Saturday, March 22, 2014

Things your Guidance Counselor Maybe Didn't Drill into You.

I got the exciting news today that the son of my wife's daughter (which modulo the complications of 2nd marriages would make him my Grandson) has been accepted to the University of West Florida. He lives in Florida and I'm up north on Long Island (New York), so I confess to not having ever met the young man nor even knowing about the University of West Florida. But, as usual, Google is my friend when it comes to learning about places not familiar to me. Having now read a bit about the school, I whole-heartedly endorse his choice of college. Wikipedia had nice things to say about the place and it even fared well in the US News tabulation of colleges. But not actually knowing the plans of the gonna-be Freshman, I've got a few things to pass along to him as guidance.

First Things First

College is an important time when many things are going to be going on in your life. It's an investment in your future, but it comes at a cost. There's the obvious expenses like tuition and fees and books and supplies, but there's also an "opportunity" cost. You've elected to defer getting seriously started on your adult life for the number of years that you'll be tied up pursuing a degree. You've picked a 4 year school, so nominally, the long march to a degree should take you about 4 years. If you manage your time properly, and meet the requirements listed in the catalog, then in about 4 years time, you should indeed be graduating and moving on to the next stage of your adult life. If you do it wrong, 4 years will slip into 5 years and perhaps even longer. The price tag on your college education will continue to mount up, but the prize at the end is still that same degree. My point is, your first priority should be to stay on track to completing your degree. Some of the degree requirements may be quite frustrating, but on the bright side, the rules are at least clearly spelled out in the catalog. I assure you that later in life you will have to work your way through many situations where the prerequisites and the completion requirements are not spelled out with anything close to the clarity of your college degree.

Note that I said completing your degree is your top priority. By no means did I say it was your only priority. Not so clearly spelled out in the catalog is that your college years are when you seek out what it is that really interests you. You have to discover the degree program and subject "major" that you have a passion for - Something that you'd hope to be doing for the rest of your life, whether or not it was attached to a paying job. Make no mistake about it, to keep body and soul together you will need to find and work a paying job after graduation. Food, clothing, shelter, medical care, cell phone service, high speed internet - none of those are "free of charge", so you will need a job to earn a living. But if you force yourself into a particular career (perhaps "plastics") because you heard that it pays well, yet find that it isn't something that you enjoy, then you've made a grave error in planning your path through college. College is like 4 years, but your career is then the rest of your life, hopefully decades.

But wait! There's more!

Besides picking the right course of study and completing the degree requirements, there's an important social side to college. All work and no play doesn't make for a good, complete, college experience. You'll meet a lot of interesting people during your years in college. Some will be greatly challenging to your intellect. Some will be great fun for parties. Some may be strongly negative influences on your life. With luck, you'll even meet someone who you'll deeply love, someone who makes you a better, happier, person. You need to sort out who is who while not getting too distracted from your top priority.

The good news is that you aren't left entirely on your own to navigate this complex mine field. The same social structures that helped you get through life this far, your family, your church, your childhood friends, and so forth, are still places to turn to when you need guidance. The Internet and so forth makes it relatively easy to keep in touch with your old social supports, even if you are physically separated from them by many miles. Time spent socializing on the Internet is yet another "distraction" from your top priority, but keeping in touch with your roots may have real value to you. So make a conscious effort to spend your time wisely.

School Supplies

Next, a few words about school supplies. If you use a smart phone instead of paper products for these, that's fine, but make sure you have things configured so your information is safely backed up outside of the phone. Phones die or get stolen and you don't want to lose your information. What information? That brings us to the first couple of items on this list:

Calendar - You'll be needing a calendar to remember places you have to be at a specific date and time. In high school life is simple enough that perhaps you are used to tracking such commitments in your head with the backup coverage of reminders from your Mom. In college, your calendar can get a lot more crowded than that.

Address Book - You'll be meeting a lot of people at school. Professors, teaching assistants, lab partners, that hot girl in your Psych class. Take a few moments to jot down their name and contact info in a location where you'll be able to find it later. Loose scraps of paper jammed into your pocket or wallet isn't going to be useful to you in a week when it's faded and crumbled and perhaps even run through the laundry.

Alarm Clock - A smart phone can sound reminders through-out the day, but if you are as sound a sleeper as I am, you'll need a loud, persistent alarm clock to get you out of bed in the morning. I suggest a plug-in model, perhaps even a clock-radio, with a backup battery so it doesn't lose the time or settings across brief power outages. The easier it is to set the alarm time, the better. At the very least, look for an "up" and "down" option on the setting buttons. My favorite clock radio had an actual keypad for direct entry of the time, but I'm not sure that that model is on the market any longer. Do remember to buy appropriate batteries for that backup battery feature. And take some care in picking the location for the clock. The night stand next to your bed has the advantage of being right by your ear, but the drawback of putting the snooze button within arm's reach. I find what works for me is to keep the clock on the dresser where I have to get out of bed and walk across the room to turn it off or hit snooze.

Bank Account - You've got to shop around. College is a time where you'll spend your days somewhere between destitute and flat-broke. Every once in a while, you'll receive some money - perhaps a check for your birthday or for Christmas. Nothing will make that money vanish faster than cashing the check and putting the cash in your wallet. You need to set up a bank account for yourself. You probably should find out what banks (or credit unions) have ATM's on or near campus. Banks near colleges often offer accounts structured to attract students: Low fees, low minimum balance, but probably no interest on your deposit. A debit card is almost as easy to use to drain your account as was cash in your wallet, but at least the debit card gives you a statement so you can see where the money went. If they offer you a credit card, you probably should say "no". It is a lot easier to get into credit card debt than it is to get out of it. A debit card inherently caps your spending at how much you have. Living within your means can be tough, but I strongly recommend it.

Fire-resistant lock box - You need to start being responsible for your own life-documents. Birth certificate, social security card, perhaps even a passport. You don't really need a safety-deposit box for these items, or even a secure safe, but you shouldn't be just tossing them into your dresser drawer under the socks either. Visit Walmart or some such store to find a fire-resistant lock box that you can stash in the back of your closet to hold these hard to replace documents. Note that fire-resistant boxes tend to have water entrapped in the walls of the box, which converts to steam in the event of a fire. The physics of boiling keeps the papers inside the box from reaching the ignition point for paper (until the water boils away). The temperature and humidity in the box is meant to be safe for paper, but not for computer media, so such a box isn't a good place to store backups of your data.

File Folders - For all the years of people talking about "paperless offices" and "paperless classrooms", I think you'll be surprised at how much paper comes into your life every day as a college student. The papers are worthless to you unless you can retrieve them when you need them. As a start on getting them organized, I therefore suggest an investment in file folders. If you don't have a place to stash the folders, then an additional expense to anticipate for you is a small file cabinet. (I recently picked up a flimsy 2-drawer metal file cabinet at Walmart for just over $30). How to organize the papers is a whole other essay that I'm not planning to write here. Cheap 3-ring binders and a 3-hole paper punch can be an alternative to the file cabinet to the extent your papers are 8.5"x11". Keep an eye on the back-to-school sales that come up every year as September approaches. Loose-leaf paper and manila notebook divider sheets can be mighty handy. If you use pencil to label the folders and divider sheets, you'll be able to erase and re-use them as the topics to organize shift as time marches on.

Book Shelf - College brings you more (and heavier) text books than you want to haul around in your back-pack every day. And college doesn't come with a hall-locker for you to stash the books you don't need right now. Make sure that no matter where you plan to live, that your room has a bookshelf where you can store your reference books, text books, note books, etc., etc. in a neat and accessible manner.

Desk - In high school the kitchen table or maybe even your lap sufficed as your work place for your writing assignments. In college, you really ought to have a real desk for yourself. Several stacks of cinder blocks and a slab door can make a serviceable desk for little money. Do remember your budget needs to cover a reasonable desk chair too. A suitable computer and some provision for Internet access are key parts of a modern student's desk these days, so that needs to be included in your planning.

Comfie chair and reading light - A startling amount of your college life will be spent on reading. If your habit has been to sit down in the living room with the television on while you read, now is the time to change that habit. It'd be unsporting to tell your family that they aren't to watch television until you graduate. You need a comfortable chair in a quiet place, away from the television, and with a good reading lamp. There are lots of ways to stretch your budget when looking for such items. Some of my college buddies solved the problem by pretty much living in the college library for all their waking hours except for class and meal times. Explore your campus library and find what provisions they have for quiet study space for undergraduates. That wasn't the way that I did it, but I know it can work.

Dorm or commuter student

I see UWF has large dormitories to accommodate students living on campus. They allow Freshmen to park on campus, which implies to me that not everyone is living on campus, some are presumably commuting to school. Home for you is in the Florida Pan-Handle, so I'm guessing that commuting is an option for you. Living at home and commuting to school can be a big cash saving for you. You can forage for food in the kitchen, and your Mom's washer and dryer probably doesn't insist you insert a bunch of quarters for each load. Nevertheless, I urge you to consider living on campus. I believe that moving out of the house is a big step in growing up, and college, if nothing else, is about growing up. Dorm room, meal plan, laundry expenses, ... No doubt living on campus isn't "free", but if you consider the groceries your Mom won't need to buy at home, the gas and car expense that you won't have if you aren't commuting to school each day, maybe you'll be able to manage to live modestly on campus. I think you'll find yourself much more inclined to take advantage of the campus library and of events at school if you are right there.

I can pretty much guarantee that your first trips home after you've been away at school will not be entirely comfortable for you. Quite likely you'll discover that your family and old friends somehow haven't been aware of the way you've grown up while your were away from home. Don't let that disconnect ruin your visit home. If nothing else, it'll help you appreciate the wisdom of that old adage "You can't go home again".

Your Health

Some fraction of kids go away to college and come back dead. The newspapers love to jump on such stories because the news is so universally distressing to parents. Have fun in college, but take care of yourself. Impaired judgement from chemically enhanced fun can lead to tragedy.

There are plenty of other ways to ruin your health, though some of them take time. Lack of sleep, for example. Your alarm clock may faithfully remind you when it is time to get up, but it is up to your own self-discipline to remind yourself when it is time to get some sleep. There will certainly be nights when you are cramming for exams or whatever and absolutely have to cheat yourself out of some sleep time, but I assure you that if you make a habit of that, you'll soon find yourself working much less effectively at your college priorities.

Nutrition is another oft-neglected facet of good health among college students. Pizza and coca-cola are a tasty combination, but not a good choice for breakfast. You really need to make an effort to maintain a reasonably balanced diet. Some oranges for vitamin C, milk for healthy bones, all those things they taught you in health class. Somewhere on campus there's a reasonably accurate scale where you can pop by once in a while to keep tabs on your weight. Perhaps somewhere near the gym? Balancing your calorie intake to your level of physical activity is another important part of a healthy diet. (There are free smart phone apps that make it easy to keep track of your weight over time, producing easy to read graphs of your progress or backsliding). Speaking of physical activity, I'll wager that the outdoor weather in Florida is a lot more hospitable to getting out and about than the gloomy slush that was much of the school year up in Ithaca, NY. Ithication we called it. Like precipitation, but greyer and less comfortable.

You're old enough that I'll not subject you to yet another lecture about the dangers of sex. An incurable STD can certainly take a lot of the fun out of college. An unplanned pregnancy can throw quite the monkey wrench into your graduation plans. So have fun in college, but remember there's no "reset" button like in video games, no rehearsals, just one pass through life so make the best of it.

The Requirements for Graduating are in the Catalog

I mentioned up above how you have to consciously pick your path to graduation. You need to find a "major" that really excites you. One of the things I like about UWF is they have a wide variety of options open to you. Teaching, nursing, biology, social work, engineering. My "thing" is computer software, but that isn't exciting to everyone. I'm not going to be that guy whispering "plastics!" in your ear. You'll have to find your own way.

Do your best to plan ahead. There can be long strings of pre-requisites to work through for some majors, so if you don't make yourself aware of those soon enough that 4 year diploma can start slip-sliding off into the future by years. Try to fit some courses into your schedule that'll give you a taste of something completely different from where you think you are going. Be brave enough to change direction if you find where you thought you wanted to go wasn't as interesting as you thought it was going to be. But if you find yourself having to repeatedly change your mind and your direction, do find yourself a trusted advisor who can help you work through why that keeps happening to you.

There's more to college than passing classes and graduating

There are many more things happening at your college than just your classes. Take advantage of your being on campus by paying attention to what else is going on and attend some of those events. Back in my college years, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, the walls and hallways of campus tended to get plastered with posters announcing "events". It is possible that the Web has completely replaced those flyers, but I doubt it. Don't blindly rush past announcements of symposia and events on campus.

Happy Trails!

You certainly saw quite a fuss today over your getting into college. Just imagine the excitement in your family when you graduate. I'm wishing you the best for your college years. If I've given you any surprises here or left you with any questions, do feel free to contact me and we can talk.

Do well!


Most all of your college papers will be in for severe criticism if they don't include suitable references at the end. So, I close with a few references here for this article.

There's a pretty good book called "How Children Succeed" by Paul Tough. If you don't want to take the time to read the whole book, a possible short cut is to read my book-report on my blog from back when I read the book.

I hate to admit it, but there's an awful lot of wisdom (as well as laughs) about the real world of corporate employment to be found in the Dilbert comic strip by Scott Adams. For example (Dilbert, 02/18/2014:

Click on the dated link above the comic to see the missing punchline in the 3rd frame. Then you can use your browser's "back" button to return here.

Back in January, 2013, I posted "Advice to Undergraduates". It's basically a link to 3 other articles that I enjoyed. It may be a bit too computer-science-centric for general audiences, I still enjoy reading the linked articles there.

"Education" is a recurring topic on my blog and I won't puff up this references section with links to all the related articles. But I would like to point out the TED Talk linked to my May 2013 article "Education's Future: 'Go Do Somethng Interesting'"

If my repeated mention of "plastics" makes no sense to you, use your Netflix subscription to hurry up and rent a copy of 1967's movie "The Graduate".

These references would be far from complete if I didn't also include a link to Dave Barry's 2004 "Commencement Address".
Revised 3/31/2014 - Edited to fix a couple of minor typos.
Revised 04/20/2015 - Revised because Dilbert URL's changed around so link to "sleep" comic broke. I fixed it.