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3.10.04 Advice for the College-Bound

My sister asked for some wise words about college choices -- something to help her bright son Robert choose the right school. He also needs to be able to state his areas of interest on college applications and his run the gamut from theology to engineering. Hmmm...

I grew up in an era where there wasn't much real choice, but there was lots of room for imagination. My high school wouldn't let the "smart kids" be too artsy but math and science clearly came in second to the humanities. I was passionate about languages, so I figured I'd just keep going with it. Everyone said, "Oh, you can be a U.N. interpreter!" I had no career in mind but I knew I wanted to get out of St. Louis. My favorite word was "cosmopolitan," which I was sure St. Louis wasn't.

I fueled my imagination by sending for college catalogues. I remember pouring over catalogues for the University of New Mexico, University of Wisconsin, and University of Chicago. I really wanted to go to the University of Chicago, but got directed instead to Mundelein, a women's college in Chicago associated with my high school. Occasionally, I wonder how I would have turned out if I'd gone to school on the south side instead of on North Sheridan Road.

Mundelein was fine, really. I went with a friend and knew a lot of the nuns who had been transferred there from my high school. So it was comfortable and I thrived. It set the stage for my life pattern of being a big fish in a little pond. My classmates were diligent, but not really excited about learning. But the faculty was good and encouraged me. In my third and final year, I put together a program where a group of us could do self-directed learning rather than the standard coursework. By October, I was the only one still doing it. (Oh, yeah, I already have an entry about this, done 9.19.99.)

I followed my interests. I majored in Spanish and took lots of additional courses in Portuguese and Theology. The day of reckoning came when I graduated. No job. No prospects. High expectations. I could have solved this problem if I'd gone straight on to graduate school, but I was tired of school. I knew how to do school, and figured I'd better learn how to do life. After a couple months, I was tired of "life" and started frantically applying to grad schools.

In a nutshell, what happened was I got fellowships to grad school in Latin American studies, but turned them down because I had fallen in love and my future husband talked me out of leaving him for a year. Then we moved to Rochester. My interests had changed by that time, so I applied to grad school in Community Health, a very tough two-year program. It didn't particularly matter to them that I majored in Spanish but it did matter that I got good grades. And they did make me take a math course because I didn't take any math at all in college. I did well and I guess you could say lived happily ever after.

So what did I learn that can be passed along to someone who shares a bit of my DNA?

College is a great time to pursue what you really enjoy learning about. "Theology" at a good school translates for me into a broad liberal arts education -- lots of philosophy, history, literature, maybe some sociology and anthropology. This has been put down in recent years. College is so expensive that kids and parents press for the sure career at the end. But look at what's happened to all the kids who were going to get rich as software engineers and investment bankers: out of work.

It doesn't matter where you go to school, as long as you can stick with it. So the environment is important. How comfortable is it? Can you make friends? Is there good academic advising and a chance to get lots of attention from faculty or grad students? Are there enough options for you to change your mind a couple times? Could the school accommodate a double major in math and philosophy? In history and biology?

The most important skills to enter the world with (off the top of my head, in no particular order):

  • Good reading comprehension (NY Times op-ed page, The New Yorker), without letting your enjoyment of reading get stifled by school
  • Writing ability (put a good argument for something down on paper, write an e-mail without looking like a loser)
  • Understanding data and "evidence," which involves formal logic/scientific reasoning, a little probability, a little statistics, data displays (how to know if someone is full of crap -- Is there such a thing as global warming? Is NAFTA good or bad? Which exercise program is most effective?)
  • Cultural and intellectual openness -- willingness to explore new ideas, see the world through someone else's eyes, trying to surface and challenge your own prejudices
  • Some active way of nurturing creativity and problem-solving not connected with academics. I think this goes along with beginning to think of education not as homework assignments or figuring out what the teacher wants.
  • Speaking: Tell a good story that engages the people you're with.

I should admit I didn't have these all lined up when I finished college, but it's a good list for assets that fit any career.

Hope there is some nugget of wisdom here!

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