Navigating the freshman year: tips from your fellow students

As they move further away from their last days of high school, seniors are turning their attention to the moment when they can leave for college.  Preparing for that first year is exciting and incoming freshman are getting to know their roommates online, thinking about the extra long sheets they need to buy, and making plans for traveling to campus.

I asked a few current undergraduates and recent graduates  – including my own children – about the advice that people gave them before they left for college that helped them navigate their first year.  Or, looking back with hindsight, what counsel they wish someone had passed along before they stumbled into college life.

  • “Be proactive at seeking out opportunities that campus life offers. They are not always visible and they will rarely just fall in your lap.”   [Yale ’15, Geology and Geophysics]
  • “Though it took me time to open my mind to trying new things or inviting the new into old routines, it was worth it in the end.”    [Delaware ’15, Computer Science]
  • “It is easy to slip straight into your degree requirements and you should use your first semesters to complete some requirements. But otherwise take what interests you, not what you have to.”   [Rice ’13, Structural Engineering]
  • “Ask people for recommendations on courses and good professors- you may find something new that you come to love.”   [Rice ’11, History]
  • “Explore the different majors at your school as early as possible even if you think you’re happy with the major that you’re in.”   [Yale ’14, Geology and Geophysics]
  • “I wish I had a better idea of how careers correlated to courses. Even in freshman year I wish I had known better what I could do with what I studied.”   [Rice ’11, English]
  • “Most of us won’t end up in a career related to our major, and I wish I had taken a couple of courses with career applications, like economics.”   [Rice ’11, History]
  • “Writing is always required, regardless of what you do, and I wish I had taken the time to improve on my writing and composition.”   [Rice ’12, Art History]
  • “Work really hard through your freshman year. It is easy to think you will breeze through college, but a bad first semester will damage your GPA. It’s really easy to focus on doing fun things and only working when you can fit it in, but you need to get in the rhythm of getting your work done.”   [Rice ’11, History]
  • “Anyone who tells you that he looked back after college and said, ‘Man, I wish I had spent more time in the library,’ is lying.”   [Rice ’11, Religious Studies]
  • “Freshmen come in a little wide-eyed and don’t realize that these professors are not only willing to help them but are sometimes dying to be approached by interesting students.  I came in a little shy, and didn’t make use of the people around me early enough.”    [Stanford ’11, Bio-Mechanical Engineering]
  • “Approaching professors doesn’t mean you have to become a research assistant performing menial tasks.  Your interests can drive a joint pursuit with a professor, curricular (forming research questions, leading discovery) or otherwise. It can help you do whatever you want to pursue.”   [Stanford ’12, History]
  • “I’m glad that I was told to not be afraid to reach out to professors. I got in touch with the engineering adviser even before I got to campus and met with him before classes started. He gave me great advice about class selection that really helped me, and without which I would probably would have been very overloaded first semester.”   [Yale ’15, Mechanical Engineering]
  • “I wish I had been busier first semester; I wasn’t involved with as many things as I should have been, and I wound up with a lot of free time, sort of scratching my head and thinking ‘is this it?'”   [Oberlin ’15, Undeclared/Music]
  • “Be outgoing and try to meet people because freshman year is the best time to do so.”   [Yale ’14, Geology and Geophysics]
  • “I wish I kept better track of current events. It would have rounded out my education.”   [Rice ’10, Mechanical Engineering]
  • “When I was a senior in high school, I had a huge crush on a TV character from The OC, Taylor Townsend. When Taylor was giving her valedictory address at the Harbor School, she said something that confused me as an 18-year-old:  ‘There’s no one older than a high school senior, and no one younger than a college freshman.’  Looking back, I love that notion, and I wish I applied it more when I was starting out.  I took safe risks, and didn’t do anything that was too off the radar.  I took the transition from high school to college too seriously, as if that moment were a rite of passage I had to treat with soberness.  Kids should have fun, not over-think the transition, and feel alright about stepping out of their comfort zone.  I don’t mean they should do weird things just for the sake of doing them, but I think most of the people I know played it safe because they didn’t want to put themselves out there, take a chance, and face the possibility of falling flat on their face.  Being a college freshman is a time to be young again, and I think too many kids come in wanting to seem anything but that.”   [Stanford ’11, History]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

History as a college major?

Recently the History Department at Rice University offered a class on “Methods and Theory in History,” aimed at introducing history majors to the demands of upper division seminars and honors theses. But the class also presented history majors with a panel discussion on life after college with a history degree, in which four current students and recent alumni spoke about the trajectory of their own careers and intellectual development with a history degree.  As it happens, my son, a recent Rice history graduate now making his way in Houston’s natural gas sector, was one.

 

Concern with the usefulness of a history degree has been a long time coming, and occupies the mind of high school seniors and their parents as they look towards college.  Families fret about new economic realities, including unemployment amongst recent graduates and huge student debts. Traditionally many viewed a history degree as a common avenue into law school, but now law schools are shrinking in the face of declining demand. New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, in a piece entitled The Imperiled Promise of College, recently highlighted these concerns.  Bruni pointed out that according to an Associated Press analysis of data from 2011, 53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed or, if they were lucky, merely underemployed, which means they were in jobs for which their degrees weren’t necessary.

 

No wonder then that many students feel compelled to set aside their love of history and consider more practical fields as they look towards college – Stanford, with one of the top departments in the country, now only graduates about 70 history majors a year, and at Yale where history has historically been one of the most popular majors, the number of history degrees granted fell from 217 to 131 in the last ten years.

 

Bruni is indeed right in cautioning students that hard economic times require them to be thoughtful, flexible and proactive as they think about their education. But students who love history and would like to study it in college, should not despair either!  If the problem with a history degree is that it does not come with a technical expertise that will ensure a job – like a degree in engineering or nursing may – that flexibility is also an asset.  As that panel at Rice confirmed, countless history majors are still leaving college to find interesting, productive and steady careers in an astonishing diversity of careers, as they always have: in politics and law, entertainment and news (Edward Norton, Steve Carrell, Sacha Baron Cohen), writing (Malcolm Gladwell) and business (Chris Hughes, a founder of Facebook).

 

This is surprising only to those who remember history as the mindless memorization inflicted by Mrs. Smith on their fifth grade class.  In college, history students learn to gather, analyze and interpret conflicting evidence.  They construct arguments that fit the evidence, study change over time, and learn to communicate all of that with good writing. There are few profession in which demand for these skills – research, critical and constructive analysis, and the ability to communicate well – is not at a premium. In fact, William Sullivan, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, argues that narrow pre-professional programs, ” do not give students the depth they need to be morally engaged citizens and intellectually agile workers.”  An undergraduate degree in history, on the other hand, will give students, whatever their future careers, exactly that kind of flexibility and critical judgment.  Look at the list that the recent SUES committee on undergraduate education at Stanford identified as important skills that Stanford students ought to gain during their time on the Farm: “the capacity to communicate, critical thinking, aesthetic and interpretive judgment; formal and quantitative reason­ing skills; an ability to think historically; facility in both sci­entific and social scientific analysis, including the abilities to formulate and test hypotheses, assess data, and weigh competing theories; and, last but not least, a rich capacity for creative expression, in whatever domain or field.”

 

Why do we still need students to study history?  According to the American Historical Association, it is how we “gain access to the laboratory of human experience.”  Whether a student wants to become a businessman who needs to understand China’s position on international trade, a teacher in high school, a researcher for a think tank on social policy, a government employee or an online journalist, studying history will impart useful knowledge and strong analytical and communication skills.  And in a rapidly changing world, the study of history will above all give students the flexibility and adaptability to keep up the pace.