THREE KEY WORDS FOR COLLEGE SUCCESS

This piece is part memoir, part advice. Please comment nicely!

There are three words every college student needs to know. Those three words are please help me.

When I was a freshman at Columbia in 1981, I was scared all the time. The transition from high school to college was really jarring. In high school I was always the smartest kid in class. I really stuck out. At Columbia I was just one kid in a crowd of hundreds. In high school there was nobody I needed to be afraid of. At Columbia everyone was terrifying. The ones I hated most were the big jocks with the big muscles. But the punk rockers made me nervous too. And then there were the homosexuals. And I also felt uncomfortable around the rich kids. And the Asians. And the Jews. Everyone I met on campus was different from me. Everyone scared the hell out of me. There was no place on campus where I belonged, where I felt comfortable and safe. There was nobody to talk to about my problems.

Columbia offers a great deal. But there's no tradition of faculty members mentoring undergraduates, or even behaving in a friendly manner. I remember when I took Freshman Composition in the spring of 1982 there was an instructor I really hated. I hated her because she was young, and a woman, and because she clearly did not want to be there. I had the impression she was some kind of graduate student and making a few extra bucks teaching Freshman Composition. Helping us was not what she signed up for, and her manner in class said as much. I always thought that when I went to college the professors would be men I could look up to, like my father. My own father was actually very sick at the time, and I really needed male role models. But I felt guilty about wanting a male mentor. And I certainly couldn't talk about those kinds of feelings with this particular instructor.

Sometime that spring, I had to write an essay about my feelings, and I put together a very negative piece about Columbia. Most of what I said escapes me, but I remember mentioning that the only time I felt happy and in control was when I was playing video games. I also made a somewhat facetious reference to the faculty getting paid an awful lot of money for not doing too much work.

As you can imagine, this piece did not go over very well with this particular instructor. She didn't give me an F or anything like that, but she made it clear that she was not making a lot of money teaching Freshman Composition. And she also indicated that she had a heavy workload of her own and plenty of problems too. None of this was said in a friendly or a reassuring manner. She was angry and defensive, which is certainly understandable. But she didn't ask how I was doing, and she said nothing to indicate that she understood what a rough time I was having.

Now looking back today, I realize that I took the wrong approach. Instead of attacking that young woman, or criticizing the faculty in general, I should have said something like, "this is the most amazing college in the world, and the instructors are wonderful, but I don't fit in. I don't feel at home on campus and I'm scared all the time and I don't know who to ask for help. Please help me!"

I realize now that the words "please help me" are the most important words to use when you're on a college campus. Now the reality is that most college professors just aren't interested. But when you attack them, when you're hostile or negative or apathetic, you just give them an excuse to give back the same. You're making their jobs easier, and letting them off the hook. Don't do it! When you have a professor you don't like, when you have a professor who doesn't care, that's precisely the time to say "please help me!" Those are the three key words for college success.