The summer after I turned 18, I packed up my teenage life and loaded it into my dad's car. I was moving to Cincinnati, five hours away, to live in a tiny dorm room with someone I'd never met.
Those four years flew by, and they had their share of joy, and angst, and heartache, and incredible new opportunities and friends. Each person has to make her own way; here is my humble offering of advice to young women starting their own journeys.
You may be in the process of finding yourself in your college years, and it's the best time to do it.
1) Get a job.
Whether you're completely funded by Mom and Dad or not, you should consider starting to earn your own money. There are plenty of jobs to be had on campus and off, and if you can find a job that allows you to study, that would be ideal. My job for four years of college was with the intramurals department; I sat in a chair next to the gym, or the racquetball court, or the track, and checked student IDs while reading my text books. Not only was I making money, I was making new friends (and sometimes studying).
When you get out of school, you'll need a reference -- why not work or volunteer part time, even one day a week? It's a great start to real life, a resume builder, and you might meet some new and interesting people.
2) Don't let alcohol -- or drugs -- get the best of you.
The week before I started college, the dorms were open for orientation and general debauchery. My new friends at Siddall Hall were incredulous to find that I'd never been drunk before, and that changed one night. Luckily, these girls had my back and made sure I got home safely and I remember everything, including taking my shoes off on the dance floor at a local club and laughing like an idiot.
Everywhere around you, people will be drinking and trying drugs. I'm not going to preach and tell you to turn it all away; only you can make that decision. Stand your ground if you are not into it and no one will care. Trust me -- I was offered drugs plenty of times, especially in the rock band crowd I followed. I said, "Nah... no thanks" and no one made fun of me or asked me to leave the party.
As a woman, you need to be extra careful and don't drink past your tolerance -- blacking out is a bad idea, especially when you're with people you don't know well. All kinds of things can go wrong and you wouldn't know for sure what happened the next day. That first night of Boone's Farm wasn't the last night of drinking, but I learned quickly to be careful; as an athlete, I also didn't want to take a chance on my status on the team. Know your body's limits.
3) Be cautious about inviting a stranger to your room. And be wary of "friends" too.
I was very naive. Out at a club past midnight near my dorm, I was chatting up a tall blonde upperclassman who happened to be a second- or third-string quarterback for the football team. When I was ready to go home, all of my girlfriends had already left, and Mr. Quarterback offered me a ride back to my dorm (which was just across the street) in his red sports car. I don't remember if I invited him up or if he asked to come up, but I do remember he was sitting in a chair on one side of the room and I was on the other, talking away obliviously about sports. It wasn't long before he realized I was clearly not a "Sure Thing Freshman" and took his leave.
Not everyone is quite the gentleman, and another time I was alone with another freshman, he was not nearly as chivalrous. I was at a fraternity party and a freshman hopeful named Jason lured me upstairs with the promise of a tour of the house. He went to high school with one of my girlfriends, and I didn't think twice about it. Once upstairs, he shoved me onto a bed and began to paw at me as I attempted to detach him and said no as he tried to unbutton my shirt. Luckily, I was pretty strong and he was fairly drunk; I threw him on the floor.
The time that really shook me, however, was the evening I went to the dorm room of a guy who was dating a friend; he called me to come over and talk him through a problem he had (so he said over the phone). I was taken by surprise and I didn't escape unscathed; I didn't tell anyone about it, thinking I somehow invited this. In fact, the first time I could bring myself to speak the word "rape" aloud and tell my husband was last year -- some 20 years later. Don't be as naive as I was. And don't be afraid to tell someone -- you deserve to be heard.
4) Be smart. Be safe.
First of all, know the safety statistics of the university or college you're attending. Where are the problem areas? My husband says that nothing good happens after midnight. My younger mind rebels against this statement, but I've come to realize that in certain situations, he's right. Especially if there is alcohol involved or if you're by yourself, be smart.
Take a self-defense course. It will help you be more confident and walk with purpose, but you can also potentially extract yourself from situations as in No. 3, above. Even if you you're a black belt, though, don't walk alone at night and don't kid yourself: crime can happen even on the nicest campuses.
5) Change your major if you want to.
Who, pray tell, at 18 knows what she wants to do for the rest of her life? Not too many people. Take advantage of campus career counseling -- they'll steer you in the general direction. Even in high school, your counselors are there to help. And take heart: it's not likely that you're going to want to switch from English Lit to medical school. You're probably in the right vicinity and need to tweak it a little.
Enrolled in Anthropology and hate it? Make a change. Do it now. Don't look back.
6) Show your professors that you care.
In high school, I think I coasted through. Yes, I did my homework and everything that was required of me, but when I got to college, I didn't really know how to STUDY. Focus. Pay attention.
After trying to sail through my freshman year the way I did in high school and coming up with a couple of Bs and a C, I was disappointed in myself and made some changes. First of all, I sat up front in class. Sitting in the back in a huge lecture hall doesn't give you the opportunity to interact and learn the material. When you sit near the front, you are engaged. You're more likely to ask questions. You have to pay attention because the professor might call on you.
Your professors will also give you the benefit of the doubt if you seek them out during office hours. I was struggling with Statistics, which I detested, and my professor had a very pronounced accent I could not understand in class. Talking to her one on one, I could get the instruction I needed, and I'm sure it made a difference in my grade. In my much-anticipated Philosophy and Religion class, I had earned a C- on my first two essays. I approached my professor to find out what I was doing wrong; he gave me a chance to revise my first two essays and told me if I worked hard to earn an A on the third and final paper, he would give me an A in the class. He was true to his word.
Oh, yes... and try not to skip class. You'll miss something for which you're paying thousands of dollars a year to learn.
7) Be open to new friends.
Moving to a city you've never lived before, and rooming with people you've just met is daunting. Give yourself a pat on the back just for that. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to immerse yourself in something new. Even if you have 20 friends from high school in your dorm, meet new friends. Look around and find common interests. You might be surprised.
My best friend in college was a tall, slender blonde with a boyfriend with hair as long and blonde as hers. I thought she was cool and untouchable until we realized that we loved the same music and bonded over Motley Crue (and we still love it). We're still friends, 23 years later.
8) Pick your roommates carefully.
Once you're out of the freshman dorm, you're going to look for people with whom you'll live for the next year or more. I had very thoughtful, conscientious roommates for three out of four years who paid the rent on time, didn't keep everyone else up all night, cleaned up after themselves, and were terrific people overall.
I also had one roommate who collected the utility money from the other six of us and then used it to buy something for himself. We found out when I opened a bill to discover we were way behind and in danger of our gas and electricity being shut off. When we confronted this roommate with proof of his deceit, he caved and paid it all back quickly.
No, not THAT kind of experimentation (see #2, above). Try a class that intrigues you; for me, that was a whole year of Japanese. Years later, I impressed the Japanese-born CEO for whom I wrote speeches by writing his name in hiragana.
College is not just about the school itself... it is the chance to learn how to be on your own.
Be willing to fail to succeed, and put yourself out there to try something new. As a freshman, I was a walk-on for the rowing team after zero athletic endeavors since grade school, aside from aerobics and going to the gym on my own. It became my passion for four years; 5 a.m. wake-up calls and all.
This goes hand in hand with #9 -- the best way to get the most out of your college years is to dive in. Join a club. Rush a sorority, if that's your thing. My sister was active in Euchre club (ahem -- card shark). It will never be so easy to find groups of like-minded people and try activities you never imagined you would. There are so many ways to get involved with your community.
BE YOURSELF. This should be No. 1, because it's the one you need to remember the most. You may be in the process of finding yourself in your college years, and it's the best time to do it. At the same time, don't waste it and throw away your own money or your parents' money. These may not be the best years of your life (for me, that time is right now -- many years later) but they are pivotal, exciting years.
P.S. Embarrassing moments will happen (trust me). Shake them off and move on.
Follow Kristin Shaw on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AustinKVS