How to Get the Most Out of Occidental

Parents dropping off their children for their first day of college is one of the most poignant rituals in American life. This August, as we formally launched Orientation for the Class of 2022 in Hillside Theater, I told our newest students that almost everything good in their lives, outside of their families, will begin right here on the Oxy campus: the discovery of their passions, their vocation, lifelong friends. I also urged them to read a remarkable column by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni titled “How to Get the Most Out of College.”

Bruni, who frequently writes about higher education issues, notes that while we overwhelm high school students with advice about how to get into college, once they get in they rarely get any guidance about how to make the most of their college years. He makes clear that he isn’t interested in which majors yield the surest employment and most lucrative salaries. Rather, he focuses on “how a student goes to school”—the best ways to pick up skills integral to any career and how students can participate in exciting out-of-the-classroom opportunities, both before and after graduation, that can make a big difference in their lives.

Bruni includes lots of practical advice familiar to any college parent: Get enough sleep, be sure to exercise, and don’t isolate yourself by spending all your time studying. But he reaches far beyond such truisms, emphasizing the kind of wisdom that in many fundamental ways describes an Oxy liberal arts education. Bruni points out, for example, that many students get needlessly worked up about picking their major and emphasizes the value of exposure to a variety of different disciplines. “College’s greatest gifts can be an introduction to a passion you didn’t previously have and a pivot into an occupation you never before envisioned,” he writes. Exposure to variety also applies to the demographics of the college you choose, he adds. “Diversity opens you up to a wealth of ideas, and being comfortable with it is an asset in just about any workplace or career.” Thriving college graduates report that a willingness to move out of their comfort zones, risk failure, and learn their own capacity for resilience can all pay big dividends.

One of the most striking pieces of advice Bruni offers—drawn from his own interviews as well as data from the national Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey—is that the most important college relationships for students to invest in are with members of the faculty. It’s what he calls a “game-changer” that makes a difference for all students across all types and sizes of institutions. Students who refuse to regard college as a mere credentialing exercise but take advantage of faculty conversation and counsel and find a mentor look back on that choice as one of the smartest things they did in college, Bruni writes.

It’s a piece of wisdom that was reflected in the profiles of four Oxy students and their faculty mentors that was featured in the Summer issue of the magazine. (You can see video excerpts from those interviews on Oxy’s YouTube channel.) “Making friends with a professor like Professor [Sophal] Ear has changed my narrative of what my experience at Oxy has been,” Naomi Navarro ’18 says of her diplomacy and world affairs adviser. “It allowed me to develop in a way that I hadn’t realized was possible.” Close relationships like Naomi’s and Sophal’s often grow out of a research project, the kind of sustained academic project that Bruni identifies as another game changer. As a sophomore, Mark Gad ’18 took a class from associate professor of biology Joseph Schulz. Mark really enjoyed the class, was eager to learn more, and joined Joe’s lab. “Because of how much time we spend together talking about the research work, it kind of comes naturally that he is my adviser in so many things,” Mark says. “I’ve made sure to talk to him about every single plan that I had and every single opportunity that comes up.”

The wisdom that Bruni offers and that Naomi and Mark and countless other Oxy students have discovered on their own is not new. His advice on “how to go to school” reflects the engaged, empowering and transformative experience that is an Oxy education. Standing in Hillside Theater on that sunny afternoon, speaking to students and their families, I could feel a collective tremor of anxiety and anticipation. It is with an equal sense of anticipation that we look forward to showing the Class of 2022 how to get the most out of college.

Jonathan Veitch

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