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As fall approaches, supermarkets become full of mini-fridges and those clear, plastic three-drawer storage towers that don’t work very well: Kids are going off to college! College is a moment in life where decisions become rapidly more complex over the span of a few days. Unlike high school or a regular work schedule, there is ample time to reassess what you want to do.
For some, college can be a detour from real life for a couple of years to figure out their path. For others, it can be a long trail to a degree that is the bare minimum documentation needed to work in a specific field. What should higher education be for the class of 2027?
In my experience at the University of Utah, what I expected of college and what I ended up doing in college were two very different things. During my first week, I rode my bike to my 7:30 a.m. chemistry class on a Monday. I graduated in a high school class of 165 people. There may have been more people in that college chemistry class, all packed into an amphitheater-looking lecture hall.
My college game plan was to get all As in a heavy schedule of pre-medical classes, then head to dental school. My bike was stolen about 48 hours later. After another 48 hours, it became clear that I was not prepared for a college career of all As.
Some of my classmates were taking a biology class for the second or third time to boost their medical school resume. I was told that getting a B in cell biology didn’t look good; you needed an A to get into a medical school. My roommate had 63 AP credits from high school, so he was technically an academic junior.
I wasn’t as prepared as a lot of the other kids. I realized my high school experience had not been that challenging. You could opt out of two final exams if you had 98 percent attendance at my high school. You could opt out of more if you already had a good grade in the class going into the final week. My bigger issue was likely that I wasn’t ready to spend 60 hours a week studying to stay ahead of my peers.
I developed a grudge against the kids who seemed great at the pre-med classes but didn’t seem like they would make great doctors. Generalizing, pre-med class success almost favored anti-social behavior. If you weren’t locked up studying in the library, you were falling behind.
To me, it seemed like college was weeding out people who may have been good at being a doctor right away. How will you communicate with patients about their symptoms and behaviors if you haven’t communicated with anyone else in 10 days?
The angsty rock music from my third-generation iPod was getting louder. I wasn’t getting the grades I was getting in high school. It was frustrating that it wasn’t easy. I was coming to terms with not being a good fit for an academic path this focused and intense.
After realizing I wouldn’t do well as a chemistry major, I eventually switched to a major that would lead me on a different path to hospital administration. This subject field was much more flexible with the types of classes I could choose from. I loved it. I took classes I liked and my grades improved. I was engaged with the discussions and topics. I was also not as confined to studying all the time.
In hindsight, the biggest morale boost for me was that this change gave me time to do other things. I worked as a resident advisor, which presented a different set of challenges.
My floor consisted of 48 freshmen students who were discovering their first taste of freedom outside of their parents’ houses. My day job sometimes involved figuring out who ran down the hall with a fire extinguisher and turned the whole first floor white — again. However, the overall energy was fun and chaotic.
I also joined a couple of student groups. I got a volunteer position on the student alumni board, which included organizing the football and basketball student-section seating charts.
I worked with a group of my peers in a big fancy boardroom to figure out how to best handle ticket fees and put thousands of people next to their friends in the stadiums. Since our football team was really good, it was a high-stakes environment to determine who could have the best seats to shout at our rivals from Brigham Young University.
Build Your Own Path
When I look back on college, I’d say I sometimes use knowledge gained from my classes. I use the skills learned from being a resident advisor and student alumni board member every day. For me, the college environment was as beneficial as the classes or degree.
I do remember some lessons from the classes. In one biology class, I distinctly remember the professor’s definition of evolution. He said it is not survival of the fittest; it is survival of the fit-ins. The creatures that best adapt to their environment will succeed. A chameleon that can change colors to blend into a variety of backgrounds might have a better chance of evading predators than a bright orange gecko that can run 20 percent faster than the other lizards.
I recently attended an ASHRAE chapter regional conference in Denver. Dr. Paulo Cesar Tabares-Velasco of the Colorado School of Mines taught one of the educational sessions. He talked about his background in using his engineering degree to help with a service project in rural Mexico. He deeply appreciated the practical implementation of his formal education and conveyed the importance of community service.
Tabares-Velasco is an assistant professor in the mechanical engineering department in Golden, Colo.. In the second half of his presentation, he described how the facility at the School of Mines is reassessing the traditional path to a degree. It has graduated the first class of eighteen students in a new distinction program named SE@M (Sustainable Energy at Mines).
In this “build-your-own” program, students can earn a degree with their own mix of courses, internships and community engagement. The intent of the program breaks down into three pillars:
1. Give the students flexibility to build their own paths and identify their own passions through experiences.
2. Don’t make the students extend their time in college to complete the distinction. The program is not simply extra credit and an additional set of time and financial commitments; it is the core of the education.
3. Purposefully build a sense of community within peers and local stakeholders, supported by the facility.
You can find more information about the SE@M program at www.mines.edu/sustainable-energy. Seventy percent of the first class were women. According to Tabares-Velasco, “they are just getting started.”
Education isn’t confined to a lecture format in an auditorium classroom — learning happens in all the places in between classes. To the students who may be approaching midterms at this point in the year, prioritize finding where you fit in. Find classes, internships or volunteer opportunities that fuel your passion.