HarmonyThere's a lot that can be said for the beginning of the school year. It's an end to all of those projects you promised yourself you would finally get done this summer, only to leave with half-empty rooms still unpainted. It's a chance to see friends again and make new ones. It's a return to regimen after months of pushing back the alarm or not setting one at all.
This particular beginning presents a new set of challenges and offers new rewards. Two of my best
The title sophomore comes from the Greek for "wise fool." As I assume that mantel, proud that I could figure out half of that translation without Wikipedia, I am trying to be conscious of the places where my wisdom falls short. In seeing the incoming first years I am reminded of my early moments here and am trying to resist the temptation for my advice to become preaching.
Freshman ReflectionsThey never tell you everything you need to know. This sentiment is wide-spread during finals, often directed at professors and TAs who didn’t highlight (or who did highlight and then you slept through) that one crucial piece of information on the final. In fact, this absence of surety is a hallmark of the college experience. Not sure where that obscure seminar room is. Not sure if the food at the dinning hall is fish or chicken. Not sure what you’ll be doing in four…now three years. Not sure who’ll you will be when you walk out those gates.
As a way to combat that sense of not really knowing what the hell you’re doing, countless books have been published on college. This time last year, as a soon-to-be freshman, I picked up one or two of my own. They were informative (sometimes), funny (sometimes), but mostly they served to calm my nerves. Others had done this before and escaped relatively unscathed. Why couldn’t I? I arrived on campus a few months later, those trusty bibles packed away among my things, and promptly forgot about them. Life moved too fast those first few weeks to pick up a book, let alone one not assigned for class.
Luckily for me, one of the books that was assigned to me for class turned out to be another ‘tips and tricks’ book, much like the ones gathering dust in my dorm room, that would help me start solving the what the hell am I doing conundrum. Entitled What They Don’t Teach You in Film School, it is a book of 161 strategies for making your own movie. Now pretend that said movie is instead your life and you will have an understanding of why this particular book is so helpful when it comes to getting your life together.
As a way to reflect on my first year at college (wow…it’s over already…) and to hopefully share some whimsical, dare say, wisdom, I’ll be writing a series of reflection pairing life advice for freshman and filmmakers. I can make no promises about its accuracy, relevance, or usefulness. But I can promise words (and maybe even a few pictures). Make of it what you will.
Freshman Reflection: To Wine or Dine
#66: Drink No Wine Until It’s Time
For many people, college is their first experience with alcohol. For others, it isn’t. And as you can well imagine, when those too groups get together everyone is in for a bit of culture shock. Given that parties are fairly large part of the social scene on campus, it is important to develop a relationship with alcohol that works with who you are. Importantly, you should try to figure out this relationship early. Like, first-party early if you can manage it. The reason for this is pretty simple: you make fewer friends vomiting on someone’s carpet than you do by not. Unless you’re goal is to spend the majority of your weekend bent over, it is probably wise to figure out what you’re plan is before you leave your dorm. Most of the best pieces of advice I’ve received this year have come, perhaps not unsurprisingly, from my Stage Management professor. He, and I’m sure many others, cautioned that you should go to the party and then leave the party. Early. Preferably before 2 a.m. if you can manage it. Because nothing good ever happens after 2 a.m. This is personal call, but I have found the post-2 period can be one of the best moments of your life or one of the worst. It’s up to you.
Freshman Reflection: A Guest Lecture
Don’t listen to any of the above advice; it’s not bad, but it’s not necessarily you. Don’t let anyone tell you what your college experience should be. Be yourself and make your own way.
This one doesn’t need any explaining. It’s a quote from a friend, solicited in the final days of the semester. I figured in the spirit of full-disclosure, it would be good to present a bit of an alternate view. As this wise friend so succinctly states, this advice isn’t necessarily you. It might very well be the exact opposite of your experience at college or even in an entirely different dimension. But regardless, even this advising against advice contains some (yep, you guessed it) pretty standard advice. You hear it a lot from people as you’re are packing up in August and you hear it endlessly once you step onto campus. Be yourself. It seems like pretty standard, even trite at this point. But things become trite because they are true. Or at least, because they sound like truth.
My dorm floor became very close, very fast at the beginning of this year. The afternoons were spent milling about in the common room. We pretended to be working, but I for one could never accomplish anything in that room. I had never been able to work around others, but I told myself that I should be social. Get to know people. Make an effort. So I went. I talked. I got to know people. I went to parties with them. I’m not sure what it is like at other colleges, but for freshmen here the first few weeks go something like this: Get together in the evening. Try to find people who know about parties. Try to find said parties (usually in groups of ten or more). Be unable to get into said parties. Repeat until despair sets in. I’m not a party person, so this particular exercise held very little appeal for me. It was not until I realized that, yes, there are in fact other ways to have fun in college, that I understood how I could have fun while still being me.
See, a nice cliché story about being yourself. By the end of first semester, most people have one of these at least. And if they don’t, by second semester the usually do. It’s always reassuring to hear stories from people you respect that align with your own experience. That why things become cliché.
Freshman Reflection: Persistence
#5: Persistence Can Take You Far
College is confusing and a lot of the people there will have no idea who you are. But you're going to want/need to get things from these people. That is often difficult given the first point. This is why persistence is important. (Also, it's important in the grand cosmic "life" sense, but we'll start with getting things.) My first-semester stint as a reporter for the school paper put me in the position of needing things. A lot. Usually a quote or an interview with some fairly senior member of the administration who didn't really have time for me. And here I learned the joy of the cold email. "Hi Dr. Important. My name is..." If you send enough of them, someone is bound to reply. And then you talk to them, remembering to ask who else you should speak with about this. Rinse and repeat as needed.
Freshman Reflection: Find a Doorstop
#6: Keep an Open Door
Metaphorically, it is pretty obvious how this applies to college. You’re going to be having new experiences, meeting new people, learning new things. Be open to them. It will enrich your life endlessly. This is especially true at the student activities fair every school has in the fall. Sign up for everything that interest you. I never knew I enjoyed working with education policy until I signed up with a group that did (they had a cool logo, what can I say?). But now I’ve published a policy piece with them. Life can be cool like that (okay, maybe not cool…) if you’re open to it.
Freshman Reflection: Who are you?
#15: Maybe You Don’t Know Who You Want to Be
If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t know who you want to be. You maybe know what you want to be, but who is a pretty big question. College is often billed as a great place to figure out who you are and so far for me it has been. Every introduction is an exercise is self-definition. “Hi, I’m a History major.” “Hi, I do student theater.” “Hi, I play football.” “Hi, I’m from New York.” Consciously or not these moments merge to form a sense of self that is free from as much of your baggage as you want it to be. That being said, college should not just be a place to find out who you are. Why? Because its an expensive and work-intensive way to find yourself. A weekend retreat or a year hitchhiking in South America could be equally effective and doesn’t come with the price tag. Granted, I can’t think of many people who go to college for this reason. It tends to be a byproduct rather than an intent.
Freshman Reflection: An Expensive Nap
#104: Go to Class! It's important.
It's why you're here. It's expensive. Going to class is the single most important thing you can do, along with homework and sleep. (Just don't let sleep interfere with class.) I missed one class first semester. It was a large lecture and I was missing it to sing at an event, so I figured I karmicly I was covered. I'd just grab the notes from someone else and that would be that. Jump forward one week: I need to buy tickets home for Thanksgiving and can't find if that particular class was cancelled or not. So I email my professor. His response, "As I mentioned in class the other day, we will not have class." Well...now me professor knows I skipped. It was embarrassing. So, in short, go to class.
College Essays - Revisited
Today, during the two-hour break we had from rehearsal, I met up with the friends from high school. One of them is still a senior, out here visiting schools. It may be a tad sadistic, but one of the most enjoyable experiences for college students is to watch other kids apply to college. That speaks volumes about the pain involved in the process; and who doesn't like little bit a schadenfreude once and again? But an interesting point came up in conversation. Namely, why do college essays suck so much.
One easy argument against college essays is that they are simply extra work that nobody wants. But I think they are hard because, if done well, they require you to put a lot more into them then you might realize. Not only are you asked to put down 250-500 words, you are asked to fit yourself within that short space. And that is of course predicated on the assumption that you know what this "self" is. It's a challenge for anyone to encapsulate themselves in 500 words, but for a 17-year old it is often overwhelming. And this is on top of senior year school work and choosing colleges and general teenage life (which is never allows as much time for self-reflection as you want).
Michael Winerip of The New York Times has a wonderful line about this in an article he wrote recently: "They’re thinking big and exotic, when they need to think small and meaningful. The single most important advice I give them is to write about something that happened to them that made them feel deeply."
So maybe, instead of focusing picking just the right life story, they should focus on the internal relevance of the story. Don't write what you think they want you to write. Write about what is important to you, what you think defines you. And if you do it well it will also allow you to think deeply about yourself. Correctly done, the college essay should be a defining experience, a line drawn, before and after. (And, done correctly also means done!)
College Cliches Addressed
|Being a good neighbor has slightly|
different meanings in college.
1) The food is awful…?
This one is tough. You hear a lot from upperclassmen about how much Leo's (the dinning hall) has horrible food. And some items (the eggs, for example) definitely fit the bill. But most of the food is of decent quality, at least. The real issue with college food is it's monotonous. With only one dinning hall on campus, food options are very limited. And after a week and a half or so the meals start to get boring. A special effort is required to keep lunch and dinner (one is never awake for breakfast) interesting.
2) Campus is really pretty.
Yes, the parts that the tours see are incredibly beautiful. The Neo-Gothic stonework and finely manicured lawns compliment each other masterfully. But the walk from your dorm to the dinning hall (made four times a day, at least) is dominated by the construction going on at several locations throughout campus. The wide-eyed prospective students see Healy Hall, you see 4 dumpsters. It's not all gloom; when the weather is nice (like today) you can go sit out on the front lawn with your friends and your homework and have a wonderful time.
|The front of campus.|
|Not the front of campus.|
3) You make friends with everyone on your floor.
Most definitely. Two suggestions to make it easier: keep your door open whenever possible and visit the common room often.
4) Do your homework.
This one is obvious, but comes with a warning you don't really think you'll need before you arrive: find somewhere where you can actually do your work. If you need people around, the busy common room is a great place. If you need peace, don't study there no matter how social you want to be. If you need to leave your dorm, the library is a great place to go. If there's a business school on campus, odds are its building has great study spaces. If you aren't in the business school, pretend you are anywhere. It's totally worth it.
As college approaches, rather too quickly for my taste, various aspects of college preparation fall at my feet. For high schoolers, the words "college prep" elicit images of SAT scores, application essays, and AP tests. But once graduation has passed, those words take on a new meaning. Comforters need ordering, classes need to be selected, and roommates need to be selected. For the next 21 days, until I pack my life into the trunk of the car and head off to Georgetown, I'll be presenting a series on getting ready for college.
This is the part of the summer I'm really not looking forward to: the leaving. I've known some of my friends for over a decade now. A few for longer than that. I have spent countless hours a day with these people, day in, day out. We have shared our lives forever it seems. And soon it all changes.
We head off to different schools in different cities. And our daily sharing will turn into occasional meetings during break. It's going to be a transition. Possibly a painful one, but one that is unavoidable. But it comes with a warning.
For some people, the change to college is a welcome break from high school. They want to get away from the place and the people they've been stuck with the past four years. A few choice friends will remain, but they want to break to be as clean as possible.
On the other side of the spectrum are the people who can't bear to leave. They've built countless lasting friendships that have sustained them throughout the years. The thought of losing that and having to rebuild those friendships is overwhelming.
The truth of how it actually goes down (according to veterans) is somewhere in the middle. You come from school occasionally. You hang out with the people you want to see, you ignore the ones you don't. You spend more time at home then you think you will, and you see more of your friends than you think you will. That being said, you will make new friends at college who see more of you than you might want. It's all a balance of what you want to get out of it, as with everything.
Can I Have the Keys: Parent-Child Relations
Teenagers don't often get along with their parents, so the media tells us. And often, it's true. Being a teenager is an awkward period. You are assuming greater responsibilities and gaining more independence, but at the same time are still utterly dependent on your parents for some things. And that dynamic leads to some friction between parent and child.
As you prepare for college, there needs to be some sort of conversation about new boundaries and the amount of parental control you're okay with. This is especially important if you're living at home for college. You are more of an adult now and there is a new set of expectations for you. College is something your parents can't really help you with and shouldn't be the ones pushing you. You should be pushing yourself. With that needs to come an understanding from the parents: We will treat you like more of an adult because we expect you to act like one.
It's a delicate balance to maintain. Your parents will probably be helping you pay for college. Or letting you live at home. Or just playing the "we gave you life" card. Anyway you play it, you can't be completely on your own and you have to recognize that. If you and your parents can come to a consensus about the changes in your relationship, life will be better.
Shopping for Stuff
There are some things you just need to get when you go off to college. Okay, it's not definitive or even a good idea necessarily to get everything on this list, but here is my take on a topic done to death:
College Shopping List
1) Laptop - While this isn't a necessity, it will definitely make life easier. The real question is if you'll get a Mac or a PC. I went with a MacBook Pro because I've been using Mac all my life and it's what I'm comfortable with. Others will get a Mac because it's the "thing to do" when you go to college. Don't be that guy.
2) Cool Posters - A need-to-have for any dorm room. Posters will let you express yourself and let others know where you stand on the Star Wars/Star Trek debate. Plus, it lets you cover up that awkward stain on the wall.
3) Footlocker - A good security measure that lets you lock up your valuables. Theft happens at school regardless of where you are going to, so don't let it happen to you.
4) Moose Head - Inflatable if you can't get your hands on a real one. That way, you're that guy with a moose head in his dorm. Yeah.
5) Sound-Canceling Headphones - For those nights when your neighbor can't stop crying or your roommate is playing that rap you don't like. Dorms are crowded and this way you can have quiet when you want it.
6) Flip-flops - Don't go to the bathroom without these. Seriously, don't!
Shopping for Classes
The most challenging part of college preparation so far has been picking classes. It's really the first taste you get of just how different college is from high school. Before, where there were maybe 50 class choices between all the departments, there are now at least 50 choices per department. And there is no one telling you what classes you should take to get into a good college. You're in college.
The first step is to imagine where you want to go with your life. Yep, big picture stuff right off the batt. You need to do this because some of your freshman courses will be pre-requisites for your major classes later on. Once you've done that, look at the general education requirements you need to fill. Some of those can be covered by AP exams (check this carefully with your school), the rest you will need to fulfill sometime in the next four years.
After you have a general idea of what courses you want to take, it's time to look at the schedule. This is where things get confusing: you jump head-first into your college's computer system, with little or no prep. It'll take a while to navigate your way through the system, but no worries, you'll figure it out soon enough. Find some classes that look good. Note what requirements they fulfill and where they fit in the schedule.
Once you think you know what classes you want to take, map them out. How early on a Monday morning is your Intro Spanish class? (Never have a class before 8:30 if you can help it.) Make sure none of your classes overlap and all that good stuff. By the end of the process you should have a decent schedule (and quite a headache, too).
While some colleges have orientation spaced out during the summer, Georgetown (always looking to be different) holds New Student Orientation in the days right before classes begin. So where some kids go to class already having friends from orientation back in July, that is not the case at Georgetown…unless…
You do a pre-orientation program. I would highly suggest it. At Georgetown there are dozens of them: Outdoor Education, Leadership, Service, etc. I went on a trip with 15 other freshmen to the British Virgin Islands for a week of sailing. We learned how to read the sails, execute a tack, lay an anchor, and get sunburned. And we made some really good friendships. Living on a 43 foot boat will do that to you.
It was a great experience. And not just because of the beautiful surroundings. (Although that didn't hurt.) It was such a diverse group of kids: we had a varsity swimmer, a nursing student, a student doing vet work. In between snorkeling and sailing, we sat on the beach and discussed NATO and NAFTA. It gave me confidence that the speech they give you about "deep conversations happen casually in college" is actually true.
Shopping for Roommates
Popping the Question: Finding a Roommate
One of the hallmarks of the college experience is dorm life. For many people it's their first time living away from home. For some it's their first time sharing a room and for most their first time sharing that room with a complete stranger. It can be a jarring experience if one is not prepared, but pretty much everyone agrees it is one of the best parts of college.
While living arrangements vary from school to school, the part that usually stays constant is the whole living with a complete stranger thing. (Some rare people know, and might even be friends with, their roommate before they arrive.) At some schools, you are assigned a random roommate. Others have you fill out a questionnaire and then match you with a good fit. At Georgetown, however, you get to pick your roommate through a process called C.H.A.R.M.S.
C.H.A.R.M.S. is effectively online dating for roommates. You fill out a questionnaire and can then search for people who match your answers. Then you have to initiate contact and see if they are interested in you. Messages are exchanged. Facebook stalking ensues. Is this guy a good match for me? Does he like Star Wars or Wrath of the Titans? He is country, rap, or jazz? When does he go to bed? How warm does he like the room?
If the answers you find don't send you running for the hills, it's time to send them a "Roommate Request" message. This part is as close as most 18-year olds will (hopefully) ever get to proposing. It's nerve wracking: for better or worse this person will be the one living with you for the next year. Are you really ready to make that commitment? You close your eyes and breathe and press "send."