The Jesuit Guide to Starting College

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Next week marks the start my third round of graduate-level education – territory usually only covered by M.D.’s (and Chris Farley in Tommy Boy). While this by no means makes me an expert in educational theory, when combined with some time as a teacher it does furnish me with a few insights into how to start college life well. At the request of a few of my former students at University of Detroit Jesuit High School, I present my top 8 lessons for starting college.

1. Books: You need them. Don’t buy them at the bookstore. Bookstores are for parents who want to buy souvenirs. If you want to experience full-financial exploitation, go right ahead and buy the books off of the shelf. If you are clever, you’ll follow these steps and save a boatload of money:

  • Get a copy of your schedule.
  • Get a pen and a piece of paper.
  • Go to the website for your college’s bookstore.
  • Go through the motions of pre-ordering your books. Instead of ordering, however, simply copy down the ISBN numbers for each textbook.
  • Check Barnes & Noble, Amazon, etc., for your books. Odds are that you’ll find your books there for a price far lower than at the bookstore.
  • Do this in a timely manner. You definitely don’t want to be waiting for weeks for books to arrive. If you know a book is going to be used in a class (Physics, Calculus, Biology, Chemistry, Economics texts) it is wise to pre-order it.

2. More on Books: Anyone who takes academic pursuits seriously must confront the dilemma of keeping books. In my experience, it is foolish to save most textbooks… books take up space, textbooks go out of date quickly, and it is rare that you’ll consult an old text. My rule of thumb: I save primary texts and novels and sell back textbooks. I think for this reason it can also be helpful to rent your textbooks if given the option.

3. Technology in the Classroom (and out): You have, undoubtedly, purchased a new computer. No doubt the first thought that crossed your mind as you took it out of the box were those intoxicating and romantic images of going to class and furiously typing down every nugget of wisdom that will pour from your teachers’ mouths.

Fat chance. Porn, Facebook, and music downloads seem to be the big uses of computers on campus. Don’t let this be you.

So… here are my thoughts about whipping out your laptop in the middle of class: unless your professor directs you otherwise, leave your laptop at home.  What? Yes. Really? Yes. Why should we listen to a luddite Jesuit? Here’s my thinking:

  • Laptops are tempting. You can hide behind them. When your professor proves less than interesting (as even the best will), you will find other ways to entertain yourself. Facebook, G-chatting, ordering new shoes, playing Bejeweled Blitz: your new laptop is a Pandora’s Box of distraction, and that box needs only the smallest of nudges to open up.  (Because of the video game corollary, this also goes for iPads and tablets, too. I know from my own experience of taking summer courses that Angry Birds is a real temptation in a boring class.)
  • Leave your cell phones in your dorm room. There is nothing more rude to a professor than having a student text during class. (Well, having a student updating Facebook statuses, chatting with friends, or playing Angry Birds is actually pretty close). Think about it: when you send a text, you expect an answer. Your attention is now divided between tasks. Each text further divides you until you are little more than a Freshman Voldemort with your attention split into seven pieces. Give yourself an edge over other students by not putting obstacles in your path. Unless you are expecting the death of a loved one, there’s no real need to carry your phone with you. Go to class unencumbered.
  • Earbuds by pigstubs at Flickr

    Don’t Give In…

    Don’t hide behind those white earbuds. For the first few weeks on campus, don’t use earbuds unless you’re on the treadmill. It doesn’t matter if you look cool. Take one look around your campus and count the number of socially isolated students who bury themselves behind screens and iPods. It’s sort of sad – you are going to university to expand your horizons… yet we are tempted to put barriers up right from the start. Each time you meet a new person, read a new book, or take an interesting class you are adding a new playlist to your life’s iPod.

4. Class: This is where we separate the wheat from the chaff. I strongly encourage you: attend every class. Even more: 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:

  • Read and do your homework. Your instructor will be thrilled if you look like you’re prepared.  Even more so if you actually are.
  • 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 rule of thumb: If it made you laugh on Twitter or if you saw it on a Facebook, it probably does not belong in the classroom.
  • Go to the writing lab. 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. But they can write. Even if you already are a good writer, it will still help to take advantage of them.
  • DO NOT CHEAT. It is better to take an honorable ‘0’ than to plagiarize. The stakes are so high in college that cheating is not worth the risk.  As a teacher, 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. I know it’s a cliche, but if you work on your studies little-by-little you will find that you make great progress.
  • College is not vocational training. What I means is this, it’s likely that you’ll have few chances to use the things you learn over the next four years. Because this is the case it doesn’t make sense to start by asking the question, “When am I going to use this?” 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.
  • Dress professionally. I’m not suggesting that you wear a tie or high heels or something, but neither ought you roll into class wearing your pajamas or something that looks like pajamas. I suggest dressing in a way that shows that you are serious about your pursuits and about yourself, and about your role as a student. “How you do anything,” an instructor of mine once said, “is how you do everything.” Dress professionally and act professionally.
  • Be polite to your professors. Whether talking to them or writing, be respectful. Also, if and when you write them 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 you’re having trouble, I would suggest going to see the professor in person, during office hours. Nine times out of ten, they will be happy to see you.

5. (Anti) Social Media: It’s college.  Most likely there will be a time when you’re going to come staggering home and want to Tweet or post something you think is funny. Do Not Do It. Don’t post pictures of you with a Red Solo Cup (great song, bad photo). Don’t Tweet your ignorance.

Why? Is this more luddite nonsense? Honestly, no.

Contemporary social media blurs the lines of public and private. I know you all have grown up in this, but honestly, do not risk your well being by doing something ridiculous AND THEN making it visible to the world. On the internet, you cast a permanent “digital shadow” that follows you forever. When you’re applying for an internship and the recruiter Googles your name, what do you want to appear? Pictures of you doing a kegstand while balancing a bowl of chips on your feet, or wearing a smoking jacket 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.

Last point about this. Before you post anything, ask:

  • Are you okay with this following you the rest of your life?
  • In other words, will you be proud of this tomorrow?
  • If it is about somebody else, 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?
Old Spice by thelampnyc at Flickr

Old Old Spice

6. Life in the Dorm: a few tips.

  • 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 face in your laptop? Keep your door open. Mingle with other students. Ask people to go to the cafeteria with you. Say yes when others ask you the same.
  • Hygiene #1 – wash your clothes (and shower) every day. I had a roommate who believed it acceptable to wear boxers for two days, turn them inside-out for another two days, and then extend their wear by a day with a liberal application of Febreeze. Don’t be that  guy.
  • Hygiene #2 – brush your teeth when you wake up and before you go to sleep.
  • Hygiene #3 – use deodorant. (And, if you’re a guy, use men’s deodorant, not Axe).
  • Talk to your roommate, especially when it’s awkward. The reality is that you’re bound to have conflicts with anyone when you’re living in a 10′ x 10′ box with them. Should you be nice about it?  Yes.  But saying something about what’s annoying you sooner rather than later so that it doesn’t fester has saved more friendships than it has ended.

7. Social issues:

  • It is natural to have “Buyer’s Remorse”.  It is totally normal 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.
  • (For guys) 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, especially early in the semester. Don’t imitate them. 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.”
  • And, yes, 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 good people. College Masses tend to be aimed toward your issues, and it’s a good discipline to have. If you can, go to the “last chance Mass” on Sunday nights, or the 9:00/10:00 Mass as these tend to be pretty fun. Go out for coffee afterwards. 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.

8.  Finally, Enjoy This Adventure: Echoing Dumbledore, one of the key lessons of these years is that help will always be given to those who ask for it. Do not be afraid to ask for what you want. Take good risks; stretch yourself; be intellectually curious; explore new ideas.

Use these years as an opportunity to become a person who lives for others, a person of deep faith, a person who lives each day for God’s greater honor and glory.

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