Some Thoughts from a Professor as Students Head Off to College

As both a college professor and parent of a college student, this time of year always seems to raise a variety of thoughts as freshly minted high school graduates head off to their new adventures. In couple of weeks, green first-year students will be wandering around campuses everywhere, looking young and confused.

"Where do I find Burdine Hall?" asks the first-year looking impossibly young.
"It's that building right behind you," I answer with a smile, knowing that I will have this conversation several times over the next few days.

Parents and students are nervous, excited, worried about paying bills, and so on. It's a big transition. So what do professors think about all of this? I can't speak for all of my colleagues, but I do have a few suggestions for parents and students heading off to college. First a few thoughts for students:

  • Don't get too stressed out, particularly about grades. The first semester may be a little rough as the transition to college unfolds. AP students, in particular, need to be careful about stressing over grades. You've been sold a bill of goods if your teachers told you AP classes are just like college classes. They aren't. College classes are more difficult and much more in-depth. If you attend a research university, you will be studying with the people who write the books and articles and they will be teaching based upon both their own and others' research. It will be challenging.

  • Don't be intimidated by the faculty. Yes, we all have Ph.D. degrees, but we are there to help you learn. Professors can be busy people. Teaching is only part of our job. At a research university, professors are expected to have ongoing research programs that require supervision of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and we spend a lot of time writing and collecting data. Take advantage of that. Visit your professors during office hours and find out how you can get involved in their research. Faculty usually welcome help and want undergraduates to become involved in research. They usually also really like talking about their work.
  • Take advantage of the educational opportunity in front of you. You should have fun in college, but you are there to study and to learn. Use the libraries, faculty, and other resources to get every ounce you can out of your college.
  • Don't let anyone, including your parents, pressure you into a major you don't find interesting. Every year I have one or two students tell me that Mom and Dad are forcing them to do premed, but they hate it. It's your life, make of it what you want and find something to study that fascinates you. Besides, if you don't really want to be a doctor, you probably won't be very good at it and you certainly won't be happy.
  • Don't call your professors by their first names unless they invite you to do so. Write emails with proper grammar, spelling, and capitalization. First impressions matter and your professors will likely be people who write you reference letters in the future. Get to know them, but be polite.
  • For parents, here are three things to keep in mind:

    • Leave your kids alone. Let them explore college and let them make mistakes. They will learn from those mistakes and grow up in the process. Don't hover over them and don't constantly check to make sure they are doing laundry or that they are studying. Encourage them to do well, but don't stress them out. I once had a student tell me his father warned him that anything less than a 3.5 GPA would mean he'd be financially cut off. This is not a way to support your child as he or she adjusts to a new and different lifestyle and a complex set of demands.

  • Don't call or email professors if your kid gets a bad grade--most likely he or she deserved the bad grade and, if not, you need to let your kid work it out with the professor him or herself. Also, just because your kid got As in high school does not mean the same will happen in college. College is much more demanding than high school.
  • This is the most important thing for parents: When you pay your kid's tuition bill, do not think you are buying anything. You aren't. Tuition is more like a user fee; it allows your child to access all of the resources in the institution. But you aren't buying anything, so you are not a customer. It is up to your child to take advantage of the resources in front of him or her and to get to know the faculty. Learning to take advantage of those resources is the biggest lesson your kid will get in college. If your kid masters that one, then he/she is set for life.
  • Finally, both parents and students need to recognize that college is a tremendous opportunity to spend four years at a place where knowledge is created. Students are exposed to new ideas and their preconceptions about the world are often challenged deeply. This is good; it is what makes you grow as a person and more able to deal with the complex world in which we live.

    Parents, expect your kid to change--if your kid doesn't change, then there is something wrong either with the college or with the way your child is accessing all that a college has to offer.