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Ten Lessons You Need to Learn Before You Finish Your Degree

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ByAudrey Brown, Ball State University

There's a deceptive side-effect to higher education, one that often surprises students after they've donned the cap and gown. It's the fact that attending school for a degree can really lull you into a sense of false security.

Attending college or university is one of the best decisions you can possibly make with your life, just short of saying no to face tattoos. But there's also a deceptive side-effect to higher education, one that often surprises students after they've donned the cap and gown. It's the fact that attending school for a degree can really lull you into a sense of false security.

As a graduate student now, I can tell you that I labored under this false sense of security as an undergraduate. Now as a graduate student, I teach some students that are also living in this kind of passive "wait it out" mentality. It's so easy to forget that there's life beyond dorm food, free cable, and the constant temptation of parties. At the end of four years, or two, or eight if you're going to be a doctor, all your new friends will disperse and seek employment and life beyond their education. You'll have to as well.

What do I mean exactly? Well, pursuing a degree is a difficult process, one that takes place in a microcosm of the real world. A college campus, whether you are living on one or simply attending one, can feel like a world unto itself. It has its own dining establishments, dorms, and social structure. It can keep you feeling isolated from the real world, the one you'll have to face after you graduate. It's easy to forget that there are life lessons to learn, practical steps to take, and a future adjustment coming post-degree. Make sure to learn these ten lessons, and learn them well, before you graduate. They're nothing to be afraid of... if you do your homework. College is no time to retreat from the world for four years, it's a time to train for the life you want, to empower yourself, and a good majority of that training comes from life outside the classroom.

1. Know Your Financial Situation

Many students have either let their parents take care of things for them or have blindly applied for all types of loans without the thought of future consequences. Treat your money flippantly and you're failing to factor in the fact that you'll need to move after graduation or at least have the ability to travel in order to do interviews and investigate the job market. The best way to shoot yourself in the foot is to completely disregard your financial situation as an adult. (If you're over eighteen, it's official, you're one of us.)

Two to four years while pursuing a degree may seem like forever, but it's really not. Pay attention to your finances, work hard, accumulate as little debt as possible, and save a little money with a side job, or you'll likely be forced to move back in with your parents. Trust me, they may appreciate that framed certificate on the wall, but remember...with great power comes great responsibility. Translation? You'll need to buy your own food, do your own laundry, and find a way to afford your own apartment on your own.

2. Face Your Own Problems

Ever heard of the phrase, "helicopter parent"? If you're about to enter college or university, or even if you're currently enrolled, there's a good chance that you may have one. They're not as fun as the cartoon propeller image they bring forth. Helicopter parents are the parents that want to speak with students' college professors, even though college students are independent adults. They do all the financial legwork. They tell their children what kind of a degree to get and maybe even help them choose classes. In short, they create helpless children.

If you have a helicopter parent, or heck... even if you're just lazy, you're going to need to learn to face your own problems. If you don't know how to do something, and the first year of any higher educational experience is filled with question marks, then you should take the time to learn how to do it. By yourself. After all, what is life but a series of problems and solutions, goals and accomplishments? If you're failing a class, make an appointment with your professor or seek tutoring. (Trust me, we want you to pass!) If you don't know your way to a building, go get a map. When the going gets tough, running to your parents or authority figures and asking them to do things for you is a very bad idea. It's always okay to ask for help, but make sure you've exhausted your own resources before doing so. Which brings me to my next point...

3. Learn to Do Work You May Not Enjoy

At some point in everyone's life, they're going to have to do something they don't want to do in order to support themselves. The best choice is to work for the life you want. That may mean slinging hash in the university cafeteria for four years in order to save up enough money to buy yourself a nicer car and a one-year lease in your city of choice once you've attained your degree. None of us are entitled to exactly what we want, exactly when we want it. We should all be working for what we want, even if we come from wealthy families.

Trust me, when talking to employers post-graduation, they are far more likely to hire people who have already demonstrated that they have a solid work ethic. Do you have to get a job you hate to punish yourself? Certainly not. Maybe you start in the cafeteria and work your way up to the local radio station. But every job, even your dream career, will have a negative aspect. There will be something you won't want to do. But that's okay, and it's good to learn that sooner rather than later. Avoid working because you don't want to, and you'll end up with a job you hate in the long term because you were unwilling to work your way up the ladder.

4. Take Calculated Risks

Being smart in life is not enough. It just isn't. Risk-taking just for the sake of risk-taking won't get you anywhere. But taking risks when you really believe in something, when you're at a do or die moment, those are the kind of risks that can pay off in the long term. Think of all the great actors who took the risk of moving to California, or the writers who put pen to paper and then shared their work with a class even under fear of embarrassment. What about the inventors that quit their jobs to devote themselves to their inventions? Do they all succeed? No. But some of them do, and those that don't will have surely learned something.

Pursuing a degree is a very structured and timed experience. While you're there, find the right risks to take and then take them! Join a band, try out for a team, write your novel or interview for a summer work program (The Southwestern Internship Program can be a great one, for example). These are the risks in life worth taking. If you succeed, the rewards will be imminent. But if you fail, at least you'll never have to wonder what would've happened "if". Perhaps you can even try again later armed with your new knowledge and experience. Get used to taking the right risks while seeking your education and you'll be ready to take all the risks that come with reality.

5. Irony and Sarcasm are Not Your Friends

Well, not unless you're training to be a stand-up comedian. In which case, go nuts. Otherwise, learn to see the world in a more straightforward way. Irony and sarcasm comes across to teachers as disrespect. Employers see it as you treating them with nonchalance and disinterest. Remember, being ironic is not a personality trait. It can be your sense of humor, it can be your favorite way to make a joke, but it doesn't have to be the way you treat people all the time. It's actually something called a "defense mechanism". It's putting up a front and it's not necessary, even when it's trendy. You have to remember, not everyone will understand sarcasm either, some people will take it literally. Why take the risk with strangers and authority figures of coming across like a jerk? It's not worth it. Engage people in a genuine way, and you can't go wrong.

6. Avoid Bad Influences

Yes, I realize that this sounds like a re-run of "Punky Brewster" (and I have officially just aged myself) but surrounding yourself with the right, or wrong, kind of people makes all the difference in your future trajectory. When I say bad influences, I don't even mean hard-partying criminals. I'm talking about the people who always seem to tell you to procrastinate. "Don't do your homework now, there's something more fun to do," or maybe, "Go ahead and stuff your face with an entire large pizza, it's fun!" Let me tell you, misery loves company, and miserable people want you to be miserable with them. Even if they aren't aware of what they're doing, negative people can drain you and pull you down.

College is a time to work hard. Not just to pursue your degree, but to actually enjoy your education. Not just to pass tests, but to learn information that will help you during the rest of your life. To stretch yourself beyond your limit and to learn that you can do things even you didn't think you could do. As surely as you've been accepted to school, there will be people there who don't want to be there or who are afraid to be there or who are self-destructive because of their own past problems. Don't hop on board with them just to "be nice". You can be nice and make friends with people who will empower you and challenge you. You can even be friends with bad influences, but I wouldn't spend a lot of time with them.

7. Devote Time to Your Passions

School is a great time to discover what makes you tick. Ever heard that old adage, "Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life,"? It's true. I'm a freelance writer and voice-over artist, and I sometimes feel like I'm "getting away with it". There are many opportunities to seek your passions while pursuing a degree, there are clubs and activities and without a doubt, people of like minds at whatever institution you choose.

Devoting time to whatever you are passionate about, whether that passion is creative or otherwise, makes your entire learning experience better in every way. It keeps bitterness at bay in classes you don't enjoy, because hey, you'll always have (insert your passion of choice) to do later. It makes you a happier person, a more focused person, and a more well-rounded person. Classes can be stressful as well, so doing what you love can help you release that stress and make it to the finish line with your degree.

8. Avoid the Blame Game

It's too easy to say that failing is someone else's fault. If you failed a paper, a test, a class, chances are, you didn't study hard enough or follow the rules. Everyone fails eventually, and seeking your degree will give you plenty of opportunities to do so. But so will life in the real world. When you fail, stop and ask yourself honestly what you could've done differently. Learn from the mistakes you make, or you really will be doomed to repeat them. College is a great time to humble yourself. For example, if you're having a hard time adjusting to dorm life, go knock on doors and introduce yourself, don't just sit in your room and blame everyone else. Maybe you're giving non-verbal signals that say, "stay away". Whatever your challenges, face them. Seek feedback and honest opinions, but above all, be honest with yourself.

9. Have a Plan A, and a Plan B, C, D, etc.

Having a one-track mind can be a self-destructive thing. Life will throw some curve balls your way, it just will. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe this will even happen during school. Maybe a class you were desperate to take is full. Maybe you have to be there for an extra semester. Maybe you don't get the job you want right away. So give yourself several options for degrees you would enjoy, jobs you'd be okay with working, and places you might want to move after you graduate. Flexibility is a must.

10. Don't Procrastinate

In fact, be early. With everything. Be investigative. Double check your finances, your class schedules, meet with advisors to see if you're on track. Learn what to do to make sure you'll graduate and check on any job fairs or interviews coming to town. Research the field you want to work in. Basically, be proactive. Be as proactive as you can. You'll feel good about yourself, you'll be well-prepared, and you'll have more choices. It may be cliche, but "the early bird gets the worm" is very true.

These are lessons that you'll have to learn eventually, and these are the truths I wish someone would've told me when I was first seeking my degree. But it's good to be aware of these ten points before you have to encounter them in a negative way. Seeking a degree may seem like an overwhelming experience. But I find, in my own personal experience, that I always know the right thing to do. Whether or not I always do the right thing is another matter. But I think, as college students, that we know all of this information already. It's just up to us to act on it. If we do, we'll walk away from our education with a lot more than a degree.