Monday, April 18, 2005

Getting the Most out of College

On one of the first days here at Northwestern, I remember that my peer advisor--an older student assigned to help out new freshmen during the first couple weeks of school--told me and some fellow new students that the most learning one will do in college will not derive from books but from people and experiences.

Almost three years later, I would revise that idea and suggest that the learning will derive from uncomfortable or different experiences. In the beginning, many aspects of college seem different: more freedom, more things to do, and new friends who may not be similar to friends from high school. By one's junior year, where I'm at now, the above is second nature, and when I ask myself, what have I actually learned because of college, or more specifically, from paying approximately $40,000 a year for what is purported to be a top-notch education, I have to think a little harder.

I have eventually found that what I learn has been up to me and not to a professor or to my friends or to whatever club I may partake in (or that is, what I have made of my associations with these people). This is why, in recent weeks, I have been somewhat frantically trying to figure out a thesis idea: because some of my best experiences in college--those which I took the most ownership of my learning--have come from research.

Almost a senior, I realize one can really throw his/her four years of college away. Some will even argue that college is relevant only insofar as it is a stepping stone for graduate studies that are mandatory for anyone who has professional career interests. I disagree: I think the most important aspect of college is learning and become a critical-minded citizen. More broadly, education is how successful democracies persist.

Anyhow, if any collegebound student cares for my two-cents worth, I would give two pieces of advice for getting the most out of your undergraduate career: (1) GO ABROAD. And no, go abroad is not the same as spending all one's times with Americans and taking advantage of a lower drinking age. It means getting to actually see and understand some of those abstract things you learn about in the classroom and it requires energy to want to learn. (2) Do some kind of research. It is a great way to exercise one's mind and acquire more information. Though research projects may seem unduly specialized, as I have often thought, they are in fact the best way I have found to take ownership of one's education and reap lasting intellecutal growth.

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