The best advice I never got


Published April 14, 2008

In less than two weeks, I will sit among my peers in a black cap and gown, marking the completion of my college education. After spending four long years as a cog in the bureaucratic machine that is the University of Michigan, living for the weekends and dying inside, I feel justified in passing on some words of advice for those who still have a long way to go.

The University administration cares about two things: money and reputation. Sometimes it's necessary to remind it that its reputation is riding on your education.

This is your education - make what you want of it. The system will work for you if you force it to. You can custom-build your major, opt out of prereqs and talk your way into classes that are supposedly full. If you're not satisfied with your situation, explore your options.

You always have options. In terms of education, one might think the best way to go is the most commonly traveled route: Math 115, Math 116, Orgo I, Orgo II, blah, blah . But I have found that the most learning occurs on the unconventional paths.

Learning is hard when you don't like or care about what you're doing. In situations like this, your confidence is liable to take a hit. You might encounter people who will make you feel worthless for not jumping through as many hoops as the person sitting next to you is willing to jump through. Don't buy into it.

In high school, you might have been good at everything. In college it's rare. Instead of interpreting failure as a horrible event, look at it as a sign that you need to find something else to do. Be grateful that you found out when you did, if it's not already too late.

It's never too late.

It's OK to get a C. It's even more OK to take a W.

Grades are often a poor way to measure intelligence (although if your future employer hasn't caught on, you may want to be careful with this one). Shit happens; you might not see eye to eye with your GSI; your super-keen bullshit detector might turn energy into apathy. Detach yourself from all previous meaning of the letters A through E, and instead ask yourself if you learned something that inspired you.

There's a good chance you will learn more from socializing than you ever could in a classroom. Don't become so obsessed with perfection that you forget about the talents that have already brought you this far in life.

It is OK to be smarter than your peers - and your instructors. It happens, and it happens often. There are a lot of people in the world who just don't fucking get it. Take what they say with a grain of salt, and don't be afraid to tell them what you think.

Take 400-level classes. Don't think the numerical value in the hundreds slot of a course number should correspond to the year of college you are in. It's an intimidation tactic, because they think that freshmen don't get it. But if you're feeling intellectually stifled by your weed-out classes, take one of these for a change. They're not necessarily harder, they're just better. And they're taught by - gasp - real, live professors.

Chalmers Knight. As cold as this institution may seem sometimes, know that there are people here who want to help you. Chalmers is one of those people. He is often identified by the term "academic advisor," but I have come to know him as a philosopher, life coach and something of a psychic.

You've probably already learned that college requires a certain level of masochism. You will stay up all night completing tasks that have neither purpose nor meaning; you might spend days surviving on caffeine alone; you could experience stress at levels that cause your body to react as though you are a prisoner of war. But the one thing you must never sacrifice is your sanity.

There is always a way out of untenable situations. Once you get out, you will be smarter and more equipped to deal with the bullshit that people will throw at you in the future. I'm not saying you should take people's shit, but next time it's presented you'll be able to recognize it when you see it. That's learning, too.

The last thing I can tell you is this:

It's worth it. It has to be worth it. Subtract where you were when you first set foot on campus from where you are now. The total mental difference - whether it's information from books or love or the conversation you had at 5 a.m. in your friend's basement - is why it's worth it.

Arikia Millikan is a Daily associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at