Jonathan Plucker’s Tips on How to Succeed in College #3: Education = Personal Improvement

This haiku from “Haiku for New College Students” features a special guest appearance by a widely admired world leader:

College is full of cool things

But the Dalai Lama’s not

coming to your place

The Trajectory Matters

This haiku is, as you can imagine, rooted in personal experience, and I’ll come back to it in a minute. I strongly believe that the secret to a happy and successful life is to strive for personal improvement, and I try to model this as often as possible. I strive to be a better husband and father, I want every course I teach to be better than the last, I reflect on how to be a more helpful friend and colleague, and I constantly look for ways to work faster and more effectively.

Do I always succeed? Heavens, no. But the trajectory is what matters.

You can be someone new.

When you get to college, you have a fantastic opportunity for personal improvement, in that you have enormous resources to work with and starting college is a great time to reinvent yourself. It’s easy to be tagged as “the kid who did X in fourth grade” and have that follow you through high school, but you can shake that completely when you enter college. Even if you go to the same college as many of your high school peers, you can exist in completely separate circles from them without much difficulty. Not that you absolutely should, of course, but college is one of the best times in life to reinvent yourself.

But — no one is going to do that for you. Which brings us back to the haiku.

It’s up to you.

I once organized an event, and as luck would have it, the Dalai Lama was going to be in town. The event was highly relevant to his work and teachings, and by coordinating with his staff in India, we were able to get him involved.

I was also teaching a course during this time and gave every student a front-row ticket on request. A couple days after the event, a student angrily approached me and said he didn’t get a ticket. The conversation went something like this:

Student: “EVERYONE ELSE WENT, BUT I FORGOT TO ASK YOU FOR A TICKET AND COULDN’T GO!” Me: “Yes, that’s exactly what happened.”

After talking him off the ledge, we had a lengthy discussion about the difference between high school and college in this regard. As I’ve noted previously, you had lots of people looking out for you in high school, even if you didn’t realize it at the time. If a cool opportunity popped up, one of the many adults in your life probably noticed and mentioned it to you.

At college or university, that’s not necessarily going to happen. This is primarily because it’s not easy for your instructors to communicate with you outside of class. We don’t know where you live, you may not check your email very often, and many of us don’t feel comfortable texting or interacting with you on social media (not all professors feel this way, but most do). As a result, if I learn of something cool happening, I’m going to mention it in class a couple times, but then it’s up to you. Follow up, don’t follow up, it’s no skin off my back.

Find something to try.

A college campus, and more broadly, the communities in which colleges are situated, are almost always an embarrassment of riches: interesting guest speakers, fun clubs, great volunteering opportunities, and so on. Want to learn a new language? Join the crocheting club? Learn to skydive? Help address homelessness? You can do all these things and many more. Whoever you want to be, you can probably find a way to be that person — or at least start moving in that direction — at your college or university. But you need to find the way.

Takeaways:

  • College is a wonderful opportunity for personal improvement. It’s personal because it is completely up to you. It’s about improvement because most colleges and universities have plentiful resources to help you change or improve just about any aspect of your life.

  • Nothing is sadder to a professor than seeing a former student right before she graduates, and having her tell you her college experience was “just OK.” In most cases, that means she didn’t take advantage of even a fraction of what was available. Don’t be a sad graduate — be the graduate who can look back on the college experience and think, “Wow, I’m a different, better person now.”

  • Finding interesting opportunities is as easy as browsing bulletin boards once or twice a month and skimming the campus paper and website each day.

Read Jonathan Plucker's introductory article on How to Succeed in College and yesterday's post Learn How to Learn. You can also check out new installments each weekday through January 15, 2016.

If you’re still in high school, you can use the free Noodle college search tool to explore 2- and 4-year institutions and learn which will be a good fit for you. Register for a free account to save school lists and share them with family, friends, and other trusted adults.