Open Letter To New (and Returning) Students

A new year, a new semester, is just about to start, and it’s exciting, possibly a little nerve-wracking. It’s mostly parents who ask me what students can do to prepare for the change to post-secondary…let’s face it, they’re as keen as you are for your year to be a successful one. And whether you are heading straight from high school, or coming back as a second year, whether you are transitioning from the workplace or a different program, whether you have been out of school months or decades, there are things you can do to make this your best year ever. 

Be Open Minded: You will meet new people with new ideas, different perspectives. That’s the good news. With luck, you will have your own ideas challenged and stretched. You will make friends with people of different ages, backgrounds, cultures, beliefs. You will learn to disagree without offending, learn to question your own opinions and understand your personal biases. You will learn the value of evidence to support your own claims, and to share ideas in a culture of mutual respect. Embracing diversity, listening to others, and collaborating makes all of us stronger. 

Commit to Self-Improvement: College is about more than the credits achieved and grades earned. You heard me. It’s a tough shift in thinking, but the students who get the most out of their education are the ones who allow themselves to take risks, try something new, get outside their comfort zone. Assume you have something to learn in every class, and dig deep to figure out what that is. Take Electives that interest you even if….especially if…you know nothing about them. Push yourself to explore your own limitations. Then grow past them.

Only Connect:  Shamless reference to one of my favourite classic novels aside, make connections. Connect with your professors and your classmates. Draw connections between your subjects. Connect what you don’t know to what you do know, and to what you want to know. Connect with yourself through greater understanding and reflection. Connect to your community and the world around you. Only Connect, to me, embodies the most important thing you can learn…it is the hallmark of an intrinsically-motivated, self-directed, life-long learner.*

Fail Forward: Everyone is rooting for you to be successful. There may, however, be times when you are not. It happens to everyone, and it’s scary. It’s especially scary when you are away from home, on your own, and in a new environment. Society frames failure as a bad thing, but the truth is, we learn more from failure than we think. It means you took a risk, or that you misunderstood, or that you are struggling. The trick is to allow yourself to accept it without self-recrimination. And then figure out what you need to do to turn failure into success. 

Self-Advocate: The best way to be your own self-advocate is to understand your own needs as well as understand the nuances of group dynamics and positive communication. Start by making an effort to get to know your professors. Let them know if there is something you don’t understand. Know yourself….for example, if you procrastinate, find a study partner and commit to a time to meet every week. If you are feeling overwhelmed, or stressed, or anxious, don’t wait until the middle of the semester to get help. There are many resources on campus, and if you’re not sure where to start, ask.  

Balance: All work and no play…leads to stress and anxiety. Eat breakfast. Drink water. Go to the gym. Relax. Have a hobby. Walk the river paths. Socialize with friends. Call home. Nothing revolutionary here, but easy to forget in the middle of a busy semester. 

None of this….none of it….mentioned going to class, completing assignments on time, studying hard. You will need to do that too. But a successful college student isn’t necessarily the one who gets straight A’s without effort. Rather, it’s the student who puts in a solid effort, who asks questions and expands their own horizons, who helps others, who forges strong relationships, who is flexible, and who doesn’t shy away from a challenge, even when that means changing direction. 

It’s cliche, but true success is a result of internal growth, not external achievement. 

Welcome to College. See you in class. 

*Note: if you are a student in one of my classes, this is also a clue to one of our opening activities.

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