Mom’s advice on acing freshman year

When I got ready for college, my mom gave me a great piece of advice: Set yourself up to succeed. That may seem obvious, but it may be the best piece of advice ever offered to an incoming freshman.

When you start college, everything is new–new places, new standards, new people and new distractions. It’s a big adjustment, and way too many freshmen bite off more than they can chew. Perhaps it’s overly ambitious advising or pressure to finish in four years, but I can’t count the number of friends who hit the wall in the first semester because they didn’t balance their load of classes. Some were slapped with the first D’s or F’s of their lives and watched as their GPAs plummeted into deep holes that were hard to dig out of. Thanks to Mom, I was able to avoid that trap.

As we had planned my very first college schedule, my mother told me not to overload myself the first semester. Admittedly, I was arrogant because I’d been a high school honor student. I should be able to handle it, I thought, but Mom handed me a dose of reality.

“Don’t enroll in 18 hours,” she said, “and pick at least one class you can ace.” In my case, that was Spanish. I’d already taken two years of Spanish in high school, so theoretically, this class would be an easy route to four hours of A for my transcript. That might help anchor me while I was indoctrinated into college rigor by classes like Psychology, English Comp, Speech and American History pre-1865.  

I had CLEP’d out of a year of Spanish as well as both freshman English Comp classes, but once again Mom intervened. She recommended that I take English anyway because that’s where you learn how to write collegiate-level term papers, and I would be at a distinct disadvantage if I exercised my option to skip out.  As a college administrator today, I have seen many faculty frustrated when their students haven’t taken English yet and can’t write a decent paper, so Mom’s advice was very insightful. Some parents would only see dollars signs for six hours of tuition that could have been avoided.

When I moved away from home for college, I was intoxicated with the freedom of being on my own for the first time ever. The bustle of life in crowded dorms, the opulent tree-lined campuses, the gothic architecture, the roar of the crowds at Saturday football games and a sea of handsome college men everywhere I turned…it would have been so easy to overindulge on the freedom and neglect my main job as a scholar.  Thanks to my mom’s persistence, I had set myself up for a smooth transition into a more difficult academic environment. Don’t misinterpret her advice into condoning a schedule full of basket-weaving and blow-off classes. She just recommended walking before I could run.

My mother passed away some time ago, but she left me with a deep appreciation for higher education and an enduring respect for her wisdom. As I witness each new freshman class step onto campus each year full of enthusiasm and energy, I flashback to that moment when my mom lovingly coached me in a dark room in the registrar’s office while we chose sections of classes projected on the wall.  (That was how it was done before the advent of the Internet.) Those tiny, little numbers we chose from the wall sealed my fate and set me up to succeed.

Without my mom, I might have taken Organic Chemistry my first semester. Trust me, that story would not have had a happy ending. Thanks to encouragement from both of my parents, I graduated on time four years later, and no one cheered louder than Mom.