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The #1 Thing Needed to Survive College and Graduate

By Matthew Scandale

So you’ve researched colleges carefully, picked the perfect one, and gotten accepted. You’ve worked out the financing, you’re ready to manage your time wisely, and you have the tools to succeed academically. So you’re all set? Not quite. Many students have had all those things and more…and yet eventually dropped out of college. They take extended leaves and never return, transfer back home to their local schools, or on rare occasions even take their own lives. According to some studies, nearly 1 in 2 never graduates college. Many of us know students who went to their “dream” schools like Columbia and Cornell, but mysteriously returned home after a semester or a year, saying little except mumbling something like

that college was full of cut-throat, plastic people
. Many students who earn decent grades still never graduate. Why?

Before you attend college, it’s nearly impossible to understand what college life will be like and what you’ll need to survive it. You see movies with college kids guzzling beer and playing pranks. You read college guides talking about silly rituals and football games. But you probably don’t have much of any real idea. Up until this point, you’ve lived at home with your family all your life. You’ve probably had many of the same friends since middle school or even elementary school. You may have lived in the same city or even house all your life. Your parents make the rules, probably cook your meals, and even do your laundry or shopping. They probably adore you and have devoted their life to you for as long as you can remember. You’re at the peak of your confidence; you’ve “mastered” high school and maybe even feel like you “rule the school”. You have no idea what you’re about to face.

The real #1 reason why students drop out of college is they find themselves at some point without anyone to emotionally support or encourage them. When this happens, stress over an exam can turn into panic, a rainy day can turn into a depression, a tough decision can turn into a crisis, and a routine illness can turn into a nervous breakdown. When this happens for a day or even a week, it probably serves as a good reminder of human frailty. When this happens for a month or longer, most folks are ready to pack up and head home…for good.

If a student is living at home with family, this usually isn’t much of a concern. But away from home in the “real world”, every kid must work hard to continually find and keep these crucial family-like relationships. And most of us have very little experience in this area when we first start college. Family always came to us by default. High school friendships were often shallow: not any sort of real substitute for family bonds.

Away at college, the environment is often completely not conducive to this process of building a support network. There are usually no parent figures in college life. In your freshman year, you may never meet any of your professors. Dorms typically have resident advisors, but they’re often fellow students with little power or influence. Life is completely unstructured; no one takes attendance at classes (which are usually attended by hundreds or even thousands of other students), no one tells you when or where to eat or sleep.

That leaves students themselves to make their own rules, decide their own norms and ethics, their own systems of judgment and punishment, and their own values. Students themselves must become like parents, or like children, to other students. And they usually have very little experience in any of this. And there are few repercussions or incentives, and it’s not always clear what those are to the parties involved. There are thousands of options to choose from in all of these areas, and things keep changing every day. Making a group of good friends is like trying to build a sand castle…in the midst of a hurricane.

Just as soon as you think you’ve made a good friend at college, he or she moves, develops other interests, gets a girlfriend, transfers out, changes majors, pledges a frat, or just proves to be unreliable. At competitive colleges, there often isn’t a lot of time for socializing or bonding time, as the workloads are so demanding. Freshmen typically attend classes that number in the hundreds or even thousands. Many schools are so large that you might not run into a given person twice. And colleges are often full of students who are all hyper-competitive, extremely diverse, somewhat fickle by nature of their youth, and all struggling to survive for the first time on their own.

So what can you do to help this process? Here are some things:

  • 1. Select a college close enough to home where can go home to visit on any given weekend, or have your family come visit you on any given weekend. Sooner or later, you will need this, and it will feel like a lifesaver.
  • 2. Select a college, course of study, and course schedule that are realistically achievable for you, given the emotional and social challenges you will face in addition to the academic ones.
  • 3. Select a college with a student population that has some degree of compatibility with you: ethnically, racially, religiously, politically, and socioeconomically. Otherwise it’s going to be a lot tougher to find compatible people with which to make friends.
  • 4. Select a course of study that captures your interest, even if it’s not quite as lucrative in the marketplace. Your interest will help propel you through the difficult process and bring you in contact with like-minded people.
  • 5. Select a college using your heart as well as your brain. Visit the college, see the students closely, and talk to some of them. Get a sense of whether you would fit in there and be happy.
  • 6. Select a college where some of your high school classmates will likely attend, then find out who they are and make plans to attend together. Don’t rely on them to be your best friends, but don’t ignore them altogether.
  • 7. Plan to live in the dorms, a residential college or themed living unit, fraternity or sorority for all 4 years. Moving off-campus into a private apartment or house is a quick way to stop meeting people.
  • 8. Plan to attend freshman orientation and be ready to meet people there.
  • 9. Be ready to meet people and make friends during your freshman year, and make plenty of time for it.
  • 10. Never turn down an invitation to a social event where you can meet new people.
  • 11. Invest time in developing a bond with your roommate.
  • 12. Invite your parents, siblings, relatives, and friends from home to visit you at college and to share in your experience.
  • 13. Get active in clubs, intramural teams, fraternities and sororities. Continue to do this for all 4 years. Join multiple clubs; you can always drop out of some later.
  • 14. Get a campus job, one with fellow students, and one that gets you regular contact with people and allows you to get to know them.
  • 15. Volunteer.
  • 16. Find a living arrangement that allows pets, if possible.
  • 17. Establish and practice some form of religious faith. Connect with others who share your system of belief.
  • 18. Cultivate your sense of concern for meaningful issues that are larger than you: environmental, human rights, etc.
  • 19. Don’t be afraid to pour your heart out to fellow students on occasion, and don’t be too proud to pick up the phone and call home.

Always be flexible, always keep your options open, always keep an optimistic and generous attitude, and always try to do the right thing. As impossible as it may seem sometimes, there’s always a way to survive.

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