Thursday, June 7, 2012

11 Steps to Success at College

The university system today has, in many respects, lost its head. Consequently, the goal of this post is to explain to soon-to-be college students just how to avoid losing their own. Since the dawn of the university in the High Middle Ages (such a backward time) there have been students who were more interested in partying than academic rigor. Not much has changed since then. However, what has changed is the part that the universities are playing in this behavior. Whereas in former times the student had to use creative means to break the rules, today's university practically holds the students' legs as they do a keg stand. The freedom that college affords is a challenge to any young man or woman's previously held moral values. This of course is not a bad thing in and of itself because every child must eventually learn how to govern their own life. What is not good is that our universities, which receive so much of our money, should serve as such a stumbling block, not only to our child's moral development, but even to their intellectual growth- which, I thought, was the reason for its existence in the first place. From condom distribution, to co-ed rooms and bathrooms, to on campus parties involving drug and alcohol abuse; it would appear that, far from discouraging such behavior, our universities have actually gone out of their way to make it easier. If the student is so bent on getting intoxicated, let him or her do it off campus, but as it is they are not even forced to leave the confines of their own rooms to get lit. "Well at least they're safe on campus." Are they? What is most vexing about this trend is why it would behoove these universities to facilitate such behavior when they are precisely the type of situations which beg for some sort of lawsuit. Oh well, my ranting is probably lost on administrators, but hopefully it is not lost on students who do desire some degree of sanity amidst the Animal House-like world that awaits them at college. For those who have ears to hear, below I have listed what I deem to be the most essential ways to thrive at college. Please do not assume because I have failed to mention everything I could (i.e. not cheating, getting enough sleep, eating well, etc.) that I deem them unimportant. Clearly all of those things are necessary for obtaining a good education, nevertheless I have chosen these specific examples in order to highlight certain personal insights I gained while doing undergraduate work at UNC-Greensboro and UNC-Chapel Hill. Incidentally, I am presenting this from a Catholic point of view, so some of these may need to be adjusted according to your own frame of reference.

11. Go To Class

I remember my first year at college- a friend of mine used to tell me to wake him up for class in the morning (we both had the same class). He went about fifty percent of the time, and on one occasion he even missed a test because he decided to sleep in instead (they don't do make up tests in college). This guy was decidedly smarter than I was, but by the end of the first year he had a 1.7 GPA. The truth is he was smart enough to get away with it in high school, but at college, without a mommy to get him up in the morning, write him an excuse, and wipe his little chin, he had not the wherewithal to do the minimum on his own. At college, I viewed attending class as a kind of lowest common denominator path to success. If I did nothing else, I promised myself, no matter how late I stayed up, that I would not miss class the next day. If I wanted to succeed at all, I had to be at least disciplined enough to show up for my classes. That is at least half of the battle when no one is there to force you to do anything. Indeed, not only is it worthwhile from a practical standpoint (99% percent of what's on the test generally comes from the notes in class), but it is the simplest and most basic way to keep your mind and body disciplined and oriented towards goal of getting a good education.

10. Introduce Yourself To Your Professors

Of all the practical advice I can give, this little nugget is in some ways the most mundane and superficial of them all. Nevertheless, it is an important lesson for distinguishing yourself in a crowd of nameless faces. Do not underestimate the value of your professor putting a name with a face. Beyond introducing yourself, be sure to ask him or her a question about the material. This will establish two things: the teacher will be flattered that you took the time to further inquire into what they were teaching, and secondly, it alleviates some of the alienation that can occur between both student and teacher in some of those large freshman 100 courses. My general experience was that anytime I was active in class, coupled with the professor knowing who I was, this made a notable difference in my grade. Even in the  classes where I had disagreements with the professor, my grade was usually about a letter grade higher than my test scores suggested. That doesn't mean that you should be overbearing, or appear to be stalking them; it only means that in a very basic way it is good to let them know who you are.    

9. Remember Who's Paying For It And Why

The key to any real happiness in this life is gratitude. If you want to be miserable instead, become an ingrate. Presumably most people want to possess the former. In any case, gratitude is not merely some vague sentiment of thankfulness- it involves a real response- a desire to in some way make a return to the one whom you claim to be grateful to. You may claim to be grateful that your parents have spent all of this money to send you to college, but what evidence is there for that? If you get to college and behave like a slack sloth, it doesn't matter how grateful you feel, you are in truth an ingrate. There is however an easy way to remedy this. You can show gratitude to your parents by working hard and excelling, not merely at the art of napping, but in striving for academic and personal excellence.

8. Set Clear Ground Rules With Your Roommate

Whether or not you are rooming with someone you know or not, you will both need to lay some ground rules the first few days. Do not believe that because you are friends with a roommate beforehand that you are absolved of this duty. Much can happen in a year at college that can quickly work against this presumed harmony. Whether their values change (or yours do), and you/they start hanging out with a different crowd, there are any number of ways this can go afoul- from boyfriends or girlfriends always hanging around the room, to bad hygiene, to alcohol and/or drug use. Indeed, such communication is indispensable. The room must be a place of common ground, not a place where rage and anger build (and they do). Set up some clear ground rules. Devise a system wherein you can discuss, not passive-aggressively, what is eating at you. I am not saying this because I succeeded in this regard, I am saying this because I failed at it. My roommate my first year of college used to wake up in the morning and smoke pot. My second roommate that year (because I thought I could solve the problem by changing roommates) was an athlete who, when I awoke in the morning, would be lying in bed with some random girl that he met the night before. Later I roomed with a friend of mine from high school, who I foolishly believed would be better than previous roommates because we were friends in high school. He was not. He spent most of his time smoking pot, snorting Ritalin, and when he wasn't doing that he was obsessing over a girl, and creatively and quickly turning our kitchen into a disaster area. Whenever it was his turn to take out the garbage, he often let it pile up in the kitchen until I couldn't take it any more and was forced to do it myself. About half way through the year we tried to agree on some ground rules, but by then it was too late. So I know what it means to avoid conflict, I also know what it means to suffer the consequences of that avoidance.

7. Don't Measure Your Behavior On Those Around You

It is incredibly easy to start canonizing yourself when you compare your own behavior to that of others. However, you should resist this temptation at all costs. I can still remember trying to appeal to one of my friends in college about her rather "loose" behavior, to which she responded; "... but I'm a good person". First of all, compliments are generally better served when they come from other people, nevertheless I suppose what she meant by the statement was that she was generally nice to people and that she hadn't murdered anyone lately. That mistake is understandable, especially when one compares one's self to a drug addict or a death row inmate. The question she didn't ask herself was why she would have any reason to be anything but nice to people that are friendly to her (as are the pagans). In other words, why would she have any reason to steal, when her parents provided her everything, and why would she have any reason to kill, when no one threatened her life. God does not measure us on the standards of our neighbor, because we are not our neighbor. Do not pat yourself on the back because "at least you go to church once a month" when everyone else doesn't go at all. In your case God may count the two as equivalent. And do not pat yourself on the back because everyone else is promiscuous, while you at least only have one sexual partner. God knows it is easy to do this, especially when it seems that there are so few around you that even consider the value of chastity. I remember struggling with the same question amidst the miasma of my early college days- when a friend of mine, who incidentally was the same young woman that I mentioned previously, asked me why I was making such a big deal about sex. It was, in her opinion, a pleasant, if meaningless, transaction between two consenting parties. The point is- it is very difficult to measure yourself when what surrounds you is so fundamentally incommensurate with your Catholic Faith. In such an environment it is quite natural to begin to wonder whether truth is indeed relative after all. Am I the one who is crazy, or are they? Is there any such thing as Truth? It is for this reason specifically that Christ has left us an immutable standard- a rock- amidst the shifting sand of college.

6. You Need Solid Friends In Order To Remain Solid Yourself

When you get to college you experience a form of insecurity you haven't experienced in years. Consequently, you may be tempted to present a version of yourself that is not exactly consistent with who you really are. As for myself, I tried to cast myself somewhere between the grunge movement and the Grateful Dead. I even avoided washing my hair for days on end in the hope of giving it that really wonderful oily/grimy look. But whatever the situation, there is a major difference between trying to  figure out your identity and looking to change it. Without a doubt the friends that you choose to associate with will define whether or not you grow in your years at college, or whether you stagnate. If you choose the better portion, then you need to prepare yourself, especially early on, for some feelings of isolation and loneliness. It may initially be difficult to meet other individuals who share similar values. This can be a real source of temptation for one who is trying to stay on the right path. Obviously, the degree of difficulty here will depend largely on the type of school you attend. At any rate, presuming that you are trying to meet the right people, it may require some real fortitude and patience. All the same, do not believe that you can somehow keep your faith and your friends separate, especially where there are profound contradictions. Eventually both allegiances will demand a decision, wherein you give one or the other the place of greatest prominence in your life. The easiest thing to do (though not the easiest morally) is to try not to lead a double life, but rather to stay true to what you know to be right, and if anything should pull you from that, get rid of it. This does not mean that you need only hang out with some puritanical, tea totalling, Bob Jonesian, dream killer. But it does mean that your relationships should have a distinct character to them. First, they should be centered around mutual interests that go well beyond the party scene. If you base your friendships primarily on your mutual affinity for parties, you can be assured that your friendships will be shallow and fleeting. Base them on things that really matter to you.  Secondly, as much as possible, find individuals, groups, and/or organizations (i.e. the "Newman" Center) that are like-minded. There is plenty of opportunity for "diversity" at college. What you will need in order to sustain you is some real solidarity. Simply put, if you try to maintain your faith and values at college without this kind of companionship you will most assuredly fail.

5. Develop Interests Outside The Dorm Room

One of the most dangerous vices that one is tempted to cultivate at college is the sin of sloth. Now immediately when I say this, one may be led to think of academic laziness, which is true enough, but in this particular instance the emphasis is on a general inactivity. Much like a high schooler who is the beneficiary of a tremendous amount of leisure wealth, too much free time spent inside the walls of a dorm can start to turn the mind towards unsavory things. In such a circumstance an individual knows that he must give his mind, body, and soul a little fresh air. Either a man (or woman) will transcend those walls in a literal sense, or they will seek to fly through them with some sort of intoxicant (for some that "intoxicant" may include pornography). For obvious reasons, the latter expedient can quickly become the most popular alternative. The best and healthiest way to get some fresh air for the mind is to develop some real and substantive interests. One can develop these interests in any number of ways. Perhaps the simplest and most basic way is to look at the things that you are already interested in- exercise, movies, art, faith, music, friends, etc. You need not reinvent the wheel here. Maybe there is something you always wanted to learn about, but formerly never had the time or opportunity to explore. Now is the perfect time. The more that you have something real going on beyond those dorm walls, the less apt you will be to reduce yourself to a mindless- inebriated- coach sitting- lemming.

4. Resist The "Binge" Mentality

If you find yourself bragging about the amount of alcohol you have consumed, or declaring shamelessly to everyone just how "wasted" you are, then you can be assured you are going in the wrong direction. It is one of life's great mysteries that some feel it necessary to publish their shame, or at minimum, publish the fact that they have a consumed alcohol in large quantities as if they were accomplishing something. You sir have climbed the heights of inebriation and have returned to tell us the harrowing details. Now we wish to reward you with a great medal of honor for sacrificing your body for so noble a cause. Well done sir! You are truly a real man of genius! Any idiot can drink alcohol, so don't go around patting yourself on the back for standing/sitting around drinking all night. What would be a real achievement is if you actually did something with your time as opposed to high fiving yourself for getting loaded. This is not to say I am against alcohol altogether, what I am against is the worshipping of the silver keg like it's a golden calf, and the substituting of real friendships for nights and people that you can hardly remember (nor care to). In such a superficial setting, the people are generally interchangeable, and the memories like an impressionistic painting, are pleasant at a distance, but up close are vague and formless. Moreover, in this world of strange gods, one finds one's self considerably less inhibited when it comes to compromising one's ideals. To those who wish to be truly great, do not descend into the bowels of this kind of abyss, for the exit can be remarkably hard to find. Once you go down this road, it is more than a little difficult to return to the days and nights that (however falsely) seem drab and boring by comparison. I do not mention drugs in this particular example because the advice I offer is based on managing your life at college, and drugs are not manageable at all. If in this way you choose to turn your body into some living lab experiment, then you are not only jeopardizing your life, but your soul as well.

3. Avoid The "Hook Up" Culture          

By "hook up" here I do not mean sexual intercourse per se, but rather the general act of "making out" or "fooling around", which I suppose would involve just about everything else. There is an obvious connection between this and the previous one (viz. alcohol) because they oftentimes work hand in hand. Alcohol serves as a useful tool for anyone trying to lower their standards. In fact, what alcohol does is to essentially tie up and bind your conscience, so that it dare not interrupt you while you are engaged in the act. It can scream, but since you've consigned it to the basement of your being (where a little muffled screaming isn't going to wake up the neighbors) you can go about your pillaging without too much distraction. What concerns me the most about alcohol is not so much that it inebriates those who drink it, but the peril that generally accompanies that inebriation. Like sex, when alcohol is misused, it is highly flammable. If one is drinking a glass of wine with their family at a Thanksgiving dinner that is one thing, but it is quite another to get schnockered at a fraternity party and then stumble around aimlessly until you ultimately pass out in some stranger's room. I say this especially to girls, for they are the ones that usually put themselves in the gravest danger by doing this. You could fill volumes of books with stories of sorrow and dismay on the part of women who wake up only to discover, much to their horror, that some stranger is there beside them, or even worse, that some stranger (or acquaintance) has violated them. In either case, the woman is violated. If you go into a house with strangers, the last thing you should do is to chemically deactivate your good senses. Strangely enough, there are some who do want their good senses deactivated. They do this in order to give themselves a pretext for their bad behavior. Of these I can only say, if you can't bear to do the same thing while sober, then let that be a sign that you shouldn't be doing it at all. Indeed, how will you ever learn what true love is if you go about treating people like disposable napkins. Be assured that such behavior will not only render you incapable of intimacy in the short term, but it may in fact turn you into an emotional cripple for the rest of your life. Once a man or a woman begins to degrade themselves and others in such a way, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to simply flip the switch of love and intimacy back on again. As for those who require no anesthetic for their behavior, I can only lament that they have already gone so far down that road that they no longer even require being in an altered state in order to degrade themselves.

2. Commit Yourself To Chastity

This particular bit of advice is more positive than the previous, for it involves not just discussing the "hook up" culture at college, but the question of how and why one should maintain their integrity and purity amidst all of this moral anarchy. First of all, chastity involves far more than simply "not doing it". It refers to the right and proper ordering of our sexuality, including avoidance of images or situations that only lend fuel to the fire of our lust. But chastity is not merely good from a religious standpoint, but it is likewise practical when it comes to navigating the often disorienting and strange world of college relationships. When one commits to this way of life, things become instantly more clear in relationships. When sex and hooking up are all a part of the equation, the truth of the matter can quickly become muddled. By contrast, when one commits themselves to chastity there is far less ambiguity. For instance, when you look at  romantic relationships as primarily oriented towards marriage, you no longer are willing to dally around with those meaningless flings. I don't care how attractive someone is, if they are dull, the relationship will get old pretty fast. Secondly, these type of sexual relationships are the perfect way to get yourself stuck in one those long meandering relationships  that can steal the best years of your life from you (if not all of it). Indeed, you may wind up stuck with someone you would have broken up with long ago were you not involved in a sexual relationship with them. Sex, after all, is not inert, nor is it disinterested, it unites the flesh of two individuals in such a way that their respective bodies actually believe themselves to be bound to the other. Do not believe that you can unite yourself with someone in this manner and then just walk away. Those who can do so are only capable because they have so abused it that they have stripped the adhesive lining endemic to this kind of relationship. The result? They can no longer experience real intimacy, for they can no longer "adhere" to another. On the other hand, the man that does not allow himself to get dragged down into this pit of mediocrity, can see much clearer to know if a relationship is lasting or not. He is free to come and go from the relationship without any further implications. After all, he does presumably desire sex (among other things), therefore he is certainly not going to waste his time on a relationship that is not potentially headed for marriage. If he is chaste, he will know very quickly whether or not there is more to the relationship than just physical attraction. When sex is taken out of the equation the emphasis then  shifts towards more lasting concerns. Indeed, when sex is not an option, the question then becomes can I stand being in the same room alone with this person. For a woman it is the simplest way to test the mettle of a man, because unless he is truly interested in you for you, he is not going to wait around too long. This may seem cold, but it is true nevertheless. And last of all, chastity is of course a good idea because no one who is chaste has the additional worry about pregnancy and diseases- both of which can profoundly shape your destiny. As a side note, I am not suggesting that a child is similar to a disease, only that these two consequences of sex represent the greatest sources of fear for the two tangoing parties. Some may suggest, as do the universities that a healthy diet of contraception will solve this problem. Contraception as solution is like providing a bullet proof vest to someone who is [for the fun of it] engaging in a gun battle (which seems an appropriate metaphor considering all of the bellicose language that "protection" advocates employ). In some respects you may in truth be more "protected," but the question is: why have we allowed ourselves to be placed in harms way in the first place, when with less effort, we could have avoided the conflict altogether? How is it that those who are supposed to be concerned for our health, have practically lead us by the hand out onto the front-lines of the battle? You may have on a bullet proof vest, but you can still be shot in the head.

1. Never Stop Praying

Even if you were to ignore all of the previous suggestions, do not ignore this one. Rather than offer some vague commendation about praying at college, I would like to offer a specific regimen. Just as it is important to make rules for yourself about going to class and studying- so the same can be said for the spiritual life. The first day you are on campus (or preferably before that) find out the location and the times of the Masses. I once had a former student tell me, I have no way to get there. I said to him "if it is important enough to you, you will find a way." Soon after telling him this, by the grace of God, he found a ride. Even at the most secular college there will inevitably be other Catholics that can help you in this regard. Just take the initiative and ask. Do not miss Sunday Mass at any cost. Suppose you have behaved in a way that renders you unable to receive communion that day; still go. Let this practice be a rock of stability amidst the shifting sands of college life. Secondly, establish a time of the day (one that doesn't change) wherein you say some traditional prayer of the Church. You might say the Angelus at noon, or the Divine Mercy at 3:00, or it could be a decade of the rosary (at bottom, at least say the prayer at some point during the day). It need not be any more than a minute, but it must never be neglected. And lastly, wherever you go, keep some significant religious object in your pocket. This may sound strange, but in college it was my way of bringing Christ with me wherever I went. The object that I brought was a rosary and whenever I felt tempted by a particular situation, I would hold the rosary in my pocket and pray Hail Mary's to myself until I received the grace and strength I needed to do the right thing. On one occasion, I made plans to see an old grade school flame that I hadn't seen in years (it was a one shot deal), and when I saw her she was even more attractive than I remembered. At the same time, three things became immediately apparent to me: she was interested in me, she didn't have too many moral inhibitions, and I was rather tempted by the situation. At any rate, I started clutching my rosary and praying Hail Mary's to myself in any free moments that I had. The next thing I knew, as if from some unknown reservoir of grace, I found the strength, not only resist the temptation, but to gracefully shift the conversation to more meaningful things. This is not to say that one should purposely go into the lion's den as long as you bring your rosary. No, by all means, if you know that you will be severely tempted by a given situation, do not put yourself in that situation in the first place. If you do so and something happens, you are certainly guilty for what happens, you cannot claim innocence because you didn't specifically plan for it to happen; "... we were lying there on the bed talking and then one thing led to another, I really didn't mean for it to happen." Maybe, but you certainly provided the perfect conditions for it to happen. In theological terms this is called the "near occasion of sin", or as I like to call it the N.O.O.S. (because it is a little like putting your head in a "noose" and wondering why something bad happened). It is like a man wandering out into the battlefield, who is then surprised that he gets shot. Nevertheless, if you do find yourself in these situations through no fault of your own, or even if it is your fault, don't give up, ask God for his help. You will be surprised at just how talented our Lord is at saving us humans in such dire situations; that is if we want to be saved. But no matter how many times you fall, do not shut God out, do not think that you are somehow beating the system by pushing Him away. Even if communicating with God only means fighting with him, or saying "I can't even look at you right now," never let go of this line of communication. Hold onto it as if your very life depends upon it... because it does.

This post is dedicated to St. Joseph's Class of 2012                        


  1. Corollary to 10 and 11: sit in the middle of the front row.

    1. Good point, though I wouldn't overplay this angle. One doesn't want to come off as overbearing.

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