Advice to new college students and their parents: Have fun, learn new things, give and get stickers

I’m on sabbatical. This of course, is a very good thing for me as I’ve been working for 12+ years in higher ed with no break — teaching, running programs, building curriculum and being an Assistant Dean.  It’s a little secret that we faculty suffer from burn out. Well, maybe it isn’t that big of a secret really, but in my case, I knew I was running on fumes, but it wasn’t until the end of the spring semester when I realized, in a very hard and personal way,  just how bad it was. I had a group of individuals let me know, very clearly and quite bluntly just how they felt about the work that I do. They took their opportunity to let me know in no uncertain terms that maybe I should rethink my chosen profession. It hurt. I cried. I felt perhaps they were right. And then I had this summer. And now I have the fall.

To that group of students I want to say thank you.  While I wish you had come to me personally because I thought I had formed close relationships with you over four years, and I wish you had had the courage to tell me to my face you were unhappy, thought I was pushing you too hard, thought I wasn’t listening to you, I understand.  The upside is you’ve given me a great deal to think about. The downside is because you all chose to be anonymous and not come talk to me, I didn’t know you were unhappy until it was too late.

So in honor of  that class and the valuable lesson they have taught me, as we begin a new school year, I would like to take a few moments to provide you, first time college students, and your parents with some words of advice that you might not get any where else.

First to parents:

This is your child’s “first year”. They are first year students. They are away from home for the first time. Everything is once again a first. Please take some time to consider the following points:

  1. It’s time to let go. Your work is done. Really. Now it is time for your child to stand on their own two feet, make their mistakes, learn, grow and have experiences that will continue to shape them into the adults they are becoming.
  2. Sit tight and wait for the 5th week slump. Be ready for it. Arm yourself. Encourage your child to seek out help. To talk to their professors. To go to the counseling center. To use their resources. But unless we are talking an extreme circumstance, don’t bail them out. Trust me on this. They will be stronger for it.
  3. Please. Please. Please. If your child has a medical condition, a learning issue, or any type of issue that will effect how they act in the classroom, make sure they talk to their professors about it (see my advice to students below).
  4. Care packages with stickers are always a win.
  5. Unfriend your child on Facebook. Really. Now is the time to let them share with you what they want to share with you, but you don’t want to see everything. There are some thing that parents just shouldn’t know. Think about when you were their age, and what you didn’t share with your parents.
  6. Do get your child’s class schedule so you know when NOT to text them — for example during a class.  Professors really don’t like that.
  7. Don’t try to get your child an internship or a job and please don’t set up their schedule for them. They can do this…and they have resource on campus to help them.
  8. If your child gets a bad grade it is what they earned. I’m sure your child is awesome. But, don’t call the professor to argue about the grade your child received. As a matter of fact, don’t ever call the professor. Encourage your child to talk to the professor.  I provided some advice on this last January in a US News article.
  9. Be ready for reality. Maybe your child isn’t really ready for college. It’s ok. Don’t push them to be here if they aren’t ready. When they come home to visit after midterm and their grades are bad, don’t be angry, but be ready to have the conversation about what they really want. The first semester is overwhelming and homework often isn’t the priority.  Many can turn it around the next semester. For those who can’t it might be time to rethink the college plan.
  10. Celebrate the fact that your child is in college and away from home. Have fun with that. Focus on your other children, or on yourself. It’s a good time of life.

And now for you first year students:

Yep. Feel that energy? That excitement? You are FREE! So much to experience and so much responsibility all at once. Everything is new. New friends. New experiences. Oh…and yeah…there’s that academic thing. Those classes.

Your priorities are well…let’s be honest, not the same priorities that I, as a professor, set for the classroom.

So here’s my tips for you:

  1. Yep have fun. Experience everything you can…but please be safe. College is awesome, but just like high school, it is not the end all and be all of your life. Trust me on this. There is so much more awesome to come.  This is the start of it. Do it right, be safe, live to tell the tales of all the epic you had in college.
  2. Get to know your professors. We don’t have to be your friends (although that can happen), but it is better to come talk to us during office hours, or when we are in the cafeteria. Get to know us as individuals and not scary, judgey, stodgy, old people who find you annoying. Honestly we really don’t find you annoying. Most of us teach because we like to be in the classroom — and we like to teach you and watch you develop into kick ass adults.
  3. If you have a medical issue (say like you are on meds to help with ADHD for example) tell the professor. Get yourself to student services for the accommodation form. Seriously. Now is NOT the time to think you can go off your meds or change your support system now that you are out of high school. I cannot tell you how many students I’ve watched flame out because they thought that now they were out of high school, they could go off their meds. First year is TOUGH. Don’t make it harder.
  4. Don’t let your parents help you. Ask for their advice, certainly. Talk to them, of course. But, when you aren’t sure what to do for signing up for classes or in a class or how to cope, use your resources on campus to help you. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s hard. But trust me on this one, you’ll find that your professors care and will help you. Your RA’s care and will help you. Asking your parents to help you do it will not help you in the long run.
  5. If you are not happy in a class — if you feel that you aren’t learning anything you have some choices.  You can whine and complain to your friends. You can whine and complain to your parents. Neither of which will get you much (although parents might call, which is expressly against #4 above). Or, you could meet with your professor. You could ask for help, explain that you are not understanding, or that you would like more interactivity, or that you need more clear direction. What’s the worst thing that could happen? The professor says no. Then you have some more choices, such as drop the class, or go talk to the Dean. In other words, now is the time to learn how to advocate for yourself. Complaining to no one in particular gets you nowhere — practice advocating for yourself in a positive way and you’ll be able to do it once you are in the workforce.
  6. If you are not happy in a class you can always express your opinion in the class evaluations. See my intro above to the downside of this method.  Upside is you express your point of view which can often impact the performance evaluation of a faculty person. The downside is it doesn’t help you get what you need (see #5 above).
  7. Ask your parents to send you care packages. That’s what they should do to help you. Stickers are awesome. Ask for stickers.
  8. Join stuff. Get involved. Clubs, events, outings. Do it all.
  9. Plan ahead. For study abroad. Whatever it takes. No matter how scary it is. Study abroad. Start planning now, in your first year. Talk to your professors about this. Get internships in the areas that are interesting to you. If your college doesn’t have an internship program, go out and do it anyway. Start thinking about this your first year. Take action in your sophomore year. Then do it again in your junior year and again in your senior year. It will make your classes so much more meaningful. Your professors can help with this too.
  10. Stay humble. You are learning a great deal. But this doesn’t mean you know everything. These days we are all life long learners. When you walk into a classroom, don’t judge your professor by their age or by their looks — you don’t like it when we judge you that way. Be open to learning always and remember you will NEVER know it all. As a professor I only know the stuff I know. There’s tons I don’t know, and I learn from my students every day.

So parents and students of the class of 2016 (for those of you on the four year plan) I wish you luck during this time of transition. It’s a wonderful time. It’s a scary time. Opportunity is in the air. Seize it each and every day, because before you know it, graduation will be here and you will be remembering your first year experience with nostalgia.

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  • Hans Bardenheuer

    Coming from a former student.. this advice is 100% accurate. 

    College is the time for parents to trust that they’ve done the best job they could instilling the right values and work ethic in their children over the last 18 years. A parent’s job is complete; let your children take the reigns. 
    College is the time for students to step it up. Anyone who thinks that college is a vacation, is in for a rude awakening. Guess what students? You will fail. But that’s okay. A wise professor once told me that the best grade you could get on your first assignment is an F. It’s true. College was never intended to be easy. It’s supposed to challenge you. It’s supposed to force you to open your eyes, find different solutions, and think in radical and revolutionary ways. Don’t waste the time that you’re given. Don’t wait until your third or fourth year to realize that your professors have a vested interest in your success; they want you to do well, probably more than you realize. Take advantage of the collective knowledge base around you. You will never, I repeat NEVER, be in a more tolerant, supportive, passionate environment than you will over the next four years. Don’t squander it. 

    And for goodness’ sake.. have fun!

  • neontrees

    The 5th week slump is a little unnerving as a parent.  Our daughter seems to be acclimating to her first year quite remarkably albeit there have been a few meltdowns.  Its been three weeks and parents weekend is the 5th week so we’re hoping our visit will bypass the “slump”. 

    • So glad things are going well for your daughter. Week 5 hits because everything is settling in and big assignments are coming up. It’s part of the cycle. I’m sure she’ll get through it — just remind her of the support systems on campus and encourage her to get involved.

  • Hepmepez

    I really enjoyed reading this, but I am still confused over the stickers……

    • It’s simple actually. Stickers are awesome. All kids like stickers in Kindergarten and then as they grow up they stop getting stickers. Send them stickers when they are in college, and they will remember it like Kindergarten. 😉 Stickers are always a win.

      • Hepmepez

        Ah ha! Thank you!

      • Hans Bardenheuer

        It’s true. Stickers are pretty awesome.