Switching Things Up

Editor’s note: This essay is the latest installment in an occasional series, “If I Knew Then What I Know Now,” which offers different perspectives on the college experience. Ashley Russell is a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill and a Pope Center intern.

In previous “If I Knew Then What I Know Now” articles on the Pope Center site, most authors wrote about major life-changing decisions in college such as what to major in, or when to stop the partying and start studying. Others even struggled with where to go to college. In my case, I have known since tenth-grade English that I wanted to pursue a writing career. And because I am “Tar Heel born and bred,” as soon as I received my acceptance to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) there was no doubt about my enrolling there.

I quickly began the enrollment process for UNC-CH. First there was CTOPS, Carolina Testing & Orientation Program Sessions. There you consult with an assigned adviser based on your declared major and figure out the schedule that is best for your first semester. I would soon realize how important choosing your schedule can be to performance in college.

CTOPS was administered on a first-come, first-served basis. I immediately went online and picked the earliest date that I could get off work and drive up to Chapel Hill. June came quickly, and soon enough I had my overnight bag, with the Carolina logo attached, packed to capacity with all of my “essentials” to be a Tar Heel. Three hours in the car driving from my little hometown of Kings Mountain, North Carolina, had allowed me to build up anticipation for what the next two days would hold. The door from high school had closed, and I was stepping through the door to college.

I am one of the lucky few who always knew what they wanted to major in. I knew what I wanted to do with my life because it is what I truly love to do. When they asked my major, “journalism” spilled out easily. I met with my CTOPS adviser and picked out classes that would be good for meeting the general requirements to start on my path at UNC. My adviser told me that I should include breaks throughout the day to make class time easier.

Here is the way my schedule looked when I had finished registering for my first semester classes:

First Semester Courses

To many students this would be the ideal schedule: five courses spread over the five weekdays, from 8 am till 2 pm—not too many classes on any one day, with breaks as long as three hours, and with classes over by 2 pm. Many students will tell you that such breaks are the ideal times to hit the library and study.

Unfortunately, this well-balanced schedule didn’t work for me. Yes, I would hit the library between classes—but I liked the couches better than the carrels. I napped! The breaks made class seem to drag on through the day; by the end of the day I was exhausted.

When the second semester rolled around, I decided to fix my schedule to suit my own needs. As I made my schedule, this time with more independence to make it as I saw fit, I remembered that free time between classes becomes idle time for me, rather than time used wisely.

So I made a drastic change—to the kind of schedule that most students would abhor. The final result looked like this:

Now I stayed busy all day Monday and Wednesday. No time for the library—and no time for naps except for a nice sleep-in period on Fridays—till 11 am. One noticeable thing about this schedule is that I have no classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. These were the days that I slept in until I felt like getting up, and then I was as refreshed as I could be. I worked freely on homework in the tranquility of my own room, without distraction from anyone.

College is a place where you define who you are and learn more about yourself. I learned that I do not do well with small unused periods of time. It takes me a while to get my attention focused on my work, and by the time I had done so the previous semester, it was time to move on to my next class. Another thing I learned about myself is that I do not study well in the library. Sure, the libraries are relatively quiet with only a few door slams and the muffled speech of those asking for help. But those little distractions are enough to get me completely off task and curious about what everyone else around me is doing.

So my second semester I spent Tuesdays and Thursdays in the comfort of my own room, sleeping off my hectic class schedule and catching up on homework, while my roommate and surrounding suitemates were in class.

I am starting my sophomore year at UNC-CH, and once again I have Tuesdays and Thursdays off. But, instead of spending that time sleeping in, as I did my freshman year, I have decided to use these available days to intern at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. I now have the time to drive to Raleigh and do what I love most—write.

If you find a schedule that fits your lifestyle, then stick with it. Experiment with your schedule. You may realize that you, too, are better off when you have all your classes on two or three days and have the rest of the time to work on homework and other things.