Making College More Than Just School

by | Jan 7, 2022

Written by: April Griffith

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

Your first tuition bill for college is going to be overwhelming. You’re also unlikely to pay close attention to the itemized expenses since the bottom line is what you have to pay. I’m not advocating for going through every expense, unless you’re an accounting major and enjoy invoice review as a hobby, but I can almost guarantee there will be an “activities fee” or something similar on your bill every term. I can’t explain most of the entries on your bill, I was an English major after all, but I can tell you what the activities fee is for. You’re going to pay into a general fund every semester, and that general fund will be drawn from for clubs, activities, and programs that aren’t directly academic. In high school, this money would come from fundraisers, pay-to-play fees from your parents each time, and the general budget. In college, it’s going to come straight from you whether you like it or not. So my advice, like it!

Participation in clubs, programs, and activities will help you find friends, build community, expand your horizon, and can lead to lifelong hobbies, interests, or even careers. Worst case scenario, you get a story to tell your friends back home over winter break.

Get Social: making friends, finding a support network, and becoming part of a community prevents student dropout, improves mental health, and increases academic success. Maybe you get lucky with your roommate, maybe you find some people in a class, but more likely, you’ll need to seek out likeminded people doing extracurricular activities that you either enjoy or suspect you might. Try white water rafting with the outdoor adventures club, Dungeons & Dragons with the role players, or indie movies with the film appreciation society. You never know where you’ll find your people.

Expand Interests: most of what you explored before college was likely a product of what your parents thought would be good, what your school offered, what might help you get into college, and what you had time for. Fair enough—that’s how high school works. But you’re going to college and essentially none of the old rules apply for activities. You get to decide what might be good for you, the school offers some things but others are fueled entirely by student organizers, you’re already in college so there’s no reason to keep building your application, and your time is largely going to be your own to manage. Maybe you enjoyed robotics club, piano lessons, and speech/debate, but maybe you’ll also enjoy poetry slams, intramural basketball, and African dance. The best part, if you don’t like an activity, you don’t have to keep going! Nobody will make you, it won’t hurt your chances of getting into the college, and you get to define what success or failure is for each activity you try.

Lifelong Growth: When I was a student I tried almost everything that seemed even remotely interesting. Some of what I tried was fun for awhile but fell by the wayside (downhill mountain biking, improv comedy, intramural flag football) other things have become long term hobbies and interests that I found in college through student activities (plant identification nature walks, yoga, international cuisine). A couple of my activities actually led to career paths as well like working on the school’s literary journal that led to a paid editorial position. The friends you make and the things you try in high school might follow you through life, but studies show that the friends you make and the things you try in college are far more likely to become lifelong passions.

For many people, success in high school means getting into college, but success in college is a much more amorphous goal. It can mean getting a good job afterward, but that’s a narrow focus and will result in missing out on a lot of experiences you’re going to fund even if you don’t participate. A liberal arts degree, which is the umbrella term for any Bachelors from a four year institution, isn’t meant to prepare you for a specific job, those are trade schools. What you’re going to get is a more holistic education that will hopefully lead to gainful employment, but can also expand your mind, improve your understanding of the world, and create a well-rounded person. Some of this, you’ll be forced to do, like taking general education courses outside of your major. Other ways are optional, like participating in activities and school functions. These benefits won’t show up on transcripts, but they’re often the ones that make college more than just school.