This month, a lot of tearful teenagers will bid adieu to high school (good news guys, you'll still be Facebook friends with each other in 20 years) and begin looking forward to the next chapter, which, for the lucky among them, will be college. I loved it so much, I decided never to leave, and I've been at various universities for the past 18 years (whoa). At college, no one makes you go to class, and I thought I'd give our incoming freshmen some advice that no one else will. Don't take this as invitation to skip that excruciating discussion of medieval history, but sometimes ditching is important, in the same way that learning to manage your time wisely is important, and the same way that, although painful, failing is important, too.
1. Learn to use the library
I've overheard seniors bragging that they'd never set foot in the library in four years -- until, that is, my assignment mandated that they check out one of those old-timey, dusty word accordions. Libraries are glorious places that cannot be supplanted by the Internet and electronic databases, no matter how convenient it is not to leave your dorm. In the best of them, there are rooms where you are given white gloves to wear because the pages you'll be handling are so precious. Sometimes, the books are shelved on mechanical, rolling stacks that you must crank by hand, like a music box, to reveal the hidden aisle that you need. To find any book is a treasure hunt of sorts, and there is no replacement for the serendipitous events that transpire in the library: you bend down to tie your shoe, and find yourself at eyelevel with a book you didn't know you needed to read, but you find it is the exact right thing.
2. Attend campus-sponsored events
Film screenings, poetry readings, guest lectures by visiting professors, student art shows. One of the single best moments from my college days was a farewell reading by the poet Thom Gunn. Also, sometimes these events serve wine, and they don't even card you because they presume, incorrectly in my case, that you are mature and won't make an ass out of yourself in front of your professors.
3a. Learn political views that are different from your parents.
Unless your parents are already liberal in which case, you're fine. But, hey, what is socialism? What is this red devil communism I keep hearing about when grandpa's watching TV? And, 3b: Protest something: be it the removal of graffiti on campus or the rising cost of tuition. Learn about the power of having opinions and making them heard.
4. Develop an appreciation for coffee.
Put down that Mountain Dew monstrosity.
5. Use campus resources to improve yourself.
Utilize writing and tutoring centers, but also co-ops and collective farms; like mental health houses, and botanical gardens, and the craft center; like the gym and its jujitsu classes; like Italian conversation clubs.
6. Meet with your academic advisor.
Make sure that you know how to schedule your classes to graduate on time. Lots of colleges make it hard to figure out exactly what your requirements are and how to get them fulfilled. That way, they end up with a lot of fifth year seniors and extra tuition payments. That's called capitalism, and (spoiler alert) it's not as great as you've been lead to believe.
7. Go abroad.
And don't just hang out at MacDo speaking English with your similarly displaced classmates. Be uncomfortable. Feel stupid. Get lost. Try.
8. Read the news.
Ok, this you can do on the Internet. I'm not a Luddite -- but learn how to discern actual journalism from the electric fury of somebody's blog. And... transitioning to the next point: learn how to talk about current events.
9. Develop what, my college friend Caleb used to call, the art of conversation.
I learned this in high school because I lived in a place that was so romantically boring (or so Rabat, Morocco seemed to us at 15) that there was nothing to do but sit in smoky cafes and converse. Cafes may no longer be smoky, but they serve the same purpose (see again No. 4). So do living rooms, and the non-quiet areas of the library.
10. This is the single greatest piece of advice I'm going to give you: Go to Office Hours.
This is time that faculty has (to) set aside to meet one-on-one with students, and you should take advantage of it. Go early and go often: Form relationships with your teacher, ask questions about difficult material, prime them for that moment when you'll ask for a letter of recommendation, and show them that you care -- not just about your grade, but about your education. Do this whether your instructor is a TA barely older than yourself, or a world-famous professor once interviewed on The Daily Show. Just don't be surprised if that hilarious, engaging lecturer acts, in office hours, like you've just walked in on him in the toilet. Academics are some of the most socially awkward people on the planet.
If you do all of that here's what you'll learn at college: the university is a microcosm of the world at large -- full of brilliant, diverse opportunities that no one is going to make you take -- and there's a reason for this, because if you do it right (and by "it" I mean not just college, but life), the whole world will be your classroom.