Saturday, January 02, 2010

Unsolicited Advice: College

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The Arboretum at UC Davis, my alma mater. It's where I used to go
write sappy letters to E when I was ditching my 1:00 class.

If you could do it all over again, would you? I'm in an odd position to answer this question all the time. Teaching Advanced Placement seniors means I answer a lot of questions about college. I've rethought and over-thought just about everything a person could when it comes to my college education. Having a college education is an asset, but of course there are things I would do differently, things I wish I knew. This is where "Unsolicited Advice" comes in.

As this is UA numero uno, I am compelled to post myriad caveats about why you don't need to listen to some grumpy, soft-in-the-middle, has-been ballerina/King Lear nerd about ANYTHING. I'll try to keep that to a minimum, but it suffices to say that I am not purporting to be any kind of expert on anything except my own life. I generally tiptoe a nervous line around controversy, so much of what I've posted on this ol' bloggy has been pretty neutral. That all starts to change, like, when you start, like, having thoughts and opinions. Like, ohmigod. So as I take this journey into writing about things about which I have opinions (some less mundane than your collegiate education,) take my advice or listen to it or not. I hope you're the expert on your own life too and we can agree to sometimes disagree because it's interesting just knowing what other people think...


First let me tell you about my experience in college. It was channeled into tunnel vision by two goals: 1) finish ASAP and 2) spend as much time with E as possible. You can see how neither of those would make for the most rockin' college experience. That's not actually the part I regret. Well, none of this is about regret, it's mostly about things I wish I knew and the knowledge that had I known them, I wouldn't be the PDawg I am today. I'm getting a brain pain, but you get it. So I graduated high school with many an AP credit to my name--enough to start almost (5 credits shy) as as sophomore. That was all good--a direct byproduct of my fear of not doing well in high school. I had the smarts, but I didn't have a lot of exposure to college life before I got there. I'll talk about that in a minute. The E thing was this: we dated as Juniors in high school, broke up, and got back together just before graduation, when our college fates had already been decided: mine at UC Davis and his at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

So in lieu of just telling you the rest of my story, here are the things I wish I knew... these are the things E and I talk about that we want our kids to know:

1) Going to a lot colleges before you apply is a wonderful idea. Go to as many as possible, even the ones you don't think you want to attend. By the time I saw the rolling hills and smelled the eucalyptus air of San Luis Obispo, it was too late for me to transfer. It would have been heaven, and I missed out on the opportunity by not being adventurous. At the time I applied to colleges (at the ripe old age of 17) I had seen exactly ONE. I bubbled random names on my application and hoped that someone else would decide for me. Unfortunately when I got in to most of them, I had to make the call and I was too afraid to go somewhere I'd never even seen. I chose the biggest university close to my home. That isn't a failure or anything, but my world was small because I didn't venture out and explore. College is such an anomaly... I wish I had known that I sat at a precipice of opportunity, but I was too scared to look over the edge.

2) Get used to the idea that you're not going to live at home when you go to college. I don't want my kids to live here when they go to school. Nope. Bye, bye, Roo. Peace out, Hank. Seeya at Christmas and Easter. Nothing personal, but I missed out on a lot of connections because I was scared to leave home but then also resented having to be there feeling like a child while my friends went out and lived in the "real" world. I want to take Hank and Ad to see schools and talk about college as an okay time to move so they're not motivated by fear of leaving. I was isolated in college because I commuted, and many of the fights I had at home were because of the difficulties of redefining our parent/kid relationship. Parents only ever know how to be your parents. That was hard at the time. I also never had a living alone experience until I was about to be divorced. Let's not talk about how much fun those two skill sets were to learn at the same time. I went from home to marriage, and I think I lost a little confidence in myself in the process. I want my kids to have to struggle a little and learn to trust themselves when they're in school.

3) Rushing through is not the best option. I've written about this before but I had it in my head that I needed to get out of there and spend as little of my parents' money as possible by bulldozing through my classes in bites of five to seven courses. I felt guilty if I took too long, so I crammed as much into every quarter as I could. That's a recipe for misery. I hated much of my college career because I bit off too much to chew. Five days of French classes a week? Sure! 7:00 AM Statistics? Tues/Thurs classes that go from 8:00 AM-4:00 PM with no break? Why not! Consequently, it was one of those Tues/Thurs classes I was ditching, and it bit me in the patoot. I chose eating and a break over Medieval Medicine, and I got a big fat D+. That was also the semester E and I got engaged, so one could make the argument that I wasn't of sound mind... but I do regret not learning more about the humours of the body. That's fascinating stuff. Why didn't I ditch Nature & Culture instead? I digress... What I mean to say is I always tried to do too much. At the time I was in my last year of school I was taking 21 units of classes and teaching 15 hours a week of ballet classes plus taking about 10 hours a week of ballet classes and commuting. What a moron. I hated school, and it's no wonder. One more year would have made it all so much more peaceful, but I killed myself to graduate in 2 and a half. That's right. I only went to college from August of 1997 to March of 2000.

4) This is related to #3, but taking something just for fun is uh-maze-ing. I can't do that now. I want to do it and I totally can't. Taking classes is never a waste of time. My last quarter at Davis I had some units to "kill" and I ended up taking an acting class, a choreography class, a modern dance class (complete with hairy-pitted Norwegian instructor), and a painting class from Wayne Thiebaud. Do you know Wayne Thiebaud? I hope so. I took the class just so I could be around him, and it was up there with the best things I've done in my life, listening to him talk about how he sees the world and then seeing him use his old tighty-whities for a paint rag. I see his paintings now and I see him. When I registered for those classes I thought they were all a big waste. That quarter was enjoyable and I had some life experiences which far outweighed the quarters of Entomology and diagramming sentences in Linguistics.

5) Study abroad if you can. Oh please, study abroad. This goes into the category of things that only fit into that window of time when you're released from the bonds of high school and home and before you're tied up to a mortgage. I've never been anywhere, and I am so jealous/happy for those former students of mine who have seen the world. I'll get there, but it will be so much more difficult to do at this point. I want Hank and Ad to be confident enough to do that. I was scared and I thought it wasn't for me... now I see that it's one of the only times you can take that leap and just figure it out... Anyway, I wish I did it.

The E thing: I wouldn't change it. Even now, after all of this... I just couldn't. E is simultaneously one of the most challenging and best things to happen to me, I wouldn't take that away. There are plenty of people whose college advice includes things like "no long distance relationships" or "don't go to college with a boyfriend from home" but I can tell you there was no talking me out of it then, either. One of the things that they say in Retrouvaille is that feelings are spontaneous and uncontrollable. So there's no use in lamenting the difficulties that were caused by our geographic differences. They just were.

Mostly I hope my kids leave the home with a sense of empowerment to go out into the world at 18. I know college kids are young, but that's a prime moment in life when you can really explore all the opportunities that life has to offer. I think that for us, it starts now, talking to the kids about school and going away to someplace they really love once they're that age. College was not optional for either me or E, and I'm really thankful about that, but now I feel like I have some more insight into the "how" of it that I might be able to pass on. At least I hope so.


  1. I completely agree with taking a class for fun. When I decided to transfer from UCDavis to Sac State I needed some get a few more units to transfer as a junior. I randomely picked a drama class and an astronomy class- they were so fun! I got to watch the Beijing Modern Dance company perform to Pink Floyd's the wall. It was so awesome!

  2. Wish you could talk to my HS senior stepson -- we are apparently too old and decrepit. (We feel like we're living the cartoon strip, "Zits" while he's staying here.) He thinks college will just "happen". But he doesn't try, doesn't care, and thinks his mom will lie for him (she will) to make it an emergency that he live at home in Mesa, AZ and go to ASU (where freshmen are to live on campus)--he admits he's frightened of that. He's 18, but 8. Failed way too many classes to even make the cut for ASU, but his mom doesn't know any better. Says he has talked to school counselor, but we're willing to bet he's not listened. Just hard to get through. Is it a guy thing? A bi-polar thing? A gamer thing? I try not to worry but I can't help it.

  3. Fabulous advice! I so regret not studying abroad. I also regret not getting an internship. They open up so many more options!!

  4. A response for Auntie Wendy:

    It may not be terribly helpful, but at one point during my college career I spent about 3 semesters caring progressively less and less about doing any work for school until I was kicked out. I told my parents (prior to the dismissal) I needed a break; they disagreed and convinced me to keep going. It was a waste of everyone's time and until I made the decision to go and finish my degree on my own, I wasn't getting anywhere. Once I knew where I was focused, I got it done on my own terms (and my own money). To this day - 8 years later - despite my theories, I really don't know what caused my total lack of caring. I just know it passes.

  5. Fantastic advice! Visiting campuses is key; if I hadn't done that, I would have wound up at Loloya Marymount or SDSU...instead I went to SLO (like E). Hope you don't mind if I add something...
    I'm only 6 months out of college and the one thing I really wish I'd done was get involved in a club or something during my sophomore year. I tried getting into the Triathlon club/team both my 4th and 5th years, but by then, my bank account couldn't quite manage the initial equipment expenses and it felt awkward being a newbie with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores.

    Freshmen year was a blast with all the friends I'd made in the dorms, but second year I realized that most of those friendships were built on proximity. Once I wasn't seeing those people every day, I only hung out with them rarely when we happened to run into each other on campus or around town. So I half-heartedly tried to build connections and very few of them ultimately worked.

  6. Excellent post. One of those Heather posts I read from start to finish. I even re-read certain sections. While I disagree with No. 2 (because I lived at home, paid for half my tuition, avoided student loans and saved BIG BUCKS), I must say you offering some interesting insight. I think all of your advice would come easier to a college student who ISN'T pinching every penny. It sounds like you and I approached college the same way: get in, get out. I do regret that. I do wish I took more enjoyment from certain classes. I do wish I took more pleasurable classes. I do wish I had at least ONE college friend. I was tight with two journalism teachers and that was about it. I thought college was a waste of time and money. Sometimes I think I had a bad attitude and something I think I was right. In my profession experience is everything. While I learned a great deal from J-school, I gained much more working as a reporter, including the social and life skills I lacked in college.

    However, had I married my high school sweetheart after we graduated from college (we attended the same high school and college), I'd certainly be singing a different tune. When I ended that relationship, I was 1,200 miles from home and six months into a new job. So in a sense, I lived out my single-girl college fantasies as a cub reporter, all alone and away from home.

    Bah. Where did all this come from? I started with telling you how I enjoyed your unsolicited advice and ended with nonsense about myself. Sorry.

  7. This is great advice on college - I wish I would have had the opportunity to travel abroad. Visiting a campus is definitely key - I think you get the feel right away if it is the place for you or not.

  8. That is amazing advice! Your kids are lucky to have you and E as parents. :-)

    1 - I agree completely. I applied to one college, visited it, and was accepted. I regret not applying to more or seeing what other options I had.
    2 - I moved out 1 year into my college career and never went back. It made me a stronger person, more independent, and I'm sure you already know that you learn SO much being out on your own. OMG, best decision I ever made.
    3 - I have no experience with that. I actually did the exact opposite, and regret that too. 6 years for a bachelor's degree, changing majors 3 times.
    4 - That's how I found my 3rd major. I needed an upper division class and found a fashion history class tha fit the bill. I fell in love with the class and the program, and the rest is history.
    5 - HECK YES. I had an opportunity to study in Italy but didn't take it (due to a boyfriend). I regret that every day.