Back to school is the essential mantra that we are accustomed to this time of the year. By the angle of the sun and an occasional cold morning, nature is signaling to us that summer is winding down and fall is just around the corner. For first time preschoolers and some kindergarteners, it is to school; for the rest of us from first grade to college first year, it is back to school. When the calendar points toward fall it also points toward new possibilities. We remember friends made and lost over the summer. We remember friends who were here last year but are no longer with us in our current venue. Those friends are remembering us as well. Yet, there is the promise of new friends and acquaintances to come. For first-year college student, there is the added complexity of registering for classes that already filled. There is the seeking out professors to try and get special permission to pick up a course discovered at the last minute. Orientation sessions seem endless and are only matched in excitement by the first full lecture from that professor who was sought after for the special permission. Nervous parents escort their forever toddlers to the dorms on move-in day. Those eighteen-year-old toddlers try to walk ten paces in front of their parents so as to impress their classmates who severed the cord only two days prior. At this moment all is well. It’s all good! At the beginning of a new fall semester. there is also a type of freedom that washes over the first-year student like a liberating summer rain that brings relief from an oppressive drought. Yet, there are also pitfalls that one for which one be very cognizant.
First-year college students who form the Class of 2020 will do abide by three simple rules. I offer these rules as benign guidelines to assist the student in having a successful first year in college experience in general and a stellar college career in general. The first is to make sure that you are “in college and not just on campus.” During my many years teaching I have come to learn that there is a vast difference between being in college and being on campus. To be on campus all one has to do is be accepted, move in, register classes, and have ones name on the class roster. There are also a lot of people who just pass through the campus as a shot cut to a destination that has nothing to do with academics. Those seeking a shortcut are just on campus as well. People who are just on campus do not attend class. They spend an inordinate amount of time in the student union. They attend the sporting events. They go to parties. They go “HAM” on the social scene but “AWOL” as far as academics are concerned. To be in college is quite different from just being on campus. When a student is in college they go to class. The classroom is an ongoing laboratory where old ideas collide with new ideas. The classroom is the place where students interact intellectually and exchange opinions realizing that it is okay to disagree and still be respectful. Students who are in college turn in their assignments on time. They also work hard to do well on all their assignments. Students who are in college visit with their professors, ask questions and listen. Outside the classroom, students who are in college also read their assigned readings. Many also work on starting their own library as they become exposed to books, articles, and quotes that they find indispensable to their intellectual wellbeing.
There is a second rule to the college game that I believe will be useful to a successful first year in college. There was a quote that I came across some years ago that encouraged the reader to seek “substance over style.” The style is flashing and short lived. The style is what’s hot for the next sixty seconds. Style can often be an illusion less concrete than a shadow. In other words, do not get caught up in shadows. Instead, examine that which is causing the shadow. Sometimes substance can be boring. Believe it or not boring can be good sometimes. Routines toward progress are often bastions of stability and super highways to success. At times the flamboyant can get one off rhythm and message. The substance is when after that four year period has concluded you proceed across that stage, have your name called out, and receive your degree. Find that which is timeless and classic within your own settings. Come to an early realization of what will help you achieve your goal versus that which will derail or delay your dreams.
Finally, for the first year college student, there is “a real celebration time.” I have known of students who begin partying on Thursday night and not stopping until Sunday night. Partying can be nice. It does not hurt to have fun occasionally. However, one should not make parting one’s central reason for existing. Social media will keep you very informed as to where and when the next party will take place. You can stay in the loop, but make sure you are not crushed by the loop. At the beginning of the semester, you may feel that you have all the time in the world. Papers are not due until the last week of class. The professor does not say anything to you if you miss class. As a matter of fact, there no one around to make you do anything. One of the well-kept secrets of college is that the student must spend a great deal of time educating herself or himself. In the final analysis, a great deal of the burden of success rests on the student’s shoulders along. The greatest feeling I had in college came when I ended my first semester. I made “A’s” and “B’s.” I felt accomplished. I came to realize that doing well in my grades was the cause for a real celebration time.
Anthony Neal earned his Ph.D. in political science at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). Dr. Neal is an associate professor at State University College, Buffalo. The author of numerous book reviews and journal articles, he has had his work published in the Western Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Black Studies, and Black Issues in Higher Education. In 2014 Dr. Neal received the university’s Faculty Appreciation Award, was named Instructor of the Year by the university’s United Student Government, and Professor of the Year by the Student Political Society in the Department of Political Science. In 2015, he published The American Political Narrative which is a succinct yet poignant narrative about the development of the American political system and what is needed to maintain it. In 2016, he will publish a book of poetry entitled “Love Agnostic | from 9/11 to Charleston”.