My undergraduate days at Michigan State University still rank as some of the finest in my 43+ years of existence. Childhood may have been “nicer”, but it didn’t provide the challenges and stimulation that college brought with it. In this article, you will learn some basics about succeeding as an undergraduate once you’ve enrolled in a school.
Find Your Niches
In the autumn at MSU, we had what was known as “Welcome Week.” This was a time in which students became more acquainted with the school and/or with fellow dorm members. In essence though, Welcome Week is just a sample of what you do throughout your first year or two of college.
Some basic niches discussed below include majors, social activities, and contact with professors.
Your Major: Expose Yourself to a Variety of Fields
Some of us had a pretty good idea of our majors prior to even entering college, others don’t decide until halfway through. I happened to do a little bit of both, as in my college at MSU first we went through something akin to academic bootcamp during our freshman year, and then we were officially allowed to choose specific major within the college for our sophomore years and beyond.
I might also note here for those who don’t know, universities usually contain several colleges within them. For instance, I graduated James Madison College at Michigan State University. Sometimes there are even divisions within colleges, called schools, and divisions within schools called departments. It was such that you could have a major within a department that’s within a school that’s within a college that’s within the university. This makes “smaller” the large universities, and to me goes a long ways in quelling some the misgivings that high school students may have about attending big schools. You don’t usually have to deal with the whole university at once, as most of the time you’ll only be working with small bites of it if you should choose to do so.
At any rate, in addition to my political theory major, I ended up selecting a second major too, one that I’d scarcely touched prior to college, philosophy. Once I was exposed to philosophy, I realized I wanted to study it further. So this is a great way to go about selecting a major, explore and experiment academically. Take a variety of courses in different fields and you may slowly begin to whittle down your desires. High school provides only a small introduction to what’s available in college. This is how you take small feelings for fields and stoke them into passions, by finding what moves you.
Enjoy Social Aspects
I had it rather easy socially, since I attended a residential college (one in which many of the courses for your major are taught in the same building as you reside, and often the offices of your professors are there too). This meant that about one-third of the people in my dorm were studying public policy in one fashion or another. Having similar academic interests will immediately provide you with “something in common” and thus can work as an icebreaker. On weeknights, we used to gather around TVs to watch David Letterman or Monday Night Football. After that, some euchre (a card game popular in the Midwest), beer and tunes. Yes, we stayed up pretty late even back in the olden days. Many of us took courses later and later in the day the longer we were in college.
On weekends we used to throw parties in the dorms and sometimes walk to parties off-campus too. Then later I ended up living off-campus myself. Back then, I think most dorms were a lot more lax regarding partying.
Another thing you can do is attend some frat parties even if you’re not in a frat and never want to be. Some frats are actually down-to-earth, and friendly to outsiders. There was a frat called I think it was Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) that was supposed to be a “Jewish frat” and they threw great open bashes that many of us non-frat-boy-non-Jews attended. We used to show up as a motley crew, with hippies (I qualified as a hippie in the 80s), preppies, African-Americans, nerds, jocks, musicians, etc. because we always had such a great time and AEPi were such good hosts.
I was never big on organized social groups, but that’s what some people groove on. There are lots of such groups in college, beyond frats and sororities. Usually there will be a webpage for your school that lists such groups. I ended up joining the James Madison College Reading Group, mostly because I liked reading and arguing, I mean discussing :) I was rather blind to such things as resumes and “networking” in those days – ah innocence! I also participated in several intramural sports.
Speaking of sports, attend your school’s athletic events! I enjoy MSU sports now even more than I did “back in the day”, so go to all variety of sporting events while it’s convenient for you to do so! Years later you will be glad you were there to witness history, or at least to have had a good time.
Meet Some Profs
It was easy for me to get acquainted with profs because of our tightknit college but also in retrospect I think because they could see my sincerity and wide-eyed undergraduate curiosity. It is an important step to find a couple of profs whom you enjoy because it makes you feel like you’re with them in a sense spiritually instead of just in a high schoolish teacher/student dichotomy. If you find it difficult to get to know profs, perhaps because your courses are so large, pop in on them during office hours! You can also make a conscious decision to choose some smaller courses even in a large university, as I did. When I used to tutor (many years after I had graduated), I asked each of my tutees to visit the prof for his/her course at least once. I ended up with a handful of favorite profs during my years, and when I could, I took multiple courses with them. Sometimes I even enrolled in “independent study”, which is a wonderful way to learn one-on-one with a professor without even having to operate within a standard course schedule.
Excercise discipline. When I spoke of Letterman, euchre, beer, and parties before, I must add caution to that now. Usually I ate dinner with my friends, returned to my room and took a catnap, then studied or wrote from about 7PM until Letterman time (stopping short if Monday Night Football was on). A routine is good to have, even if you break it sometimes. This decreases cramming and last minute throwing together of papers. It’s also just a good way to learn, as opposed to conducting your education as if it’s a fire drill.
Don’t exercise too much discipline. College can be a wonderful and life-changing experience, but it also has its share of stress. Some students are so dedicated academically that they forget to have fun, and may end up burning out or worse. Be sure to reward yourself for having followed good study habits. Socialize, unwind, sleep. In short, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
Tips & Warnings
- Variety of courses and friends are key
- Passion develops out of diverse exposure
- Study first, party later