By Brian Reinhart, NLC staff
College is an intimidating place for many first-time students. Learning your way around a new campus, meeting hundreds of new classmates, and adjusting to university course work are all huge challenges to take on at one time.
For introverted or shy students, these challenges can be even bigger. I personally remember them well. But I also remember the lessons I learned adapting to college: lessons about being confident in my identity, being open to new experiences, knowing when to ask professors for help, and using student organizations to express myself. Here are some of the experiences I had, and what they helped teach me about making the most of college.
Make sure your college fits you
I feel lucky that my college was small and had a strong sense of campus community, and I’d recommend smaller schools to any high schooler. Small schools may have fewer clubs and service organizations to join, but it’s often easier to find research and leadership opportunities, make connections, and grow. At small schools it may be easier to meet new friends, too.
Because my university had just a few thousand students, when I joined clubs, I had the opportunity to take on leadership roles and make real differences on campus. On the other hand, a friend of mine from high school attended a state university with more than 25,000 students and discovered that there were a dozen other people who wanted the exact same student newspaper job she hoped to take. She never got it.
I can’t tell you what exactly to look for in the college you choose, because every student wants something different. But take time before choosing a college, to think about what your perfect university would have, whether it’s a big city scene, research opportunities, low tuition, study abroad programs, a good football team — or anything else.
Stay true to yourself
Before my first day at college, I thought that going to a new school was a chance to start over – to create a whole new me. College classmates wouldn’t know me as a shy new kid who moved to town midway through high school; we’d all be new kids together. In their eyes and my own, I would become whoever I wanted to be.
I quickly found out that that dream – creating a whole new me – was impossible. There was only one person I could be. Luckily, I didn’t have to change myself to fit in at college, because there were like-minded, accepting classmates who felt the same way. Many introverts go through that same experience: trying on a new persona, then discovering that the real way to make new friends is to be confident in yourself.
Be prepared for setbacks
There were stumbles – I joined and quit student clubs, made friendships which didn’t last, and attended almost every event I was invited to, some of them good, some of them bad. Once I even left a crowded, uncomfortable party by pretending to get sick.
From these experiences, I learned that there is no point in trying to fit in with a group you don’t like. I also discovered that your first classmates or roommates are not the only friends you can make – you can find more by joining clubs, going to events, or starting new classes. And it’s a good rule to try new experiences, while avoiding situations that make you uncomfortable.
Setbacks can feel dispiriting, especially if you already have a hard time making new friends. But struggling is okay – it helps you figure out what you are really looking for.
Professors are there for you
Another lesson I quickly learned: Most professors want to help as much as they can. They are understanding if students don’t want to ask questions in class – and are welcoming if you visit them during their office hours. One-on-one conversations were some of my most valuable learning experiences in college.
But even a simple email can help. Many of my professors also handed out their cell phone numbers – one teacher talked my roommate through a final exam review from the set of Katie Couric’s TV show. I visited many teachers in their offices and two at their homes.
Wherever you go, stay true to yourself. Say yes to new experiences – but don’t feel pressured to test your limits, or to keep trying with an activity or a group of friends you just can’t connect with. Get to know your professors by visiting their offices and asking any question you need answered. Be prepared to take some time finding your place in college – but be confident that you will.