Opinion: Advice for college freshmen

 Opinion: Advice for college freshmen

I took my youngest son and two of his first cousins to breakfast at Primos a couple of Saturdays ago. All three are about to embark on their collegiate careers, and I wanted to impart a few words of wisdom before they left. They were receptive, so I thought I might share my advice here in the event just one other entering freshman finds it helpful.

The Big Lie:

Beware the Big Lie. The Big Lie consists of three components, none of which are true: 1) College is all about the experience; 2) Doing everything to excess enhances the experience; 3) If you embrace 1 and 2, College will be the best four years of your life.

1. College is all about the experience. Universities love to promote this one, as it lets them drive prices (tuition, room, and board) north. Fall football weekends, tailgating, fraternity parties, sorority swaps, spring formals, developing new friendships… where else but college can you experience all this? There is nothing wrong with any of these things, but the underlying premise has two problems.

First, college is primarily about developing skills that will enable you to contribute to society, be that as a doctor, lawyer, accountant, engineer, entrepreneur, teacher, tradesman, nurse, journalist, whatever the profession may be. Stated in economic terms, college is about developing skills so you can create value for your employer or customer. Having a rich experience while developing those skills – while earning your college degree – is good but secondary. And if the experience gets in the way of developing those skills, then you may be in the wrong place.

The second problem with this premise is that enjoying the experience doesn’t require you to actually be enrolled in college. You can live in a college town (or visit one on the weekends) and experience almost all of this without having to fork out money for tuition. My own kids tailgated and attended college football, baseball, and basketball games with their granddad years before they ever enrolled. They now go back and do the same years after they have graduated. Anyone can do so, whether they ever set foot in a college classroom.

2. Doing everything to excess enhances the experience. Bartenders (and more nefarious types) love to promote this one. If it’s all about the experience, then the more extreme the better. If staying out until 1:00 a.m. is good, staying out until 4:00 is better. If partying is good, then PARTYING! is better. (Ah for the days when party used to be a noun.) If a weekend road trip is good, then a four-day road trip (it’s just a couple of classes on Friday and Monday, don’t worry about it) is better. C’mon man, everybody’s going/participating/doing it/fill in the blank.

The problem with this goes back to #1. College is about preparing for the rest of your life. Doing everything to excess makes that preparation more difficult. Why would you want to do anything in your four years in college that reduces the possibility the next forty years will be fulfilling? You should want to do the opposite. Invest wisely in how you spend your time and choose your friends in college, and reap the benefits for the rest of your life. 

And, since we’re talking about the halls of higher learning, remember Aristotle’s Golden Mean – everything in moderation.

3. College is the Best Four Years of your life. Of the three components of The Big Lie, this is the most widely repeated. While it may be true that in college you have less responsibility than at any other time in your life, that does not mean your college years are your best ones. What makes this part of The Big Lie so insidious is its tendency to lead to depression and worse. If college is not going so great for me, and these are the best four years of my life, what do I have to look forward to?

Remember, college is a time of preparation for what will follow. It is a means to an end. By definition, therefore, it can’t be the best time. For those of you who played football, which were better, two-a-day practices in the summer – which were preparing you for the season to come – or the games in the fall? The games, of course. Similarly, college should be preparing you for the season to come. That season just happens to be the rest of your life.

I enjoyed my college experience. While studying hard to develop the skills I would use later, I made lifelong friends and have good memories of my four years. But my years after college have been more rewarding. I have relished being a husband and a father, getting to know my children’s friends and their families, being involved in the community, and working in a profession that is stimulating. I have also made many, many good friends since graduating from college. And, while I have yet to experience it, my friends who are grandparents tell me that is even better still.

So, make the most of your college experience, but remember why you are there – to develop the skills that will help you succeed when you graduate. And don’t despair when you face difficulties in college. Learning to overcome those difficulties in college will help you overcome the difficulties that inevitably pop up in life.

Kelley Williams is a Northsider.

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