My kid sister is in college now, which is pretty special. I left for college when she entered middle school, so for me, it has felt like she has grown up way too quickly. She asked me the other day if I had any advice for her. I don’t think my college experiences were at all representative, but they are all that I have to offer her.
1. On Change
Every year I look back at what I was doing, thinking, and writing in the previous year, and feel a bit embarrassed. Did I really say those things and act like that? It’s a given that people mature as they go through college, but even aside from that, I ended up switching fields in the middle of my Masters degree, seriously contemplated five different minors (History, Sociology, Biology, Computer Science, and Music Theory), learned how to play three different musical instruments, was enrolled in an art class for a month before I realized that I can’t draw, and became a Christian, all within my five years at school. It’s probably easier to list the things that didn’t change: I started as an Electrical Engineer and graduated as one, I stayed in the same research lab for four years (working my way up from unpaid grunt to Research Assistant!), and I was single throughout college.
You’re going to have thoughts about your future – things you think are going to happen and things you think will never happen. Be aware that you’re in a point in life where these things change a lot. I’m probably still in that place, and may be here yet for a few years.
2. Times when I felt like I didn’t belong…
My lowest point in college came during my Junior year. I was taking my first graduate level class, Integrated Circuit Fabrication Processes. It was a class with over 200 people, which was a shock coming from undergrad EE classes which usually had around twenty people. An hour and fifteen minutes after midterm exams were handed out, I found out the exams were also a bit different than undergrad classes, because as the bell rang, I had filled out only four pages out of ten! I ended up getting about a 30% on that exam, and, with the mean around 50%, I was two standard deviations below it. This was easily the worst grade I had gotten to that point. Right around that time, I was also rejected from a job interview with Amazon.
I remember walking around campus afterwards feeling depressed and thinking, “Did I pick the right major? Am I smart enough? What did I do wrong?” Being below average was an indicator to me that I wasn’t cut out to be an electrical engineer (which is funny to me now because by definition, half of all electrical engineers are below average).
I decided to study hard for the final, and in the end I scored one standard deviation above the mean, enough to bring my overall grade to a respectable B+. This helped convince me that I could do it, that it was possible for me to succeed (as opposed to impossible because everyone was categorically smarter than me), and that I should stay. It was a pretty pivotal moment for me – if I had not done well on the final, things probably would have turned out very differently. Looking back on this experience, I realize that the class was particularly hard for me because I lacked a background in semiconductor physics and didn’t know anyone in the class. At the time, though, I assumed that all graduate-level EE classes were going to be this difficult, and I started to doubt that I belonged at this level academically. Having hope at this juncture allowed me to persevere through this class and gave me a chance to choose to classes in the department that were a better match for my knowledge and interests.
3. Friends and how they are made
Of the people from college that I talk to on a regular basis and am close with, there are only two people out of twenty that didn’t live in the same residence as me or the one next to mine. Out of a campus of 8,000 undergrads, I shared a dorm with maybe 300 of them, and yet 90% of my close friends from college are people that I’ve lived with. There really is nothing that compares to seeing a person on a daily basis to share in their joys and sorrows. Some of the people who I had the least in common with, or I disliked when I first met, are now my closest friends. Living together is not a guarantee of anything (for example, I don’t talk to my freshman-year roommate anymore), but it seems like it certainly is very important.
Over the long term, I kept in touch with two people from my high school. I probably talked to ten during my freshman year, five my sophomore year, and then two/one. Some people are great at networking and can build meaningful relationships very quickly. Most folks, though, would probably agree: my favorite people are my friends who have known me the longest.
4. What part of college was helpful?
He was a dangerous man.
I think there have been three or four classes out of the 60 that I took that have been helpful for me now. China Under Mao helped me understand my parents and their generation better. Operating Systems taught me about how computers work. Programming Paradigms taught me the basic building blocks of programming. Sure, I know how to do Fourier and Laplace transforms, write a compiler, build a microprocessor, navigate the patent system, write a research paper, prove theorems, impedance-match a wireless receiver, perform a SQL injection attack, identify benzene rings, and can articulate reasons the atom bomb was deployed. Life-enriching knowledge? Of course, but not exactly “font-style: italic;”>useful. Here are some other data points.
I play bass and guitar; my current ability probably stems from my performing every single week Junior and Senior year, and much of the other years too. I learned how to design circuits by spending hours in the lab getting paid $12/hour as an undergrad research assistant. I first fell in love with programming while writing video games in my evenings during high school. Taking classes helped, but it mostly helped because of repetition – the more I programmed, the better I got, both in the way I thought about problems and my knowledge about different ways others had approached them.
I became better at managing projects and my time by experimenting with different methods of scheduling while I was busy with work, research, homework, and social activities. I developed an appreciation for aesthetics and design when I got sick of my plain white room and decided to try and make it look nicer. I became less shy and inward-focused, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because of all the hours I spent sitting in lecture or doing homework – I spent a lot of time around people, especially when I was helping lead bible studies.
What stands out to me appears to be a crucial difference between the structured education of our childhood as opposed to college and life beyond it. In high school, most of what I learned was taught by teachers – calculus, English, civics. In college, on the other hand, it seems like the things I learned came from my own initiative, practice, and experiences. On that note, it’s worthwhile to evaluate what things you want to learn or get better at, and make sure that you make the space in your life for them. I wanted to keep up my Spanish and Chinese, but I never gave that more than a few minutes a day, and consequently that never went anywhere. Instead, I got pretty good at certain types of video games because we played them a lot. What you spend your free time on matters.
I love reading my old diary entries. Here is absolutely the best one, written in the middle of sophomore year:
12/31 – today i’m going to make a resolution. one. and its immenintely dooable. that is, i’m goin to hypnotize myself into improving myself.
Everyone comes into adulthood a slave to certain things. For me, it was being productive and keeping a high GPA. It’s not something I figured out right away, but I had to keep asking that question: am I a slave to this?
College life is a pretty popular topic now that school has started again – Guy Kawasaki just wrote a new blog post about it. Better now than at graduation time I suppose. His words:
the purpose of going to school is not to prepare for working but to prepare for living. Working is a part of living, and it requires these kinds of skills no matter what career you pursue
Helpful, right? To summarize some of the things I wrote:
- helpful postures / attitudes: being flexible, intentional with your time, aware of the people around you, and believe that you are here for a reason
- value this: exploration, perfecting skills, maturation, learning about the art of socializing, depth of relationship, working hard
That’s it for my reflections for tonight. Words of advice for someone entering college / your lessons learned?