graduation caps

People make statements like “they don’t teach you xxx in school!” to me more often than I’d like once they learn that I’m a math prof.  This phrase is spoken most regularly with the intent to self-validate from its speaker.  There is a high road for behavior in scenarios like these and I take it almost every time.

In other scenarios, rather than being defensive on the part of the speaker, sometimes comments are rudely directed to those who are earning or have earned college degrees.  For many recipients of those comments, the denigration resonates.  Students have told me that their parents and grandparents accused them of “selling out”, “discarding their heritage” (paraphrase), or even “becoming a puppet of the system”.

I cannot imagine how painful it is to make incredible sacrifice, often in terms of personal debt and time at a very young age, while those you love most defame this opportunity for improvement.  A clear disconnect is present, for these individuals, in what college is and what it does.


The Most Useful Lessons I Learned in College

It’s true:  college does not teach you anything.  Higher education is not a magical machine that crams information and the experience/wisdom to use that information into your brain.  Learning is something that is personal and college is the opportunity to learn, filtered through our own personal experiences and vantage points.

To confound this discussion further, as spoken by my provost (Dr. David Garrison), [paraphrase] “…many–but not all–of the most valuable things that we learn are a byproduct of the collegiate process.”  I’ve thought about that phrase now for two months and I would like to share some of the most valuable byproducts gifted to me in college.

  1. I learned to balance my time.  Sometimes one needs elegant solutions to a problem but sometimes one just needs a solution.  You must learn to balance your time with the needs of the problem facing you.  As an undergraduate, I was introduced to calendars, to-do lists, priorities, and my time’s value.  My world has never been the same.
  2.  I learned that I could be wrong.   I didn’t recognize this truth in those exact words.  I learned that others understood things better than I did and that my thoughts weren’t always complete or well-informed.  Although these thoughts were the best I could muster at the time, I realized that many often had clearer understandings of goings on than I did.  Eventually I came to understand that two people can look at the same scenario (text, problem, etc.), have different solutions, and both be right or both be wrong.  (I am still learning to balance ambiguity.)
  3. I learned to apologize and forgive.  College is an experiment where you take people of all different backgrounds and mix them together.  Just like in chemistry, some inert interactions will take place but some interactions will create violent explosions!  In the 18-22 age bracket, you’re learning to live, love, choose, express, and think.  Everyone hurts feelings and gets their feelings hurt; I was no exception.  Learning to apologize taught me some pretty powerful lessons about forgiveness.  More importantly, learning from how I mistreated others and how I was mistreated shaped the man I became.
  4. I learned to be comfortable in my own skin.  I was a nerd in high school and completely uncoordinated.  I was a walking cliche straight from an 80’s movie (including the braces and cracking voice).  Sometime in college, around my second year, I found two groups of people similar to me: the mathematics and the computer science majors.  At the intersection (see what I did, there) of these two groups, I found “my people”.  We were all very similar and it was great to be “in” that group!  Acceptance is incredibly powerful and I would not have had access to those like-minded individuals anywhere else.  Because I learned to be comfortable with who I was (via that group), I became capable of being true to myself everywhere.
  5. I learned that it is okay to fail but after failing you try again.  As a first semester freshman, my first three test grades (in math and physics) never broke 45.  Failing was no fun but the lessons I was taught have served me well all of my life.  I discovered how to study and how I learn.  Because of those experiences, I was able to stand up, brush myself off, and try again.  That semester was one of profound impact on my life.


As a student, you should consider a college education to be a beta test for life.  You get a chance to find out what isn’t working and what may be functional; you get a chance to work out the kinks.  (The kink-fixing is probably not a conscious effort.)  You will learn skills that can help in a job when you earn a college degree.  Heck, an improved iteration of who you were will be put forth even if you only learned the coursework.  But, most importantly, you will learn about living.  Then, one day, you’ll be released into the world.

Now, with a few years on this side of the desk behind me, I have watched students come and go in four (or five or six) years.  Children entered and adults left; boys grew into men and girls into women.   These children, confined to thinking in conventional ways, came to us but exited as adults with the abilities of dreaming, implementing, and communicating.

I suppose a college education may not teach you how to do some things–and examples would abound.  But a college education is about more than a degree or classes.  At its heart, college education is an opportunity to make men and women better than they were.  I have faith in that process, still.


Feel free to leave thoughts or comments below!  I welcome the dialogue.

The Most Useful Lessons I Learned in College
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3 thoughts on “The Most Useful Lessons I Learned in College

  • January 21, 2016 at 10:39 am

    Awesome Dr. E! Surely have experienced some of those and my own personal by-products!


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