How to survive college, from one who’s been there

In recent years, we’ve made it a practice of devoting the editorial section prior to Sweet Home High School’s graduation to addressing that year’s graduating class with (hopefully) helpful advice for success. You know, our own little commencement address.

This year I’m going to do it on a personal level because I want to give graduates some advice on how to succeed in college. A quick perusal of our Graduation Section in today’s paper indicates that about half the teens who will walk the aisle this Friday night are planning to move on to higher education, more than 50 of them at Linn-Benton Community College.

Well, I’ve been there – not to LBCC, but I attended two junior colleges, one in Oregon, and I moved on to a four-year school, then to a master’s program at the University of Oregon where I taught classes, and then I taught at a private liberal arts college for nine years. Plus, I have two daughters in college now, at LBCC and Oregon State University. So I guess you could say I’ve experienced all sides of this picture.

One reason I’m prompted to offer some suggestions is because I see a lot of young people in Sweet Home who struggle a bit after leaving the safe confines of Sweet Home High School. College is a whole different ballgame. The level of personal support available at the high school isn’t going to be there at the next level – unless you make it happen for you.

I’ve talked with a number of local graduates who’ve moved on to LBCC, for instance, and each has had plenty of stories about the difficulties they encountered there – with teachers, with staff, with the web site and registration system, etc. These stories tend to have more validity for me as a journalist because I hear the same complaints over and over, from different people.

Though colleges exist to educate people and therefore students should expect to find some level of concern for their well-being there, it’s been my experience that public colleges, in particular, tend to be machines designed to crank out graduates and that’s about it, at least for the average undergraduate, which is what I was. That doesn’t mean there won’t be people who actually care about you within those ivy-covered walls, but for some folks it’s just a job and they’ll treat you that way, depending on their mood.

So what do you do when your financial aid doesn’t seem to be going anywhere or when you can’t get answers on whether your courses are going to transfer or not?

You do what you should do throughout your life, what you might have done in high school if you were more socially mature than I was at your age: you build relationships. You need friends in high places.

So my first piece of advice is: Build relationships. This may sound a little cynical – when I was in college I was irritated to learn that unless the department secretary, Madelyn, liked me, I wasn’t going to get where I needed to go. But the reality, folks, is that the good-ol’-boy system is alive and well, even at the local college. It’s who you know, not what you know. It’s how our world works.

Start building those relationships right away. When, like one freshman I know, you show up three minutes late for the final exam after getting delayed at the gas station at the end of your first quarter in college and discover that the instructor has locked the classroom door and won’t let you in, it would help to have a solid relationship with someone who might be able to give you instant advice, someone who knows the ropes. Someone like the department secretary. They’ve seen everything.

If you’ve visited Financial Aid multiple times and still don’t know if where you stand on your grants, it’s time to talk to someone up the ladder.

If the on-line registration system isn’t working for you and you’re not sure you got your classes, your first stop should be someone who knows the answers – maybe that department secretary or the nice person whom you’ve discovered in the administration building. Building relationships is the key to success.

It took me a while to figure that out when I was a student. Fortunately, I had been taught to respect my elders, so I always treated Madelyn with respect and could get positive results when she was in a good mood.

Also fortunate was the fact that we weren’t on computers yet at Rogue Community College when I graduated from high school, back in the dark ages when seat belts weren’t mandatory and cellphones were science fiction. It was a lot easier to get action when people were sitting behind desks, checking the forms you’d just filled out.

A second piece of advice is to plan ahead – anticipate the problems and be prepared for them. If you know ahead of time that the system stinks, don’t wait till the last minute.

Prepare a to-do list and factor in the likelihood that the individual behind the desk may not be helpful. Don’t wait until the financial aid deadline is here to get those forms filled out. That way, if the system balks, you have time to find somebody who actually knows what’s going on and can help you.

Thirdly, don’t give up. Your family may not be giving you a lot of suppport and encouragement to get this done. In fact, you might be the first one in your family to go to college. That’s significant and it will be even more significant when you graduate.

Finish. Employers will see that degree on your resume and you will move up in the stack because they know you have enough guts and stick-to-it-tiveness to earn that degree. Employers like staying power.

Life in college can be tough, particularly if you don’t have supportive teachers and advisers hounding you like you do in high school. You will hit some roadblocks. Overcome them.

We hear a lot these days about how a college degree isn’t worth the money, given the rising costs and the poor job market. I disagree – to a point.

It’s still possible to go to college, even today, and finish without massive debt. It takes commitment – when I taught college I had students in my classes who were working full-time to finance their educations at a private university. They didn’t get the best grades, but they were some of my most committed students. Believe me, I would have hired any of them.

The job market may stink and college certainly will, from time to time, but it’s an opportunity you cannot duplicate at any job – the chance to develop your skills and knowledge and meet people from very different backgrounds who are interested in making a difference in the world, who have goals and want to achieve them.

Hang in there. It’s worth it.

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