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When I think back on my days at college, I rarely, if ever, look at the nice diploma I was given at Westminster College. Instead, I reflect mostly on the lessons learned outside the classroom.
It's a difficult thing for most college presidents to admit, but a large part of a college education has nothing to do with professors, computers, social media or ivy. Much of how we prepare ourselves for the world outside the classroom is learned in the margins of college life. While students are busy using the classroom to make the "other plans" John Lennon wrote so cogently about, they also absorb needed lessons on how to exist in the world.
Here are a few things a college graduate learns that are phrased differently in our brochures.
• The World Doesn't Revolve Around Me Lesson: College-age kids generally have had a room of their own their entire lives, been ferried to every appointment, received countless trophies and studied diligently to pass standardized tests. In real life, colleges teach you how to live and co-exist with strangers, ask you to make it to class, meetings and practices on your own and teach you to think for yourself. That last one bears repeating. The most important part of college is teaching you how to think -- and it doesn't necessarily happen in the classroom
• The Small Pond Lesson: College is probably the most effective vehicle to deliver the message that there are a lot of great students in the world as well as quite a few talented athletes. Those qualities are only a fraction of what it takes to become a valued member of society.
• The 1600 SAT Lesson: Standardized tests are a valuable tool for colleges in figuring out if a high-schooler will succeed in higher-level classes, but the ability to recognize antonyms and recognize quadratic equations will not get you a job (unless you work as an SAT coach). Learning how to discuss both sides of an issue, how to analyze a problem and write coherently about a solution, and how to organize a project all are skills needed in the workplace. If you earned 1000 on your college boards and you can dissect the arguments for and against public health care, you are just as smart as the kid next to you calculating rocket trajectories in her head.
• The Kent Dorfman Lesson: "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son" is a simple adage to remember that tells us the freedom of living on our own comes with responsibility. As you work your way through four years of college, it becomes clear that the world rewards those with a clear head and solid character who show up on time. College administrators wish this lesson would be learned quickly (or that more students would opt not to pursue it), but is one lesson that most students must experience the hard way.
Every one of the lessons learned in a typical college education is cumulative and interrelated, which is why the current emphasis from education experts on the three-year degree and from the White House on taking at least one year of college certification are wrongheaded.
College by definition prepares you for a career beyond its campus confines, but please do not confuse that with job training or professional certification. Ideally, a student should leave college having studied abroad, worked in an internship in a professional setting. Many students get those experiences as they move through their college careers, but an accelerated education or a certificate program will leave those opportunities by the side of the road.
Many of the formative experiences that college graduates look back on fondly are the sorts of things that you can't put in a brochure or television commercials. Instead, the events that influence a career can come in the classroom, the cafeteria or the campus quad.
The roommate with laundry issues could be your friend for life as well as a conduit to folks who can help you network your job prospects. The intramural teammate could tell you about an internship that changes your idea of what you want to do. The service club you volunteered for could make you change your major from business to public service.
The thing about college is that the entire experience is the education and it is not something that should be hurried through. Yes, you should try to graduate in four years to make the economics work out, but spending your entire time on a college campus blindly accumulating credits is not an experience I'd enjoy.
We all forget sometimes that college is a place where you find out who you are and where you want to go. Those experiences can happen at any time, in any place and sometimes you're not even aware that your experience has been life-changing until well after your life has changed. It's important to be open to these lessons.
And most of those lessons don't come with a certificate or diploma.
First Published August 22, 2010 12:00 am