A Professor's Advice: How to Make the Most of American College Life

Many of my students in Thailand and Vietnam aspire to attend university in the US. Often, however, they tell me that they don’t have a very clear idea about what college is actually like. Is the workload difficult? How should they interact with their professors? If English isn’t their native tongue, will they be at a disadvantage?

These are all understandable (and important) questions. In this blog post, I’ve enlisted an American college professor to help me answer them.

Dr. Eric Miller is a Professor of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. (He’s also been one of my best friends since middle school.) Eric teaches courses on communication, public speaking, and political propaganda. He also writes for a wide range of publications. Most importantly, he’s a key player on the Bloomsburg ultimate frisbee team.

Matt:

When you teach, what do you hope to find in your students?

Eric:

It probably goes without saying that professors appreciate students who are serious about education. There are a number of qualities that I value in particular - curiosity, commitment, enthusiasm. A willingness to raise a hand and share a comment. The understanding that a college course is a collaborative environment.

I often tell students that there is only so much that I can do to make the class valuable. I’m the same in each one, and yet I have been a part of both good and bad sections. The quality of a class is very largely dependent on the energy that students bring with them. Professors feed off of it, or starve.

Matt:

What you describe is quite a change from what many of my students are used to; they often attend high schools where they’re expected to write down and repeat what the teacher says. As a result, my students tend to get very good at following instructions, but aren’t quite as good at trusting that they have the right to volunteer their own views. Do you encounter students like that? If so, how do you respond?

Eric:

I do, and not just with students who come here from abroad. The US high school apparatus is highly dependent on standardized testing, which trains students to retain and repeat information without necessarily engaging it critically. This is not the worst thing in the world, and indeed many students may find similar teaching styles at work in the university - especially those who enroll in large lecture courses.

But for the most part, especially in the humanities, we tend to favor a read-and-discuss format that prompts students to develop their own thoughts on important ideas or texts. I like to moderate conversations in the classroom, which is why I so value students who are both intellectually curious and willing to speak. Sometimes that it is a rare combination.

This is not to say that there is no instruction, or that every student comment is correct. But my view is that students will become more invested in - and interested by - material with which they’ve wrestled a bit. I like to guide that struggle.

Matt:

That’s the kind of education I received in college, too, and I appreciated it a great deal. Many of my students, though, aren’t heading for the humanities. Instead, they plan to major in science, engineering, economics, or business. And in these classes, there is typically a stronger emphasis on getting to “correct” answers.

In your view, is it valuable for these students to take humanities classes - say, English, history, or philosophy? And any words of wisdom for how these students might take advantage of the broad range of opportunities at a university like yours?

Eric:

Absolutely! I think everyone should major (or double-major) somewhere in the humanities. Among other important benefits, they make you more human.

That said, I certainly don’t begrudge any student who chooses to major in business, engineering, or another of the more “marketable” disciplines. But all should remember that a university education is not merely vocational. It exists to train thinkers, critics, and citizens, and otherwise to foster knowledge of - and appreciation for - the wide scope of human cultural production.

Another thing to keep in mind is that, regardless of what you choose to study, a university campus is alive with concerts, theater productions, guest lecturers, sports, clubs and organizations, and other opportunities that are far harder to come by at other stages and places in life. These are not to be missed.

Sometimes students arrive on campus and succumb to this wave of euphoria and freedom that greets them, spending their days sleeping, eating, drinking, playing video games, or otherwise expending their energy on lesser pursuits.

My advice to your students is that they commit themselves to their coursework first. Second, bookmark their school’s calendar of events. Third, join a club, or a team, or a few of each. Make some friends, have a good time, and, to the best of their ability, take full advantage of campus life.