Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

I was invited to give a Welcome Week speech at VCU and the occasion provided a great opportunity for me to reflect on my college years.  Ultimately, I decided to leave the incoming students with three pieces of advice (the Freshmen ABCs) that I hope will serve them well for a lifetime.

Here’s the speech:

Thank you to Dean Coleman and the College of Humanities and Sciences for inviting me to be a part of Welcome Week. I was honored, and surprised, to be asked. I thought, who am I to welcome freshmen to campus? I’m not a student here. Or, an alum. I don’t teach here. I don’t work here.

Then I realized I do have a unique perspective to share as someone who has witnessed the magic of VCU from a slight distance. I have a ridiculous amount of black and gold gear at my house and I’ve spent untold hours in and around the Siegel Center. But my experience mentoring and employing four VCU Mass Comm majors over the years is most relevant to today’s message. (I know the school has a new name now, but these relationships were built before that change.)

Reflecting back on those four young women, their VCU experiences and mine, I identified three things that I truly believe can make all the difference for you this year. I’ll call them the freshman ABCs and hope that sticks them in your memories.

The three things are simple. Anyone can do them, but few do. They are fundamental. You can’t succeed without them, though many try. And they are transformational. If you master them, they will change your life’s trajectory.

Let’s start with A. My first piece of advice is: Ask questions. The most successful students here admit that you don’t know everything and get really comfortable asking for help. You should follow in their footsteps and get in the habit of asking for clarification. Ask for guidance. Ask for directions. Ask for whatever help you need to get comfortable here. To get studying, to get a degree and to get prepared for a fulfilling career and a meaningful life.

You represent the hopes and the dreams of your families and of our entire community. We admire your youth, energy and promise and hope that you’ll impact the world in beautiful, positive, powerful ways. What’s more important, though, are your expectations and your habits. You unlock your great potential through discovery, curiosity, exploration. In short, asking questions, receiving responses, forming your own conclusions and taking action.

Many freshmen underestimate what a leap it is to the college level. Even the most academically prepared students must adjust to the size of the institution; the sometimes complicated requirements of college courses, majors and departments; and the social, cultural and even financial challenges that emerge along the road to graduation. And the student that’s not prepared for the rigors of college has all those same issues, plus all of the stress that comes with playing catch up.

Whatever your starting point, you’ve got to quickly build the confidence to seek help. Don’t waste any time being too cool to admit when you need help—both in the classroom and outside of it.

Asking questions is a valuable skill. Trust me, I paid a lot of money for a graduate degree in journalism, which essentially taught me how to ask questions and then question the answers I received.

Freshman year is the ideal time to practice this skill. People around you will assume that you don’t know what’s going on. They will expect you to have questions and seek guidance.

Practice on your professors. Pepper them with questions. Several years ago I taught an introductory journalism course at a great college and you know what the number one question I received was? It was, How do I increase my participation grade? The freshmen in the class were obsessed with watching their participation grades rise and fall on Blackboard, the online grade management system we used. I think that they clung to this one small thing because they felt unmoored amid the many challenges of adjusting to college life. It was something they felt they could control.

But how do I increase my participation grade? is not the kind of question I’m talking about. I expect more of you.

Get beyond grade worries, to ask questions about the content of the courses you are taking. Ask questions that advance your understanding of the subject matter. Grades should be secondary. Always work for an A, but don’t feel entitled to one. You may not deserve an A, but you always deserve answers.

Go to class. Question your professors. Go to office hours. Introduce yourself after class or at department events. Make it your business to find out what they think you should know. And, as importantly, to find out what they can teach you to get you to the next level. The education you’re after isn’t always on the syllabus.

I went to Harvard for college and I had a friend who routinely spent hours in the offices of her professors and teaching assistants, asking questions. I thought she was a slow learner. I wondered, how did she get into this school with so many questions. Can’t she read the books, listen to the lectures and figure things out on her own? What’s wrong with her?

When she got into a prestigious law school, I thought, they have no idea what they are in for admitting her. If she has that many questions in an easy major in college, how many questions is she going to have in law school and who has the time to sit there and answer them?

Well, fast forward a few years, and suddenly I got it. With a master’s degree and some teaching experience under my belt, I began to see the wisdom of her approach. Her endless streams of questions were her way of getting the education she paid for. She was leaving nothing to chance. She was after clarity and didn’t stop until she had it.

She wasn’t asking questions because she was ignorant or dumb. She was asking questions because she was engaged enough to recognize when she needed an idea clarified or an example or illustration of a key concept.

She was curious enough to imagine follow-up questions or extend an idea toward a new end or application.

She was serious enough to want to know more than what was handed to her and she was wise enough to know that it was her professor’s job to move her in the right direction.

The last I heard, she was a criminal defense attorney who made sure her clients weren’t being wrongly convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. I’m sure they are happy to have an advocate who knows her stuff.

This is college. Ask questions. Early and often. Actively pursue the knowledge that’s all around you.

And those questions should be guided by the high expectations you’ve set for yourself. If you are a biology major with medical career aspirations, you should be asking questions from the perspective of someone who is serious about mastering the subject, because in the not-too-distant future, someone’s life may hinge on what you know and how confident you are in the application of that knowledge.

Questions are about bridging the gap between what you know and what you need to know to thrive. Ask questions. Ask questions. Ask questions.

B. Build a support system. 

Beyond a hesitance to ask questions, the second thing that holds many students back is a failure to cultivate a dense network of people who can help you graduate and launch the life of your dreams. Too many people try to go it alone or without giving due consideration to who they are surrounding themselves with. I think it’s important to form an identity as a serious college student right off the bat and to actively connect with a diverse array of people who can help you. Don’t aim to attend college. Aim to graduate into a career and a life you love. 

Build relationships with professors, academic advisors, tutors, and librarians. But also find out what kinds of social, emotional and cultural supports are available –health workshops, campus ministries, counseling centers, even fitness classes.

Make friends with people who are also serious about graduating and making a great life for themselves. People who will support your desire to learn, study and grow.

Some of these relationships will emerge naturally, but others will have to be consciously cultivated. Take the initiative to find the people you need who don’t magically land in your path. Go your own way, but stay connected to supportive people as you travel.

When I look back on my own undergraduate experience, so much of what I did was unintentional. I spent three summers working in investment banks because a friend handed me an application for an internship program my freshman year. I had no desire to be an investment banker, but liked the idea of living in a big city and making a lot of money. It was the path of least resistance and it was a mistake. The earlier you take the initiative to forge your own path, toward your own true goals, the better.

I hope you’ll do the work to determine your life direction early and then build the unique friendships, personal and professional connections you need to move forward with purpose and excitement. When you move with conviction, you’ll attract additional helpers—people and resources. They will see your commitment and intervene with ideas and opportunities that can help you.

Build a support system that bolsters your resolve and resources for attaining your goals.

C. Control what you can control. 

There are a number of factors that will contribute to your success as a VCU freshman. Some, like the quality of the instruction you receive, are completely out of your control. The budget was set, the professor was hired, the textbooks were chosen, without your input. So don’t waste any time wishing things were any other way than how they are.

Spend your energy focused on what you can control—your approach to the subject matter, your enthusiasm for getting something valuable out of it, your diligence in working through the material, your punctuality in submitting assignments, the sheer hours you devote to the task.

From Day One, get your study habits in line with your expectations. It’s the only way to thrive. No one achieves ambitious goals by accident.

Specifically, acknowledge that college is a full-time job. I’ve seen student after student struggle with this. Sit down and schedule 40 hours a week on your calendar for you to go to work. Include scheduled class time but also uninterrupted blocks of time that you will devote to reading, studying, asking questions and completing assignments.  Seriously, 40 hours. Do 90 minutes here, 90 minutes there. Make the time sacred. What gets scheduled gets done.

This isn’t always easy. I know from the four students I’ve mentored that the time isn’t easy to come by, particularly if you have family obligations or have to work while you’re in school.

But it’s better to set the intention of devoting 40 hours to your education and come up short sometimes than to never build that scheduling discipline in the first place.

This alignment of habits, time and expectations separates delusional people from successful ones. The delusional person expects to win without work and the successful person builds achievement incrementally, stringing together many days of good habits—working hard, listening well, doing things the right way.

As a reality check, get in the habit of asking yourself if your habits really match your expectations. Or, more specifically, does your approach to school really add up to a degree and a profitable career?

Remember the ABCs:

  • Ask questions until you understand.
  • Build a support system.
  • Control what you can control.

Congratulations and welcome, you’re on your way!

I speak on a variety of topics to community groups, businesses and professional organizations, but the underlying message is always personal empowerment through long-term commitment, relentless organization and courageous prioritization. Learn more.