My close friend Q's daughter is leaving home to attend a college in the US. Naturally, Q is quite anxious. He asked me to write up some dos and donts for her, based on my experience. At first I hesitated - times are different now, I thought - but then I realized (hoped? wished?) some things remain the same.
So you are starting college soon. Congratulations! The next four years will be the best years of your life. Certainly my college years were. But if you don't watch out, college can also be a lost opportunity which you will regret later in life.
Here are thoughts to ponder. Follow them if it helps. Some are drawn from advice my parents gave me when I left home, some are from my own college days, and some are from life after college, when I realized things I could have done better or differently.
1. Achieve Your Goals: On a piece of paper write down your goals before you leave home. You must achieve these goals. Make this your most important, non-negotiable mission.
2. Take Care of Your Health: studies will demand a lot of energy; then there are extracurricular activities. Sometimes it will feel that 24 hours in a day are not enough. Be sure to get enough rest and eat well. Maintain a steady weight. It is no fun being sick far away from family and it will mess up your grades. Be extra careful when seasons change. Wash hands often when the flu is going around.
3. Learn, Learn, Learn: Learn your field of study. Also, learn where you can find out the things you need to know. Learn how to organize your thoughts, your work and your life. Learn something that you will never get another chance to learn - eg, Latin or playing the gamelan or downhill skiing. Learn to dream big and learn how to turn those dreams into reality.
4. Think Like a Producer, not a Consumer: the US is consumer paradise, and you will be tempted to buy, buy, buy. But college is also the best place to learn how to be the producer who makes those goods or delivers valuable services to others. For example, instead of buying a fashionable new computer try to learn how one is made - make one if you can. Lead those smart people you are surrounded with - who knows, they might become your partner in that empire you build.
5. Don't Overload: If you have the choice, don't sign up for too many courses (or too many hours of campus work). You can quickly become miserable in college if you are constantly overworked and sleep-deprived.
6. Be Yourself: In the new environment constantly placing demands on you, and being surrounded by young people from many backgrounds, it is sometimes hard to stick to your own values and beliefs. Never forget who you are. Always be proud of yourself, your culture, your values. This does not mean you should not adapt - you should always be absorbing better things - but that you stay solid on your foundation, the one that your parents and our teachers spent years helping you build. Don't do things that will shame your parents, relatives or teachers.
7. Don't Switch Majors: Decide what you want to study and then stick to it. Otherwise the four year college can easily stretch to six or eight years.
8, Don't quit college before graduating.
9. Stay on Top of Coursework: I got through four years of engineering undergraduate at Cornell - a strict and demanding program - without ever staying up all night to study. My secret was to stay on top of my coursework. For example, by attacking a homework three days before it was due, I had a chance to ask the professor for help in case I got stuck. But if I waited until the last minute to attack the homework, that chance was gone.
10. Avoid Vices: Pick sensible friends who will not lead you astray. Learn to deal with temptation: avoid drugs and alcohol; don't overeat. But don't become a monk or a nun either - enjoy your youth. This time comes only once in your life.
11. Teachers: Show respect to teachers, work with them and learn the most from them. Don't be shy about negotiating better grades if you really believe you deserve better, and can prove it.
12. New Situations: You will always face new situations, sometimes in urgent circumstances. Be unwavering in your faith. Don't panic. Think it through before making a decision. Don't take shortcuts.
13. Friendships: After the army, college friendships are the strongest. Build friendships with good people and sustain them.
14. Please come home after you achieve your goals.