An Open Letter to College Freshmen

Dear College Freshmen,

Congratulations on getting into the university of your dreams.  And if it’s not of your dreams, congratulations anyway.  You have the opportunity before you to join the 10% of people in the world who have a college degree.  That doesn’t make you smart, at least not on its own.  But it does make you rare, and that’s something.

I first wrote a version of this letter two years ago.  Two years is not a long time, even though in internet-time a day is like a thousand years.  This may be a good time to remember that the world doesn’t run on “internet-time.”   The whole business of digital tricks us into believing that nothing is permanent, that everything can be rewritten (like this letter!) or lost to the abyss that is Snapchat.  Yes, I have googled Snapchat and know what it is and why you are using it.  Yes, googling it demonstrates that I am old.  Yes, if I know about it then your parents will soon too.  And no, now that you’re in college you are not free from caring what they think.  They may be relieved to see you go, but they haven’t stopped caring about where you’ll end up.

English: A multi-volume Latin dictionary (Egid...

Repeat daily:  “Books are my friends, not my enemies.”

Don’t believe that business, though, about nothing being permanent.  Oh, all those selfies that you love snapping may not be, which is okay because most of them aren’t very good.  But you’re headed off to The University, where you’ll hopefully confront one or two things that are.  Take time while you are there to consider the great things in this world, and by the word I don’t mean the disinterested dismissal it sometimes is used for or the silly, hyperactive Tony-the-Tiger bastardization either.  I mean the music, literature, art, science, and so on that will overwhelm you, that will fill you with awe and maybe just a little terror, that will impress on you the undeniable sense that your soul is too small for the goodness of this world.  Take up the things that make you wonder whether your life will really amount to anything after all.  Allow yourself to feel the subtle but serious pleasure of distress that you have not yet done anything worthwhile.

Because, you know, you probably haven’t.  Not yet, anyway.  That will come later, when you and the rest of us are ready.  Or maybe never at all.  And that will be okay too, provided that by your character and integrity you are adding to the great store of goodness that makes up the foundations of the world.  The truly permanent things are found there, in the cultivation of courage and honor and justice and truth and kindness and love.  Of those there will be no end.  Make your home with them and though you may die in obscurity, the testimony of your life will be told and retold by those whose lives you have marked.

You should remember that you will need to find a job at the end of this season (you’re welcome, parents–you may pay me now). That does not mean you should only enter disciplines that are directly tied to work.  But it does mean that you should spend your summers well and look for ways to translate the work you do into other, more “practical” arenas.  “Transferable skills” is a term I heard once, and it works here just fine.  Plodding through forgotten bits of Latin may never be “practical”, but the diligence and care you cultivate in doing so will be.  Someone is paying a good deal of money for your degree, so you should do them the honor of bothering to work hard.  It’s not summer camp you’re at, after all, regardless of the playground your admissions counselor used to sell you to come.

I am told, though, that people like lists these days thanks to Buzzfeed and all that.  So let me distill my advice into seven bits of unquestionably accurate, entirely worthwhile bits of knowledge.  You can thank me in four years, or whenever you finish.

1)  Learn to read things that don’t come in lists or use bold fonts.  See what I did there?

2)   The world is built on discipline.  Embrace it.  Yes, you can and should have fun.  Yes, you will cultivate deep friendships with people and enjoy many of the pleasures this world has to offer.  But discipline and diligence are commodities in high demand and if you neglect them for the next four years you will find yourself in a worse spot than when you started your education.  Start small if you must, and if you’re at all like me you probably must.  Take one morning class every semester that forces you to go to bed relatively early two nights a week.  Delight yourself in the joys of a quiet campus and of the morning weather.  You may forget everything in those classes in ten years, but the habits, disciplines, and joys you will carry with you always.

3)   Read intelligently. Some of the books assigned to you aren’t going to be as helpful to you as others, and you will save yourself a goodly amount of time and frustration if you learn quickly how to identify those.  Talk with people who have taken the class before to discern what should be avoided.

But don’t do that because you’re lazy and don’t want to work hard.  Rather, do it so you can linger over the rest, savoring them and allowing them to permeate your heart and your soul.  Odd language, I know, if you’re hanging out in the sciences or maths.  But don’t let the immediate task of memorizing formulas hinder you from what you’re really doing:  learning how to see the harmonious beauty of creation.

4)  Befriend people you disagree with.  College is just like any other environment:  you’ll gravitate toward the people who are like you.  And that’s not all bad.  But the expansion of our intellectual horizons often happens in the midst of talking with those who see differently than we do.  A harmonious opposition in the context of friendship is a great joy, one that you should consider pursuing while in the university.

5)  Your money matters.  Steward it wisely.  Credit card debt is a real thing, and those student loans you’re racking up?  They probably aren’t going to go away.  Money is easily frittered, especially when the pressure to hang out is very high.  You are an adult, so no one will call if you stay out late and spend every dime you don’t have.  But if you can’t pay your credit card bill, your phone will definitely ring with the sort of calls you’d be best off avoiding.  Don’t leave college any further behind than you have to.

6)  Find the good and praise it.  This is easier said than done.  But it is entirely worthwhile.  Anyone can be a cynic but it takes a humble soul to genuinely rejoice in the good, whether those goods come to others or ourselves.

7)   Save what you read.  Come across a phrase you like?  Write it down.  Hear a point you think is interesting?  Write it down.  You won’t remember most of the conversations you have, or what was said.  But if you leave college with a copious collection of the various excerpts and thoughts that struck you, for whatever reason, you will have a resource to return to for the rest of your life.  Use Evernote for everything you read on the web and a Moleskine for everything else.  Extra bonus cool points for looking like an “artist” with that Moleskine, too.

8)  Question well.  It doesn’t matter what sort of university you are attending:  if you want to get your money’s worth, you should find a community of people who are interested in exploring the world and not resting content with cliches or dismissive answers.  Simply throwing questions around won’t get you very far, though.  Inquire, but pay careful attention to where your inquiries come from and where they are taking you.  The fine art of questioning well  is a skill that will reward you regardless of what vocation you enter.  May I suggest you read my more full treatment on the subject?  (Protip:  The mere presence of a question mark does not indicate a real question is present.) 

Contrary to what you heard at your graduation, college is about as close to the real world as Jersey Shore.  (And if your college is anything like Jersey Shore, you will want to find a new college.)  You’ll never live in close quarters with that many people who have that much in common again.  Nor will you be around so many people who have all been simultaneously dislocated from their 18 years of relationships and dropped into a new environment.  That strange collision is partly what makes the university environment simultaneously so special and deeply dysfunctional.

But that environment, for all its problems, also presents an opportunity to broaden your horizons and enrich your soul through the cultivation of virtue and the pursuit of the permanent goods.  There will be many distractions, many lesser goods and easier pleasures offered to you along the way.  But if you walk onward with your eyes ever fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, then college will provide to you a season of journeying into the deep things of God and his creation, and you will learn to savor them for the rest of your life.

Best wishes as you pursue the end of our exploring,

Matt

PS  And if you’re off to a Christian college, well, I’d encourage you to read these too.

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  • greg
  • http://invisibleforeigner.tumblr.com Hannah

    I totally agree about Tumblr. It offers something that more traditional blogging platforms don’t, in that a post can be as long or as short as I want and no one will blink an eye. A 50 word reflection on the Eucharist might seem out of place on other types of blogs.

    Also, that Hauerwas article linked above is excellent, like most Hauerwas stuff. Along with Resident Aliens, which has been recommended on here before, his new book Working With Words is amazing.

  • http://joannamuses.com Joanna

    All very good points.

    I would add look for all the extra opportunities to learn and grow. You have so many opportunities that may be harder or more expensive to access once you graduate. Most of the best things about my university experience happened outside the set curriculum. I grew heaps in my faith through a fantastic college ministry. I learned a lot about the wider world through studying abroad. I learned new skills by joining campus special interest groups like the photographers club or by being part of committees for various things.

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  • Matthew Loftus

    Great stuff here. Forwarding to my younger siblings. I would only add “serve the local church and local community (and do so longitudinally wherever possible), because you have more time now to give than you’ll ever have. The time spent giving & serving will shape you and prepare you for your future endeavors in a way.that no classroom can.”

  • Peter Howard

    Excellent – thanks Matt. My prayers are w several nieces and nephews as they start there college years. May they have ears to hear such wisdom.

  • Bethany Persons

    I wish I had read (and internalized) something like this in high school, while I was preparing for college. Most of this takes a serious attitude adjustment.

    Only after college and looking back have I realized that discipline beats talent every time. My good friend and high school valedictorian knew this intuitively, and I didn’t think to learn from her.

    Hopefully I will be able to pass these lessons on to my future children.

  • David Hoffelmeyer

    Thanks. Sending now to some friends just beginning college.

  • AHLondon

    Number 3. I’m still playing catch up over number 3. And what I did read, I should have done number 7. I’m constantly searching for that quote about that topic which was on the middle of the left page in a green book by Chesterton, or maybe Lewis…
    The rest is good advice as well.

  • Clay Bryant

    Excellent advice!!! I so wish I would have read this before my freshman year. Of course, better late than never!

  • travisaustin

    I read the first 2 paragraphs or so, then jumped down to #1. #guilty

  • markimusprime

    Really enjoyed this. I’m about to begin my senior year and this gave me some good intellectual fuel for reflection upon my past three years. Forwarding this to my brother, who just happens to be an incoming freshman at my school.

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