Some advice for college and university students

[This piece was originally posted as a note on Facebook on Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 15:24 and republished on the Talent Egg Career Incubator on September 15, 2009]

The three or four years you will spend at college or university should be some of the best years of your life. You have a rare privilege: a few years to devote most of your time to learning about yourself, your culture, your society and your areas of interest. Understand that your real purpose here is not only knowledge but also to develop a life guided by wisdom and reason.

You have moved out of your parents’ home. You are meeting new people and starting to make your own decisions, your own life. You are now pretty much your own boss. But you are also on your own and that can be unnerving, lonely and a little scary.

This is your opportunity to struggle with your new environment, to understand your challenges through reflection, insight and the help of others. Use the support systems at the university. You are never alone, and the very act of seeking help or advice, of opening up to others, may become a vital part of your education – of your experience of learning about yourself through others.

Speaking of dialogue, I recently met a woman at an alumni dinner, a graduate of my department. She had graduated with high B average and now works in a public affairs agency. I’ll call her Simone.

It was a beautiful night – a fancy dinner, elegant surroundings and quiet, meaningful conversations among alumni and professors who shared the bond of having been members of the McMaster community. I was seated beside Simone and we chatted for much of the evening, mostly sharing memories: people we knew in common from her grad year, observations that she and classmates had made about faculty quirks of dress or mannerism, little things. We laughed a lot and reminisced. At the end of the evening, as we got up to say goodnight, she looked at me fixedly and said:

“Alex, I want you to tell your students something from me. Do you know what I really gained from my years at Mac?”

I shook my head, surprised by her suddenly intense expression.

“I gained understanding. Understanding that the world is complicated and profound, even when it is trying to be simple and ridiculous. Understanding about how to learn and how to know. Above all, I understood that although the world is sometimes sad, it is never boring and that I should love it, and try to improve it, even though it sometimes seems to betray me.”

I was surprised by her comments. She had obviously thought about this very deeply.

“Alex, I didn’t understand until maybe the middle of third year. I finally understood that education is about storytelling – the stories of art and science, society and engineering, health and commerce and how they all weave together into the grand story of our lives together.”

Heed Simone’s advice. It is wise. Learn to catch the storyline of the courses and conversations and relationships and solitary epiphanies you will experience at college or university. It isn’t easy. It requires a lot of hard work. It requires a personal sense of purpose. It requires an open heart and a seeking mind. But the payoff is amazing: a life that is transformed from mere existence to living. From shades of gray to millions of colours.

A life in which every experience becomes a possibility for adventure, growth and love.

Join the Conversation


  1. Great article. It sums up my current experiences at McMaster perfectly.

    Oddly enough, I’m also in 3rd year and I’m just beginning to figure things out, too. Recently, I volunteered for some engineering events at the university, and it truly opened my eyes.

    For instance, I always was pretty shy and not very outgoing with people I didn’t know, even classmates who I’ve seen in all my classes . However, I went around during the Science and Engineering Olympics and answered any questions and gave a little spiel about some of the offerings at McMaster. And after that day, I found that I opened up a little more to people around me, and learned that maybe I did have better people skills than I thought I did. And I also wanted to volunteer more.

    University sure has it’s ups and downs, but I think the experience has been very positive for me.

  2. “Understanding that the world is complicated and profound, even when it is trying to be simple and ridiculous.”

    Hah! This sentence is perfect.

    The world is never simple and always ridiculous, mostly because people don’t understand that it is complicated and that every unthinking action contributes to its profundity for someone else’s world.

    What I really don’t get is that we as a people, as *the human race* understand the varying human emotions that come along with being in a world such as ours. We know what it is to love, be loved, lose, move on. We know guilt and happiness, anger and tranquility. Why then is it that we (all of us) fumble through life desperately wanting to connect, but then rejecting or removing ourselves from such fundamental connections? What for? Fear, insecurity? Is this all that holds us back?

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