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Gina Stafford

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Labor Day: It’s both the unofficial end of summer and beginning of the school year.

Despite the wide-ranging starts of school—whether elementary, high school or college—once we’re past Labor Day, the rhythms of life tend to settle in on the academic calendar.

This Labor Day weekend is the first I’m spending as a member of administration at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and I’ve had a new perspective as students returned to campus. Prior to June 2018, I’d been with UT System Administration since 2005, and directly interacting with students wasn’t our purview. I’m really enjoying the opportunity in my new job to be more engaged with students—to say nothing of a couple of upcoming communication classes I’m scheduled to visit.

Once we get past this weekend, which also opened football season on most campuses, college students can settle into the groove until the holidays and the end of the semester. Which got me thinking back to my time as a new college freshman, what I learned from that, and what others have told me of the life lessons they learned in college—besides the classroom lessons.

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Tenn Tech Freshman: 18 and Permed.

With that in mind, here are my top 10 tips and/or things I wish I’d known as a freshman. I’m no expert, but since I offer these thoughts at no charge, you can’t beat the price.

No. 1: Go to class. 

If you live on campus, it may be the first time you’ve ever lived without mom, dad or a similar adult under the same roof, so it may be the first time you’re solely responsible for getting yourself where you’re supposed to be. Now that you’re in college, that’s how it works. Get yourself to class. On time. Every time. 

 No. 2: Take notes in class.

See tip No. 1 again. Go to class, take notes, and keep up with them. Attendance—even punctuality—is often part of a course grade. Then there are quizzes—the pop kind and others. Taking notes is a good habit to develop so that you’re prepared for quizzes, mid-terms, finals, the requirements for the course project…and for life. To this day, I never go into a meeting—with one person or 20—without a pad and a pen so that I can take notes.

No. 3: Practice self-discipline in studying.

I didn’t know “how to study” when I started college. I made good grades before then, but the academic rigor and time demands weren’t the same. Nobody but me was going to make sure I studied in college, and making sure I did so adequately was a practice I got better at with maturity. You also need to be realistic about when and where you can really study. In your dorm or apartment with your roommates or friends—when they are not studying—is not likely to produce much study. There are libraries and other quiet spaces around campus where you can make the most of your studying time.

No. 4: Keep a calendar.

This not only helps you keep track of what you have to do when, it’s another one of those good self-discipline, time-management habits. College will offer lots to do besides going to class and, if you have a part-time job and a social life, you’ll be amazed at how much help it can be to keep track of everything on a calendar. Lots of web-based ones make it easy to check your calendar wherever you are. Your smart phone surely has a built-in calendar. Again, you’re responsible for you now. Showing up when and where you’re supposed to is another part of adulting.

No. 5: Pace yourself.

See tip No. 4 above—you’ll have lots to do, lots of new experiences to try, the opportunity for a jam-packed social life, and plenty of new friends to make. It’s OK to set limits on how much you want to take on at one time. It’s recommended, in fact. You don’t have to do everything all at once, and most of what you put off until later will still be there later. Even if it’s not, that’s OK. Focus on doing what you have to—going to class, studying when you should be, working a job if you have one—and don’t let FOMO (fear of missing out) cause you to spread yourself too thin. 

No. 6: Have an open mind.

One of the great gifts of college is the exposure you’ll have to all kinds of people, perspectives, viewpoints and new knowledge. Embrace it. Being open-minded, tolerant, respectful and willing to listen will serve you well. Higher education brings awareness of the world’s great variety of people and viewpoints that may have been previously unknown to you. That does a lot to give you perspective on life’s complicated issues and the value of context.

No. 7: Be true to yourself.

In situations—social situations, for instance—that your instincts tell you aren’t right for you, follow your instincts. Exposure to new things doesn’t mean all of them are meant for you. Your people are out there and you’ll know when you’re among them.

No. 8: Find and serve in good internships.

Internships are good opportunities to develop professional skills and professional connections. Treat them as extended job tryouts—be punctual, professional, reliable and do your best. Every day. Graduating with at least two good internships will give you a real advantage as you enter career world.

No. 9: If graduate school is in your future, think about it now.

As a college freshman, it’s asking a lot of you to think about whether and how soon you might go to graduate school. All I can tell you from personal experience is, it’s really tough to go to graduate school when you also have a full-time job. I had no choice because, by the time I chose to go to grad school, I had a mortgage and bills to pay, so I couldn’t afford not to go to work full-time. Grad school is extremely time-consuming. If or when you decide to pursue a graduate degree depends on your unique circumstances, but if you go to grad school before you have to work full-time, you might still have free time as a grad student.

13985251282_acbfc3e2be_oNo. 10: Soak it all up.

Years after you graduate, the four interminable years you think are ahead of you now will seem to have passed in the blink of an eye. College is like no other time in your life, and it can be some of the best time of your life. Don’t get too caught up in what’s next and miss what’s now. Walk every inch of the campus. Learn the traditions. Go to the pep rally. Cheer at the game. Sing the fight song. Listen to the bell tower. Keep a journal if you can. It’ll be fun to look back on how you progressed over the years.

I offer these observations–especially No. 10–not only as one who completed college, but as the first in my family to graduate from college. It’s a time in life like no other and, even though it wasn’t easy, I would do every bit of it again. Especially if I could take along my 10 tips from the start.

Best of luck to the incoming freshmen of 2018—work hard and have a blast!

–Gina Stafford

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