The following list consists of a mix of recommendations based on both the things I did and did not do well in college. I hope these reflections will help you as you make your own way forward in college and in the years ahead.
1. Seek help: This is a time to learn.
It can be tempting in a high-pressure environment like college to play to your strengths and put on a good face just to make the grade. I know I did that often. But keep that up long enough and you’re likely to leave college with many of the same insecurities or weaknesses you brought with you when you arrived. Right now, wherever you may be in your college journey, it’s okay not to know how to write a good paper, how to be the lead in a play, how to speak a foreign language. That’s what’s so special about college: you have up to four years ahead of you to practice being the person you want to be and learning the things you want to learn. Looking back, I think I excelled in undergrad to the degree that I sought out and confided in mentors who could help me develop as both a student and a person. Your mentors can’t solve your problems or grow for you, but chances are they have both the wisdom and the desire to help see you through whatever questions, concerns, or opportunities you may be facing.
2. Trust your gut, but, whenever possible, articulate the reasons.
In the second semester of my freshman year, I signed up for two fateful politics courses, the first of which taught me not only to trust my gut but to articulate the reasons beneath my feelings. The course was an introduction to comparative politics, in which we studied the different governmental systems currently and historically in use around the world. I don’t remember much from the class, but one memory is still particularly striking. At one point, my professor began to explain how communism fits into the overarching schema of government; but something in the way she was explaining it made me feel really uneasy. Given my background of studying the Divine Principle on STF and growing up as a Unificationist, it seemed to me like something was off, but I had no idea what it was or how to explain it.
It can be hard to sit with and sift through these kinds of feelings, but there is great value in taking the time to explore and articulate them for yourself. Whether in reflection, essays, artwork, or something else altogether, as you gain clarity, you not only come to own the knowledge but you can also share your insights with others and add your voice to the conversations around you. The words and ideas of a document like The Communist Manifesto have indelibly shaped the course of global history for the past 170 years. But our words and ideas can have that same kind of impact if we take the time to understand and articulate what we’re seeing, what we’re hearing, what we’re feeling, and why.
3. Train your head and your heart.
College is absolutely one of the best places to cultivate your mind. You will be exposed to a lot of new ideas and you will be challenged to understand and speak about those ideas in sophisticated ways, which can empower your service of others and improve your contributions to your community. However, it’s really important in the midst of heady and enthralling studies not to lose sight of growing your heart and caring for the hearts of others. I had to learn, and am still learning, that it’s okay sometimes to put down the books and pay attention to the people around you, whether they are overjoyed or hurting.
It’s harder for me to speak from the other perspective of someone who has a natural inclination to be more heartistic than intellectual. But for anyone coming at this dynamic from that angle, I would encourage you to challenge yourself by training your mind, too. Care for those around you, invest in your relationships; but don’t forget to cultivate yourself and grow in your understanding of the wider world. I feel sure that your compassion and care will only be deepened by greater knowledge and awareness of the people who have come before you.
4. Seek out ways to create the college experience you need and want to have.
Despite attending a small liberal arts college in the middle of Iowan cornfields, I had the opportunity to spend most of my senior year off-campus living and/or working with a variety of different religious communities in New York and in England. Impossible, you may think, but it’s true. And if a small college like mine can afford to have the grant programs that made my travels possible, I am certain that your college will have similar opportunities available to you, too. The onus is simply on you to seek them out and to use them to the best of your ability.
I firmly believe that there’s a lot of value in classical education; I even wish I had more exposure to classical education and training in undergrad than I did. But hands-down, the experiences that emerged when I developed an individualized program and applied for funding from my school to travel abroad and immersively study different religions in my senior year were some of the best experiences of my life. Follow your inklings, think and plan creatively, and use your college’s resources to your advantage. They are there for you to use as much as they are there for anyone else.
In the event that you need to submit applications and sit for interviews to receive funding for your projects, the best advice I ever received to succeed as a candidate was more or less this: Show them how this opportunity fits into the narrative of your experiences so far. You see the value in it, the connection to your interests and who you are. You just need to help someone else see what you’re seeing.
5. Trust in the rich and transformative power of respectful honesty.
Heading off to college right after STF, it wasn’t long before I began to feel very alone in the way I looked at the world. I was the only Unificationist on campus, and sensing and fearing the possibility for disagreement and conflict with both peers and administrators, I largely kept to myself for the first two and a half years of college: sitting alone at lunch, building relationships with only a few key professors and mentors—even founding and nominally leading an intentional interfaith community on campus in my junior year wasn’t enough to pull me out of my shell.
As I reflect back on these experiences and choices now, however, I feel really sorry that I wasn’t more honest about who I was or what I believed. I still think that I would have drawn the ire of some of my more vocal peers by opening up; but now I can also see how my authenticity might have opened doors to valuable relationships and possibilities I could not have imagined or experienced otherwise. I firmly believe now that rich and life-giving relationships can only come when we are truly present to others; and we can only be present to others when we are honest about our beliefs, our values, our questions, our doubts, our hopes.
If all goes well in college, you will not be leaving as the same person you were when you got there. Be prepared to grow and to change, to walk alongside the people around you, and trust that your sincerity will invite God’s presence in your successes and your failures alike.
Best of luck on your journey!
P.S. A couple of practical bonuses just because:
Bonus 1: The best simple advice to succeed academically that I ever received in college, “Learn to think, speak, and write critically.” Here’s a website and a book or two to help you get started.
Bonus 2: Especially useful for humanities majors and courses, though others may also benefit: bookfinder.com. This site compares the prices and shipping costs of books used and new from multiple online retailers. Wherever possible, try to search via ISBN; that will get you the most accurate results.