The Wisdom of College Students

In 2008, the Pope Center started an occasional feature called “If I Knew Then What I Know Now.” It was to be a vehicle for current and former students to help prospective students avoid mistakes.

Having reviewed those essays, I want to share some of the lessons offered by students while they were still in college, most of them our interns. (We also enlisted outsiders, Pope Center staff members, and older graduates. Their essays are for another day.)

Our interns are talented people (or else they wouldn’t be working for the Pope Center) and they came to college pretty well prepared. You won’t find any soap operas or Shakespearean tragedies in their essays—the story that comes the closest involves a young woman’s misguided decision to go to the college her boyfriend attended. But you will find life lessons.

These students’ advice falls roughly into four categories: the importance of communicating with faculty; the challenges of choosing a major or a career; coping with social life; and being practical with time and money.

It’s About the Professors

In one of our early articles, Andy Duvall, a 2009 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, urged students to speak up in class and not to be intimidated by professors. “They are human just like you and me,” he wrote, recommending that freshmen choose classes that demand participation. “If the courses that fit your schedule are more lecture-style, then sit in the front and don’t be shy about asking the professor a question,” he said. One side benefit of being an active discussant: “Grading in college is both objective and subjective, and participating in class and demonstrating an interest in the material can help you with the subjective portion.”

David Koon, also a 2009 Chapel Hill graduate, offered a similar message—be active and get to know your professors. “Do not fear that the professor is too busy to meet with you,” he wrote. “Professors are surprisingly accessible, particularly during their specified office hours, to answer questions, explain the material, or advise on academic or personal matters.”

Such meetings can have extra benefits, said David. If professors recognize your effort to learn, they may apply some “fluid grading” to make up for your mistakes. Or, as they get to know you, they can provide good letters of recommendation for a job or graduate school.

Planning a Career

Ever since he was a kid watching Perry Mason shows on TV, Jason Jones intended to be a lawyer. But as he pursued a pre-law curriculum at North Carolina State University, he began to wonder if he was seeking “money rather than happiness.” Especially after joining in police “ride-alongs,” he discovered he had a passion for law enforcement. He realized that he might not be able to make as much money in the public sector, but it was what he wanted to do.

Jason had completed his bachelor’s degree and was a graduate student at N.C. State when he interned with us. His major lesson was that it’s never too late to change your mind. He also made a wise move. Noting that many people in law enforcement go back to school ten or fifteen years after college to get a master’s degree, Jason decided to get that degree right away—in public administration, because administrative skills would be crucial should he rise through the police ranks.

When Donald Bryson was a student at Piedmont College in Athens, Georgia, he also made his plans too early. “Declaring my major so early was my first mistake,” he wrote. An early major would not have been a problem, however, if he had not decided to transfer from Piedmont. As it turned out, credits in his chosen major of religious studies turned out to be particularly difficult to transfer to other schools.

“Here was my second and largest mistake,” he wrote. “I didn’t know that transferring from one four-year institution to another is a long and costly process with little or no gain.” Had he finished his general education courses at Piedmont, he might have had an easier time, and he recommends that students do that if they are considering a transfer. Fortunately, Donald was able to earn a degree in humanities by taking online courses at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

Choosing an early major isn’t always bad, even if you eventually change your mind. Megan Westbrook wanted to be a buyer in the retail industry and chose to major in textile and apparel management at N.C. State. But she is now on track to complete her law degree at the University of South Carolina this spring.

A stressful retail internship made her decide that she didn’t want a career in retail, but she stuck with her major. For one thing, changing it might have derailed her four-year degree. In addition, she was receiving a rigorous education, with many courses in math and technical subjects. As a result, her 2009 degree is a B.S., not a B.A., and that difference made her stand out when she applied to law schools.

“Many people have asked me if I regret the choice of my major now that my plans have changed,” Megan wrote. “The answer is no. I gained practical experience that will prove valuable for the future I have chosen.”

Social Life

“The first few weeks of school were fantastic!” wrote John Eick, who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2011. “I spent a great deal of time with friends from high school and with new people whom I met on campus.”

He had so much fun that he “ended up staying out late most nights of the week and would often neglect to do the reading or homework for classes the next day.” When he noticed he was falling behind, he wrote, “I would make a pact with myself to start buckling down and to catch up on the readings the next night, but this would never really happen.”

Fortunately for John, mid-term exams were the rude awakening he needed and he quickly turned his lifestyle around.

Social life also rained problems at first on Duke Cheston, a 2010 Chapel Hill graduate. As a freshman, Duke chose the “random roommate selection process” in order to meet new people. Unfortunately, wrote Duke, “over the course of the year, my suitemate puked on our floor, my roommate puked in my laundry, I was repeatedly ‘sexiled’ from my room, and the guys in the room next to me kept singing ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ and playing beer pong at all hours of the night.”

Eventually, he joined a better crowd. Duke, who now works for the Pope Center full-time, added:

If you are interested in girls who are serious about finding a lasting relationship (and the wisdom of ages suggests that these are the best kind), I can say with near-metaphysical certitude that a higher proportion of them can be found at the 10:45 service at The Summit Church than karaoke night at Goodfellow’s.

The Practical Side of Life

Adrienne Dunn offered practical advice to other collegians. Adrienne graduated from North Carolina  A& T University in 2008, received her master’s in history from North Carolina Central University in 2010, and is in a Ph.D. program at Howard University. Once in college, she quickly discovered that credit cards were easy to get and they made purchases quick and convenient. “Having three credit cards with low interest rates was a great idea—until I reached my credit limit,” she recalled. When she missed some payments, the interest rates rose to over twenty percent.

Adrienne caught herself in time, but she advised students “not to apply for a credit card over the phone or without a job.” And if you do get a credit card, she said, set dollar limits and don’t enter a store unless you have a written list of items that you intend to buy.

Adrienne also learned that staying up late completing homework made her constantly sleepy. So she changed her work habits. “Instead of doing homework the night before it was due, I would finish it the day it was assigned.” By the end of her second year her grades were up substantially, and her friends were copying her study habits. “After a while, they noticed that their grades too had improved,” she wrote.

Ashley Russell, a journalism major at UNC who is still in school, had practical advice as well. As a freshman she had a well-balanced schedule that gave her plenty of time between classes and spread her classes throughout the week. Everything should have been perfect—but she hated it. She couldn’t concentrate between classes and she didn’t like having classes every weekday. “So I made a drastic change—to the kind of schedule that most students would abhor.” For three days a week, she had a heavy load, including a class that went till 8 pm on Mondays. But that schedule gave her large blocks of studying—and sleeping—time on the other two weekdays. It worked for her, and the lesson is to know yourself.


Our current intern, Ford Ramsey, graduated in 2010 with a double major in music and economics from UNC-Chapel Hill and is now applying to Ph.D. programs in economics. He had a complex lesson to share, and on that note I will close this collectiion. Ford warned against the “high school syndrome,” which means simply memorizing what is presented. Instead, he said, you need to apply the theory you learn in class to the real world and allow it to shape your experience.

That may not be easy, so pay attention to your professors! “Professors at your college or university are there to help you make this transition between theoretical knowledge and real-world application,” he wrote.  “[The] professors I remember most were those who presented theoretical concepts in a simple and applicable manner. Their presentation of the material caused me to extend my curiosity beyond the classroom.”

In sum, the college years are times of change, times for the formation of mind and character. Those who can take advantage of what they offer and apply it to their lives will be fortunate. We are pleased that many of those who embrace education have sojourned at the Pope Center, and I hope you have learned a little from their experiences.