July 31, 2019 – SOS! Start of School is in the air. As August unfolds, so does a period of summer punctuated by anticipation, wonder and, too often, distress for more than 75 million K-12 and incoming college students.
From the time I was a young child trailing behind my siblings on their colleges searches, I have been a learner at heart – fascinated by this experience called college. As a psychologist, professor, former provost and now university president at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, I am a lifelong student of people and learning communities. Learning is the lifeblood of a full and significant life. It is my personal and professional passion to see people lean fully into their potential by embracing their learning opportunities, releasing fear of the unknown, and reaching toward and rising to challenge.
The transition to college and the college experience is an amazing time that opens your journey as a student of – and for – life. Whether you’re graduating to college, to grad school, to a new job, or to retirement, you are always learning and growing – becoming more and more you. I offer you this advice on how to make the most of your transition and become a student of – and for – life.
Be kind to yourself. Starting college can be overwhelming and exciting. And you are not alone.
Transitions are big experiences of change and newness. You are taking on a new way of living in a new community. And, by definition, transitioning to college is stepping into new and more challenging learning experiences. It is all-too-easy to believe that you are the only one feeling dazed, confused, agitated, or even sad. Look around. Although each person is unique, humans share responses to change and challenge. Say your worry or question out loud and suddenly you will find connection with other new students who are traveling on this journey with you. Then, remind each other to take a deep breath when you start feeling overwhelmed, and take the process one step at a time. You’ve got this.
Find new people and build community. Be open to people who don’t look, think or dress like you.
It can be tricky to juggle the people and community you have known before college with your new college community. It is important to open yourself to – and invest in – your new community. Be deliberate about spending quality time in your new community, meeting new people, and developing friendships.
New communities are opportunities to learn about and grow parts of yourself you haven’t yet discovered. The best communities are learning communities where every person values, and is valued for, the unique characteristics, experiences, perspectives, strengths, and challenges they bring. Step into your new learning community and start to explore and experiment with voice, values, and visions. Surround yourself with people who allow you to bring all of yourself to your learning, and who bring out in you new possibilities and potential.
College is a time to learn, grow, expand and even reinvent yourself. You are an original – a unique person with your own set of characteristics, interests, quirks and aspirations.
We have a habit of putting people in categories and limiting people by the “box” they check. It’s tempting – easier – to limit ourselves and live in a simple defined box. Sitting at the same table. Playing the same sport. Joining the same club. Rinse. Repeat. No risk. Instead, embrace complexity, open yourself to new questions, opportunities, puzzles, and possibilities. Be curious. Cultivate your originality. Before you know it, through your originality, your purpose will alight and new opportunities will open.
The biggest fail is failure to try. So, become comfortable with challenge.
Reframe how you think about challenge. Challenge is when the best learning and growth happen, even if it sometimes makes you feel uncomfortable or awkward, and you feel like you just don’t know enough. Too many people in our world are afraid of challenge – afraid of what people might think or say if we ask a question or make a mistake. As a result, we are struggling as a society with so many pernicious and hurtful problems. If you are afraid of or resistant to possibility and challenge, you are limiting yourself, the power of your learning and your life, and the potential of your purposeful impact on our world. We need you!
Theodore Roosevelt said it best: “It is not the critic who counts … The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again; because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
My challenge for you is to relish challenge. Become a person who seeks out challenge, who moves toward – not away from – challenge, and to learn to thrive in challenge. This will distinguish you as a courageous learner and leader. Enveloped in the strength of your learning community, open yourself to newness and difference. Open yourself to the discomfort of not knowing and the delight of discovery. Struggle, stretch, research, theorize, try, test and learn.
Embracing challenge for the sake of learning is healthy, but pushing yourself too far ¬– and spreading yourself too thin – invites anxiety. An important part of the experience of college is learning how to stretch and find your limits. Keep an eye on yourself, your health and well-being. As you develop friendships, keep an eye on each other. Define a healthy comfort zone – what activities and people help you de-stress and gain perspective? When you start feeling like you are stretching too far, and moving into anxiety, bounce back by going to your comfort zone. Restore yourself and prepare to stretch into the next challenge.
When you’ve taken on too much and don’t know how to move forward, ask for help. Don’t assume others know you are struggling. Seek out the many resources available to you, through teachers, student advocates, guidance counselors, mental health counselors, friends, colleagues and family. There is no shame in asking for help. Just the opposite; seeking help is a display of strength and growth. And if at first you don’t “succeed,” redefine success. Success is not just a passing grade; success is failing, regrouping and getting back up. Every experience is valuable because it makes you you.
In school and in life, we are all students. Learning never ends. The wonders within us continue to unfold. With each achievement gained, lesson learned, challenge accepted and conquered, we develop our resilience – the ability to stretch in challenge, care for ourselves and each other, and keep moving forward. There is great joy in the discovery of our world, and the intersection of our unique gifts, skills and potential to brighten our world. As you look toward the Start of School, take a deep breath, take a step forward, say hello, and marvel at all you discover. You are on your way to becoming a student of – and for – life.