As a veteran of college campuses for the last 47 years—counting my time as an undergraduate student, graduate student, coach, senior administrator and now college president for the past 17 years—what counsel might I offer up to young people embarking on their college careers? What might I say to their parents?
To the students, first, I offer five suggestions.
Above all, imagine your college days as an extended adventure requiring a dose of hard work and effort combined with flexibility and an open mind.
You have already learned in high school that some subjects and activities—for instance, the math class that is perhaps not your favorite or is your most challenging—are preparing you to make future work easier and more important all at once. Similarly in college, involve yourself in new activities—a club or two, volunteer work, campus work—but be mindful that whatever the activity, you are preparing yourself for an opportunity yet to be discovered. In other words, realize that adventure is an attitude.
Second, be prepared to take responsible risk, though I am mostly talking about academic risk when I say this. I worry that too many young people chase good grades rather than the best education they can acquire. Be conscious of your GPA, of course, but take some risk with the wide array of courses that are available.
I would even go so far as to say this: Prepare not for your first but your last job. Even more, prepare for work and professional challenges that may not yet exist, that you perhaps will create. This is the kind of broad, liberal arts education we offer at Centre College that provides a foundation for lifelong learning.
Third, look for and expect to find joy. College life will bring regular challenge and occasional disappointment. But at every turn, look for and expect to experience what may be beyond words. To this end, surround yourself with classmates who believe their cup is half full.
Fourth, take care of yourself, aware that body and mind are one. Be sure you get enough rest. Eat right. Find some form of exercise that works for you. I recommend spiritual exercise as well. This may be something completely conventional, but make this more than a weekly occurrence only. We all need to find time each day to slow down, be quiet and be thankful.
Last, be prepared to ask for and be fully open to receiving help from others.
Most professors, even at big, complicated universities, are there for you if you need them, but you will have to ask. Faculty members at places like Centre, where smaller classes are the norm and everybody seems to know your name, understand this level of personal engagement is part of the job. However, you must take advantage of this resource.
Tied to this, if you start to feel yourself headed down a dark path, then reach out early. Choosing to get help before you are in deep water is a sign of strength, not weakness. Ask for help, even if you think you don’t need it.
And what might I say to you parents?
Celebrate that your daughter or son is choosing to be in college. Take an interest in what she or he is doing. But—and I can’t emphasize this enough—don’t overdo it. This only creates more pressure.
Like it or not, the college experience (compared to the high school years) is supposed to be a crucial time for growing up and putting some distance between you and them. If you sense this is happening, then good! Be available to them. Love them unconditionally. But, unless you believe your daughter or son is in real danger, do not—I repeat, do not—show up unannounced or hover as if in a helicopter.
I’ll end with what I’ve learned these last 17 years as a college president. When alums come back to their alma mater, they share with me joys, experiences and memories that are both unique and profound. Why? College remains a more fundamental and foundational experience than any other concentrated period of time in their entire lives.
I hope this is the case for all you young women and men headed off for your new adventure. Make friends, make good choices and make memories. And as you forge a compass for all the years that follow, be aware that it will often lead back to where it all began.
John A. Roush became the 20th president of Centre College in 1998. He is a regular contributor to professional journals in the areas of leadership, governance and finance in higher education, and intercollegiate sport.