In the movie Back to the Future 2, an aging Biff visits his younger self and presents him with a sports almanac. The almanac presents all the future winners for all sports. Biff uses this information to go on and build a gambling empire and becomes the core plot of the sequel. Now, lets set aside the fact that we already know that such books are likely not published in the future since all that information would be on a Wiki or ESPN.Com but go with me on this one. What I am interested in is, if I could get into the DeLorean and kick the flux capacitor to get me back to good ol’ June 1991 what would I tell the 18-year-old version of Michael Preston? What advice at Orientation would I give that new student, from an academic and career perspective?
I think this is an interesting exercise because it may help us understand how we should engage our students today. Orientation is a tradition. Where students come to campus in the sweltering heat of summer with mom and dad and crowd into ballrooms where earnest and chipper Orientation Leaders (often students) lead them in icebreakers and teach the football cheers. And then they get to sit thorough “informative” presentation after presentation where nice but boring administrators review policy after policy. And the recipe has not changed for decades. I was an Orientation leader at East Carolina in the early 90s and now when I attend as an administrator it is almost a shot for shot recreation of that experience. It has been 30 years.
Often, I think we rely on the traditions of communication instead of concentrating on what the messaging needs to be. So, if I were able to go back in time, here are the pieces of advice I would give my 1991 self. Side note, one of the best evenings I ever had was during my orientation session. I was all by myself in a dorm room and there was a storm brewing. I opened the window and the breeze kicked in. I had a clock radio and I tuned into the campus radio station and the DJ was playing a marathon of songs by The Cure. I knew at that moment that college was for me.
So, the advice:
- Skip a session and sneak into a gateway class and watch how the class goes – I think one of the things we do to short circuit our students is we throw them into a classroom on day one and just expect them to figure it out. The first time a student walks into a cavernous classroom on the first day there is a heightened chance that will short circuit that student’s ability to perform in class. I think a dry run or two at coming in, settling in, taking some notes, and listening to a lecture would pay big dividends.
- Invest in Apple, skip the student loans – If you can. We are MUCH better at helping students’ budget and there are more ways to pay for college than ever. I had no idea and took out all the loans because I thought you had to. I could have made it on half the loans I had. But even more so, when you can open that IRA, do it! And just for fun, invest in Apple. Today shares were trading at .50 cents apiece, you will appreciate that investment in 2021.
- Register with Career Services and start a resume – I know it feels like your job search is a long way off but if you invest in your employable skills now and catalog them you will be read to present them to potential employers. Your first resume will be terrible, but practice makes perfect, and it really does get you into the habit of seeing skills in all things, it will make the transition into interview mode easier.
- Get involved but do not overdo it – And for crying out loud, join a professional organization. I know they tell you at Orientation to get involved in all the clubs and organizations but just pick one or two and roll with that. That way you have time to work (which will be essential) and to have some leisure time. You were overprogrammed as a high school student, you can be more selective in college.
- Pair your English degree with a STEM minor – The employment game today is all about a diversity of experiences and skills. And they are changing all the time. A broad-based set of academic skills will help make you marketable to many more employers. As an English major, got that computer science minor and get a couple of programming certifications under your belt. That will come in handy.
- Speaking of Diversity – find friends who do not look or think like you and broaden your horizons. College is a great place for students from all over the world to come together and learn with each other, but the cafeteria can still be a segregated place. Let us find a way to come together and explore the things that make us unique.
- Finally, in the summer of 1994 you will be offered a chance to do a study abroad in Europe – DO IT! I know you want to do Orientation again, but you did that already last summer. Your new girlfriend is going to work a summer camp and you are not going to see her anyway, and you two will have plenty of time because you are going to get married in 4 years. But you could have spent a summer in the U.K. or Spain. Doofus, go!
Look, I am not ashamed about where I am at now. I have a great job and a wonderful life. But we should be more aware of using our experience to adjust the message for the new generation of student. We tend to want to remain consistent but why? So, while you can’t be Biff you can impact the future by understanding the past and helping students get there faster.