emails with the professors I had in my first year, and am forever thankful that they continue to give me helpful advice on my career, feedback on my writing, and on life.
2. Pursue every opportunity that piques your interest
When I think back on what I miss most from college — aside from constantly being surrounded by friends and gorging myself at a daily buffet mere steps away from my room — it is being able to dive deep into anything I found interesting, no matter how obscure it was — everything from spending three hours dissecting a paragraph in Irish literature or contemplating the nuances of free verse. There are endless opportunities to do side projects, independent study, volunteer work — it’s all right there waiting for you to tap into, as long as you reach ask for it. And there is almost certainly a professor or administrator who is an expert in it who will happily take on the responsibility to encourage you.
3. But take classes you enjoy
Now let’s be clear. Even though you should try everything that you have even a passing interest in, you also shouldn’t force yourself into any class based on anyone else’s notions of the things you “have” to take. In my junior year, I decided to minor in business because I thought it would give me a better shot at landing a job after college. A few sessions into corporate finance, I realized that I couldn’t care less. When I looked at the monetary value of my classes, I realized that $2,000 was a lot of money to spend on a class I didn’t enjoy. I figured I might as well spend the money on stuff I really wanted to learn, so I switched to fine art. The truth is, while a degree is important, it’s what you do with it that counts. In the real world, no one cares about your major or your GPA. Don’t think that your classes will determine your career. Of course there will always be those pesky general academic requirements that you have to get done; otherwise just take classes you like and that will put you on the path to graduate with a degree in something you’ll enjoy learning about.
4. Saturday night is for socializing, not studying
When I first visited Muhlenberg, my tour guide said they didn’t want people spending Saturday night in the library so that was the only day of the week it closed early. Apocryphal as it might be, I thought it a clever way of illustrating a real-world life lesson: work is important, but balancing in time for friends and having fun is also important. Remember that there’s a time and place for everything. Going out drinking on a Monday morning is obviously a bad idea, but hiding out in the library on a Saturday night will almost always leave you feeling just as lousy. As important as college it for getting an education, it’s also important place to make connections with people and with yourself. Even if you fancy yourself a social butterfly going in, college offers plenty of opportunity for growth, and having fun and getting out of your shell is an integral part of that experience. Besides, your brain makes more connections when it has the chance to rest — even if those connections occur at the bar during happy hour.
5. Seek out new scenery
For the most part, when you’re in college, you are surrounded by people who are a lot like you. While this fosters a safe environment that helps you develop your sense of self, it’s important to push yourself out of that safe space from time to time. Whether it’s by studying abroad or doing volunteer work in the city that neighbors your campus, getting out of the bubble is good for gaining perspective. There’s a great big world out there; take the critical thinking skills and self-awareness you develop in the safe confines of your campus, and start testing them out in a new setting. It makes graduating into the diverse real world a little easier. What were the big lessons you learned about taking advantage of your college experience?