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Monday, October 06 2014 08:53
A message has come from my alma mater asking my views on the way for students to profit most from the college experience. This request pleases me because I judge myself as having something to contribute.

The role of college in our national life gets a whole lot of attention these days.  The high price that students and their parents must pay for their education makes us struggle to make sure it is worth the cost.

Most college students whom I have observed do gain a lot during their college years. They mature in human development and learn about the world the way they most of them could not do using their own resources. 

Obviously, however, some students benefit from the college years far more than do others. What enables the former to make of their experience something more valuable than what the average person has taken away at graduation?

From what I have observed, there is one factor that brings special value to the undergraduate years.  It sounds simple and easily done.  And yet only a certain low percentage of collegians put it to use.

I am myself an example of a student who failed to take advantage of this approach. It took me many years after college to recognize this way of benefiting from what college offers.

My answer may strike you as obvious and simple. But I believe it is the path to getting the most out of college. And I see too many collegians as ignoring it. However, I also see and am in touch with some students who have made amazing progress by this route.

Here is my answer. The students likely to draw the most from college are those who have cultivated at least one of their professors.

By this I mean getting to know the faculty member, establishing a personal relationship with the teacher. This would often mean talking about the professor’s research and perhaps getting involved in that research.

 I have known students who have benefitted greatly by this approach. Seeing them happy to be sharing work with faculty shows me how this activity enhances their whole college experience.

Those who write theses have special reason to seek out faculty members. By doing so, they can discover the best sources to study for their work.  They might also find out ways to travel to other countries relevant to the work.

Many students think their professors are not interested in them and will not welcome visits.  But my experience with many different professors at a variety of schools suggests otherwise. Most teachers feel happy to get acquainted, even those teachers for whom research looms large.

Among the many alumni who responded to the college’s suggestion of sharing ways for students to flourish, only one alum chose the same as I did. He wrote: “Talk to your teachers.  Mine were allies and friends and still are. Open your mind.”

Would that I had realized the benefits of reaching out to one’s teachers. But during the undergraduate years I was too shy to consider it.

The one time when I confronted in the classroom a teacher who I considered in error, the encounter did not lead to anything worthwhile.  But that is another story worth telling separately.