5 Lessons Learned from My Undergrad

Well, it finally happened. After spending eight years on a four-year college degree, I’ve at last graduated Brigham Young University with a degree in English. And don’t get me wrong; graduation, while exciting no matter where you are in life, takes on a much different aura at the college level as opposed to the high school one. It didn’t seem that long ago when Reed Rankin was writing in the back of my high school yearbook, “Don’t ever change . . . your underwear,” and I was singing “Bye Bye, Good ol’ Darrington High” for my graduation speech. For us, the years to come were full of uncertain and tantalizing possibilities just waiting for us to grab them.

The prospect of college graduation likewise carries its share of uncertainty, though for many of us, that uncertainty has lost some of its sparkle. Now, if you don’t have that coveted Five-Year Plan fit with all its internships, post-graduate degrees, marriage and kids (if the order matters to you), and retirement – not to mention the three-to-five years’ experience you’ll need for any entry-level job you apply for, crippling student loans, the quest for full benefits and anything that pays even slightly above minimum wage – the future doesn’t seem so ripe for the taking. If anything, it can seem the exact opposite: you’re a sitting duck with a useless degree (engineering students, kindly disregard), and a lot of debt.

theoden-lord-of-the-rings-how-did-it-come-to-thisBut it doesn’t have to be this way . . .

Look, I’ll be the first to tell you that I did not take the most efficient, nor perhaps the most prudent approach to my college experience. I opted out of Freshman Orientation and living at the dorms. My first internship, which lasted eighteen months, wasn’t even remotely related to my final degree. I got married, as a student, before I even had a job. And, not only did I not formally declare a major until my junior year, but I also switched said major the following year, adding two more semesters to my graduation date. I took classes I probably had no business, or sense, taking, and I have the debt to show for it.

So what wisdom on earth could I possibly contribute to my peers, or more especially to the next generation of high school graduate hopefuls? I can tell you it’s nothing groundbreaking, but you just might thank yourself for looking into it.

1. Vary Your College Experience

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Some might call it being indecisive, taking the scenic route, or simply wasting time. Yes, mine certainly was not the most direct path to a bachelor’s degree, but man (as long as we’re exercising cliches), what a wild ride it’s been! In all seriousness, I don’t think I could ever have gotten a more well-rounded, comprehensive education by just b-lining it to the graduation podium. You would think a privately funded religious school like Brigham Young University wouldn’t offer much in terms of classes that challenge your world view or make you question the assumptions you’ve been living under your entire life. But you would be wrong.

In my neither short nor sweet college career, I’ve learned basic C++ coding, developed a science fiction book series, studied chronic disease prevention, and practiced professional studio recording techniques. I worked as an assistant recording engineer, a reporter for the school newspaper, and a counselor to aspiring student entrepreneurs. I studied marketing, accounting, economics, media law, global communication theory, and surveyed the world’s religions. This was all in addition to completing and English degree which required me to read the work of authors and theorists dating back to the B.C. era.

Out of all this, I came away with one thing: take advantage of your college education or the world will take advantage of you. Not all of us are fortunate enough to have discovered our “passion” (I’ll get to that later) prior to entering or even during college, but even those of us who have could still be missing out on something just as good or better. Keep your eyes open, you may discover things about yourself that hadn’t occurred to you before.

2. Learn How to Work in a Business

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I can’t emphasize this point enough. By the time I got married, my lack in job experience was laughable. In fact, all I had on my resume at the time was “returned missionary,” “studio intern,” and “custodian.” It wasn’t until Gabe (my wife) got me a job at her former place of work, The Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology housed in BYU’s Marriott Business School that my career really started to take off. Look, as much as all of us want to avoid working a boring, nine-to-five desk job, getting your feet wet in an office setting will teach you skills that you can apply everywhere: there, you will learn the difference between being smart and being effective, accountability, communication, the unequivocal meaning of the word deadline, and how to improvise in ways that really matter.

And, oh my gosh, NETWORKING! Working in a business is one of the best opportunities you have for networking! As a result of my experience at the Rollins Center, I’m now in touch with some of the brightest self-starters in the country. If I ever wanted to start a business of my own – especially if I wanted it to be successful, but I guess why wouldn’t I? – I know exactly who to call.

3. Know Your Strengths and Market Them

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These days, standing out in the crowd has never been easier, and yet somehow has never been more difficult. Got a YouTube channel? How about your own blog or vlog or podcast or vodcast or Instagram or Vinstagram (if that’s a thing yet. If not, patent pending), or Vine or . . . Vine?! Well guess what, so does everyone else, and chances are, they do it better, have more followers, or dedicate more time to it than you do. And trust me, as a white, married, Mormon male in his mid-twenties, I know all about what it’s like to get lost in the crowd, as the majority of the BYU student body – and consequently the employment pool in Utah- is composed of people who are more or less exactly. like. me.

Two lessons here: first, don’t believe for a second that everything about you is completely unique; and second, don’t believe for a second that being stuck in a crowd in any way diminishes what makes you unique. Look, some people are smart enough to either drop out of college or avoid it all together, Bill Gates not being the only one. For the rest of us, college really is an opportunity to see what you’re good at (and believe me, you’re good, maybe even great at something). The purpose of a higher education is to learn how to translate those skills into something that’ll put food on the table. For me, I know that every company needs good writers. They simply can’t function in this information age without them.

What will you contribute?

4. More Education Is Never a Bad Thing

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Whenever someone finds out I’m an English major, they always ask that same insufferable question, “Oh, so what are you going to do with that?” as if I’m holding a giant glass bottle of peanut-butter-flavored toothpaste (bad example, a slowly deflating helium balloon seems more fitting). In the past, I never really knew what to say, and got even more annoyed when they’d offer suggestions – as if my silence or hesitation in answering implied a lack of hours and hours in contemplation and wondering whether I had made the right decision in ditching a slightly more practical major. “You’ll probably go into teaching, right?” or, “Oh, so you can get your Masters! How exciting!”

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), we are coming to a time when a bachelor’s degree signifies a start more than it does an end, particularly if you’re pursuing something in the Humanities like I did. At first, I resented the idea that my degree could not stand alone as a marker for future success. I still believe it can; but the more I progressed through the curriculum of my major, the more I found that I really did love what I was learning, and didn’t really want it to stop. The idea of more school felt less like a cop-out, and more like an opportunity to really stick it to all those nervous-smiling doubters. My desire to eventually return to school has not diminished my dreams of doing something great with my bachelor’s degree now, and I don’t mean that grad school is the ultimate solution to your bachelor’s anxiety (in some cases, it only delays the inevitable), but I have come to find that true success at college graduation can be defined by a lifelong love for learning.

By the way, now when people ask, “Oh, so what are you going to do with that?” I just take a page from that cute little neighbor kid in The Incredibles.

5. Do What You Love, or at Least, What You Like.

(I tried finding an image for this section. I searched, “Passion” (not recommended), “Do what you love,” and “Do what you like,” but every search yielded a plethora of those cheesily insincere quotes that philosophy majors or yoga bloggers sometimes post to their Pinterest (or Vinterest, if that’s a thing yet) boards. So I just thought, “Heck with it,” and inserted this burdensome explanation instead.)

Passion. Everyone entering college is supposed to find out what their passion is, stick with that passion, and turn it into something that can somehow miraculously put both food on the table and warmth in the soul. Photography! Entrepreneurship! Dentistry! Custodial Services!

It does happen sometimes. I’m sure it does.

Chances are, however, you may not know what your passion (if you have one) is. But after spending nearly a decade on my undergrad, I’ve learned a little bit about passion:

It is how you live, not what you do for a living, that defines your passion.

One of my former bosses, an incredibly bright entrepreneur, gave me one of the best pieces of career advice I could possibly ask for: “Do what no one else will do now, so you can live how no one else can live later.” Not all of us are fortunate enough to make a living doing what we love most (were that the case, I’d be coming off the bench for the Lakers . . . and given their abysmal record this season, it’s not the most far-fetched idea) – our passion, so to speak; however, that doesn’t mean we can’t be passionate about life. We can develop a passion for working hard, for thinking creatively, or for succeeding in important relationships. Sometimes, that means putting your burgeoning career in music on hold – like I did, though “burgeoning” is being generous – and literally working for cheeseburgers at a local recording studio. It can mean taking a job that lacks the pay or prestige you think you deserve, but allows you the flexibility and experience to really develop your craft.

 

As with anything I write, it is likely that I haven’t told you anything you don’t already know, or can’t soon enough figure out for yourself. Hopefully, you can learn quickly how to actively participate in your college and professional experience without having to take unnecessary detours. Just know that by the time you get your degree, college should not be the only thing you’ve graduated from. An effective college career doesn’t fit on an 8.5″ x 11″ piece of paper.

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