Growing Pains

(Editor’s note: This article is part of an occasional series “If I Knew Then What I Know Now,” in which people reflect on their college experiences, with an eye to giving advice.)

I am writing this article after completing my first year of graduate school. The following advice is not for high-performing students entering college; it’s advice for working adults, like myself, who attend college after an extended break from school.

Most adults returning to school share a common experience. We weren’t particularly successful in high school, and we often begin behind our peers in writing, reading comprehension, and critical thinking skills. This piece, based on my own experience, is designed to help students facing those and similar obstacles.

As a high school student, I showed little interest in learning. I ignored my teachers, disregarded my assignments, and barely graduated when I did. I wasn’t interested in continuing my education, and I joined the Army that June.

I learned many lessons there that would serve me when I decided eventually to continue my education. I was taught respect for authority, discipline, toughness, and sacrifice. I was also taught pride—not arrogance, though. Arrogance assumes worthiness or excellence when neither exists. Pride, which is often confused with the cardinal sin of hubris, is a necessary and legitimate part of our character. It encompasses characteristics of self-respect and ambition—which taken to excess are harmful and self-destructive.

Higher education demands pride in oneself. If I were to explain the most important lesson of my young life, this would be it. I am grateful for organizations like the military that still teach men and women the higher virtues of human life.   

After leaving the Army, I worked as a salesman, selling mattresses, cell phones, and even cable. Sales provided a comfortable living. I was able to purchase a house, a car, and avoid major credit card debt.

Why I made the decision to attend college in 2006 is still hazy. Many years later, sitting in my first graduate school class, I would learn that Plato considered the first step of learning to be the recognition of ignorance. Perhaps this was the case. But more than likely, it was the very un-platonic idea of making more money.

I enrolled at Campbell University’s Research Triangle Park campus. Unfortunately, this was a mistake.

Campbell University is well-known to most in North Carolina. But its main campus has tougher admissions standards and curriculum than its RTP campus. The courses there weren’t difficult and the institution was a poor value at over $500 per course. After two semesters, I transferred to Wake Tech.

Wake Tech was a definite improvement. The coursework was more challenging and the professors more skilled. Unlike my instructors at Campbell, many of whom held professional jobs elsewhere, most instructors at Wake Tech were teachers by trade. A clever phrase exists that says, “those who cannot do, teach.”  While experiential knowledge is valuable, I have rarely found qualified part-time teachers.  

I stayed at Wake Tech for an entire school year. I developed relationships with many of the instructors and experienced academic success for the first time in my life. As an older student (age 25), I found that Wake Tech gave me confidence to pursue other areas of growth. After the spring semester, I transferred to a four-year institution. I chose N.C. State.         

Around 30,000 students attend both UNC and NC State. Although large state universities have many advantages, the size of the institutions can overwhelm for students who need more individual attention. 

To begin with, students frequently become a number, losing their individual identities. At NC State, I found that classes required for general education were often taught in movie theaters and auditoriums. Even advanced seminars typically contained between twenty and thirty students in each class. Professors rarely know the majority of their students by name, and students rarely attempt to distinguish themselves from the masses.  

Second, the average student is likely unprepared for the rigor of academic thinking and writing. Like me, most students need assistance improving their writing, which only close, line-by-line editing can provide. Improving critical thinking skills will also require one-on-one attention from a professor. For most, coursework alone is unlikely to lead to significant improvement, and many faculty members are unable and sometimes unwilling to dedicate the time necessary to properly educate them.

There are a number of ways around these problems. Here are a few suggestions based on my experience.   

First and foremost, I had to develop relationships with a number of professors on campus. This involved some effort. Professors have other research and administrative obligations. And when they are free, many are reluctant to work closely with students. Willing professors still exist, though, and I was determined to find them. 

My own experience has shown that these professors often teach harder classes. I searched for classes in fields that interested me and attended the first day. I was interested in the humanities, particularly political theory, history, and English. Observing the professor in class demonstrated his or her intelligence and passion for teaching. If a course wasn’t challenging or the professor wasn’t engaging, I would drop the course after attending one or two classes.

After selecting suitable courses, I demonstrated that I was a serious student. I attended class regularly, did my reading, came prepared to discuss it, and asked questions. At some point, I scheduled an appointment with the professor to discuss the course material or even a paper assignment.

These meetings allowed me to ask questions about the material. More important, they allowed me to go beyond the information taught in the classroom. I found that many professors are discouraged by the apathy of their students. Demonstrating my interest in learning encouraged many professors to dedicate substantial time and effort to helping me.  

One such professor was Dr. Sanford Kessler. Dr. Kessler and I developed a relationship over two years and six courses together. He provided me with the careful instruction I so desperately needed. He taught me how to think and write about complex issues. And most important, he showed me the joys of the contemplative life. If ever a professor embodied the virtues of commitment, fairness, and intellectual curiosity on which education depends, Dr. Kessler does. I am proud to count myself among his students. 

In 2008, Dr. Kessler suggested that I consider undergraduate research. I agreed and used the project to study Abraham Lincoln and The Federalist Papers. I even applied for and received a John W. Pope Foundation Undergraduate Fellowship, earning $4000 toward my education expenses.

Undergraduate research was a unique and beneficial experience. My coursework until that point rarely required the development of carefully constructed arguments on major works and issues. Often, what was acceptable were simple observations or expressing my feelings about a particular piece. In contrast, my research required intense, thoughtful reflection. I was required to understand and explain the meanings of different texts before developing my own argument. Overall, the experience improved my writing and thinking skills—drastically. Without this experience, I would not be in graduate school.

Condensing five years of college into a single piece of advice is difficult. If asked, though, I would say that complacency is the enemy of education. Students can earn a degree at most institutions while completing mediocre work.

Students need to consider pursuing areas of individual growth and development. Fortunately, North Carolina has a premier public and private college system, allowing students with varying abilities and skills to find suitable programs. As my experience demonstrates, there is ample opportunity to grow in North Carolina colleges.