Dear college student: Get an education, not just a degree

Coffee is safe, legal and inexpensive. If you feel the temptation to dabble in chemical stimulants, stick with that one
Coffee is safe, legal and inexpensive. If you feel the temptation to dabble in chemical stimulants, stick with that one Getty Images/iStockphoto

Thousands of new students are settling into colleges and universities this week. Most will have already endured a formal orientation and received all manner of official guidance, but there are some informal practices that can make the difference between receiving a degree and earning an education.

Some advice I’ve picked up working with students for the past few years:

▪ Talk to people. Colleges put a lot of time and money into recruiting a diverse group of students, to say nothing of faculty and staff. This isn’t just to make the brochures look nice. You’re meant to learn something from all of these fellow travelers. They’ve lived in ways you haven’t, been to places you haven’t, read and seen and done things you haven’t. Ask them about it, and listen.

▪ On a related note: Speak up. You’re not just here to learn, but to teach. You have life experiences and worldviews that are wholly your own, so find ways of (respectfully) sharing them. Learn how to articulate your views, especially when you disagree, so that others can listen and respond.

▪ Bathe and do laundry on a regular basis. This offers greater competitive advantage than you can imagine.

▪  As much as possible, pick your classes based on the instructor rather than the subject. A great teacher can make any topic compelling, and a bad teacher can make any subject numbing. Ask upperclassmen which professors have challenged them and made class memorable. Seek out those teachers.

▪  Drinking yourself silly is an idiotic waste of time. Regular inebriation is not a rite of passage; it is insecurity masquerading as ritual. The majority of your classmates will find more wholesome, less destructive and far more interesting ways of passing the time. Join them.

▪  Attend events. Never again will so many fascinating things take place within walking distance, and mostly for free. Never been to a symphony or a dance performance? Now’s the time. Ever heard a diplomat talk about life overseas? Here’s your chance. You’ll have the rest of your life to watch Netflix, so pay attention to the campus calendar and get out of your dorm room.

▪  Establish credit. Make your own rent payments, or get a credit card and pay off the balance every month. This will be helpful after graduation when you need to buy a car or move across the country or do other adult things.

▪ Being bored is a choice, not something that happens to you. Becoming an interesting, engaging person – which is what you’re supposed to be doing – starts with being interested and engaged. If you’re doing college right, you’ll find everything in life yields deeper, more complex thought.

▪ You can more easily explore those deep thoughts if you put away your phone every so often. A wealth of research shows that daydreaming – that thing people used to do while waiting or walking or lying awake at the end of the day – is good for you. Don’t fill all of those idle moments with text messages or mindless web-browsing. (Also, it’s deeply embarrassing when you walk into a fixed object – tree, curb, large building – while staring into your phone. I see students smack into landscaping quite often, and it’s worrisome.)

▪ Read stuff. There are other means of learning, and colleges are getting better about using interactive technology, discussion groups and even instructional games. But at the end of the day, the bulk of the distinction between knowledge and ignorance will come down to what you’ve read and what you haven’t.

▪ Coffee is safe, legal and inexpensive. If you feel the temptation to dabble in chemical stimulants, stick with that one.

▪ Make good use of your summers. Intern, get a job, join a research project. It’ll help you decide what you want from post-graduate life.

▪ Use the college passport. Being a college student gives you an easy introduction to almost anyone, and especially anyone who’s an alum of your school. As an undergraduate, I called up a Washington Post reporter to talk about a story I liked, spoke with a state legislator about a policy I didn’t understand and had total strangers in Mississippi put me up in their living room for a week while I wrote about Hurricane Katrina. Most people are inclined to be patient and kind toward college students. Take them up on it, and remember to pay it forward.

Most importantly, relish these days. The opportunity to think and learn and figure out your place in the world is an enormous privilege. Do not, do not, do not waste it.

Eric Johnson is a 2008 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill. He now works in the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid at UNC, but the views expressed here are his own.