Creating a Great College Experience

Over the past several weeks, first-year students have been arriving at colleges across the country to learn and to lay a foundation for purposeful lives. I offer these thoughts - as a faculty member, college president, and mother of a college student - for students who want to make the most of their college experience.

Take Courses that Excite You
Learning about a subject that catches your interest, that engages you, and that ignites your passion can be a life-altering experience. Data show that if you study something that excites you, you will have more success academically and experience more satisfaction with your college experience. Even if you're sure of the path ahead, don't completely load up on requirements. Explore. I have known countless students who have taken a course early in their college experience that has changed their intended major and has set them on interesting and rewarding career paths that they didn't even know existed.

Interact with Faculty
A valuable part of a college education is the opportunity to interact with and learn from scholars who are creating knowledge in their fields. It's important to show up for class and to go to office hours and review sessions to get the full benefit of what the college learning environment has to offer. These are also chances to show your professors that you're genuinely interested in the topic and the material. Future opportunities for advanced study and for research assistantships are more likely when faculty get to know you. If you do need help or fall behind, you will likely be more comfortable seeking support if the connection is already there.

Get Involved in Campus Life
Whether through athletics, the arts, community service, or clubs, do something outside the classroom that connects you to others. Not only will you feel good about what you're doing, but research also shows that making these kinds of connections greatly increases the likelihood that you'll have a successful college experience.

Don't Minimize the Value of On-Campus Employment
Whether you're working on the computing help desk or in the dining hall, work study and other on-campus employment is a way to gain valuable skills. Customer service, time management, and communication skills are needed in almost any profession and can be developed in nearly any campus job. Students who begin accumulating these skills while still in college are better positioned professionally when they graduate.

Don't Forget Who You Were
Very often, people talk about college as a time to break free from the identity that you had as a child and to find or create your true self. In fact, residential colleges like the one I lead do promote self-discovery. But claiming a new identity doesn't necessarily mean cutting all ties with those who knew the old you. You're more likely to enjoy college and the years afterward if you maintain connections to your past - your community and your family - and invest in navigating the inevitable changes in those relationships.

Stay Physically Active

Many campuses have state-of-the-art athletics facilities, so enjoy them! Few things improve intellectual performance, reduce stress, and support overall wellbeing more than exercise. If you don't like to lift weights or run on a treadmill, consider physical education classes, intramural sports, or even a daily walk. Most colleges offer interesting alternatives to traditional athletics.

Leave Campus
Today's college campuses have it all - food courts, exhibition spaces, fitness facilities, and entertainment venues. You may feel that you never have to leave campus, but you should! You'll have more fun and feel more independent if you use your campus as a hub for a range of experiences in urban, suburban, and natural environments.

So remember, enjoy your new friends, classes, and campus, but don't forget that you are there to explore the world and, someday soon, to lead it.