We spend an inordinate amount of time assisting young people to get into college. We spend a fortune on prep courses, we travel across the country going on college tours, we calculate the right advanced placement courses, we try to figure out whether early admission is the right move, we sit with their counselors, and then, finally, when they make it across the finishing line—when they arrive on campus in their freshman year—we drop them, like the Stork dropping a package down the chimney and disappearing. Sure, we ask them to call, we support them emotionally, but what are the tools we left them with that will allow them to achieve, as young adults, in the university?
Indeed, we’ve left them with one misnomer: that college is a continuation of school. Maybe—but it’s a lot more than that.
College is the beginning of the work world. It’s a student’s bridge to the practical world they’d like to live in. It’s the gateway between school and making a living. That is the reality. And it’s in college that they’ll have to develop the very proactive leadership skills that will enhance their success in the future. College is self-discovery and the beginning of a student’s capacity to move his or her own agenda.
They’re many keys to this, but one of the most important keys to a student is to connect with faculty members. A college student needs to connect with one or two professors who will not simply educate them in engineering, art history, or Victorian novels, but will mentor them and challenge the way they think.
To a large degree, this occurs in the classroom—but mentoring relationships that are truly successful occur outside the classroom. They start when the student shows interest. It starts when the student displays curiosity.
Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to work with many great undergraduate students. Those with whom I maintain a relationship to this day and whom I remember most are those who were clever enough and assertive enough to reach out to me.
They were the ones I involved in research projects, they were the ones who discussed their career with me, they were the ones who shared their fears and worries over a cup of coffee. They weren’t necessarily the most brilliant—but they were the ones who understood that education was a process of focusing and that faculty could help them in this process.
These are the students for whom one can write robust letters of recommendations. Today there is a lot of talk about ‘authenticity’–these are the students that you can write authentic letters for. Letters not just strewn with glorified adjectives–but detailed shared experience. These are the students that, in the best sense of it, never go away and come back every so often just to check in. These are the students who are smart, competent, and I have enjoyed working with.
So lesson number one for college students: In your search for discovery, in your search for a career and direction, partner with a number of faculty members. Find out about their research projects, don’t hesitate to share with them your struggles—don’t be afraid to open up and engage them. In higher education as in life–things happen because you make them happen. Relationships emerge because you invest in a relationship–so seek out a faculty mentor.
Remember, most will be receptive, many will be flattered, and you’ll be surprised as to the generosity of their spirit.