How to Choose your College

Two Trees Los Banos copy

Having just returned from a couple of recruitment events on behalf of the University of California, Santa Barbara, I am full of the delight of talking with bright motivated candidates for admission to the fall quarter. But I am also mindful of errors in education I have seen, and made myself, and I have a couple of ideas to offer about how a young person, with a handful of congratulatory admissions in hand, might think about where to go for four years of challenge, before responding to those delicious offers.

First of all, remember that it doesn’t make that much difference which one you attend. The university name isn’t going to bring you glory, not as an undergraduate. (As a graduate student where you go becomes far more important.) It depends on how you attend. Are you getting a degree to check a box in your projected career or are you off on a voyage of discovery and adventure? Don’t miss the long view because the ivy blinded you.

You want a community, a place that you feel will help you grow as a person and a scholar. Go see the possibilities, smell the air, see if folk are friendly. Ask about competition in the classroom, in research, in politics and popularity. You can actually find a campus that’s just like high school, alas. A place where everyone postures to seem more blasé and sophisticated than everyone else, surprised at nothing, assuming that means some kind of win. In my estimation, that is not what college is supposed to be about. Or you can find institutions that don’t look to give the student a broad experience, that narrow down the choices to a safe unchallenging world view with nice walls firm on their foundations. I object to that too.

Undergraduate experience is personal, it matters that the fit is right. If you love a cut-throat atmosphere and it makes you thrive, go for it. If you would rather spend less time watching your back and more time pushing the boundaries of science or art or writing to create the future we all can share, go somewhere that has an emphasis on the fact that we can work together to thrust back the forces of ignorance. If you are driven, excited about possibilities, we’ll all meet up at the end.

A lot goes in to that sense of a good fit, because after all, a college or university should make you uncomfortable. It should make you stretch, far beyond your comfort zone. You should experience failure there, as well as triumph. You should go hungry for fresh thoughts and ideas, concepts and explorations. You go to be challenged in your assumptions, in your conclusions, in your accumulated wisdom. You go to college or university to find out what you don’t know, and all the questions that no one has answers to,  material that unsettles and roils the mind. To plant a field, you need to harrow it first, and that’s a big part of what college needs to do with you. So when you look remember that you want a diverse student body who do not all believe the same things. You want this diversity in faculty and staff as well, an institution that allows these disparate ideas to be heard, and you want to listen to all the voices, even though they may upset and anger you. An education will teach you about things you might prefer to ignore or deny, but that is the point. You should never have to believe everything you hear or are taught, but you do need to know what those things are. I have never seen ignorance protect a single soul from anything. Not in the plowed field, nor in a musty library, nor yet in the streets of the city.

Don’t go to college to look good. Don’t aim low. Go willing to look foolish, to ask dumb questions– because at the end of the day you may have a graying professor scratching her head and saying–“I never thought about it that way before– you just opened a real can of worms.” Go to class–yeah, many big classes don’t take attendance so you can skip lectures. Many kids do. But if you do, you will be like the fellow who goes in to an expensive restaurant and pays for the meal, but walks out without eating it. Such a person is by any measure a fool.

I hope you don’t have to work while in college. Work will expect you to give it your all. Trouble is, so will the university. It is like being married to two people at the same time and trying to uphold the needs of two households, children included. Daycare, parent conferences, doctor’s appointments, quarrels, peace-making, holidays that conflict. It is brutal trying to make both things succeed as each deserves. Better if you can pick the less expensive school if that might allow you to do the learning with a whole soul. An education isn’t a trivial entertainment, it’s hard work, done right, and why would you want to waste your time doing it less than the right?

Go to office hours– there’s no one more desperate for company than the lonely professor waiting in his or her or their office waiting for office hours to be over. Ask professors what they’re working on. All of them have research projects ongoing, and those projects are things they love. You may not yet know, looking at colleges now, that half, or even more, of what professors do isn’t  focused on teaching, nor should it be. They are daily fighting on the frontiers of knowledge and understanding through their research, and that struggle is where the power of their teaching gains its edge to cut deep. Maybe you’ll catch this enthusiasm– the greatest gift of all. But if that doesn’t happen, when it comes time that you need a recommendation for your future job or graduate school, those professors with whom you sat and talked will actually remember who you were, out of the sea of faces in lecture, and be able to write an insightful recommendation because you bothered to go and meet them face to face, and let them know who you really are. Too many times a professor is faced with a young person saying “I need a recommendation for med school and I just loved your class. I got an ‘A’ in it.” The professor looks at the stranger’s face and lamely says, “Well, let me see. Can you tell me something about yourself…?”

And here’s one more thought. When you arrive on your campus, remember that no one knows you. Yes, that’s intimidating, but it also means that this is one of those magical opportunities to rewrite your script. If the first thing you do is a face plant in the flower bed with everyone watching, you’re free to spring up with a laugh because no one at this new school knows you’re not the funniest, friendliest, kindest, happiest soul in the world. You can choose to be that person you always wished to become. Leave all accidents of pretension behind, (haven’t we all memories like that which make us cringe,) forget arrogance, and be inviting, be generous. Open your doors to the finest in others, too, and pick companions, fellow musketeers who make you learn and grow and try harder, because the prize isn’t the degree, but the self you make in these years, that self which is the only company you are guaranteed for life. Create your highest self, allow yourself some of the wonderful things you never felt you could express before.

Bon voyage, friends.


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