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An Open Letter to My College Freshman, Part 1

Dear M***,

It is currently mid-July, and my time is divided between my administrative work in the Honors College (which at this time of year is focused on assessing our work from last year and preparing for a new cohort of first-year students), preparing classes for the fall semester (this coming fall I will teach first-year students—always my favorite), and preparing to take you to college. It is hard to believe it is time for you to leave home. The college experience can be extraordinary. I am not sure there is another time in life so full of excitement and anxiety, growth and failure, opportunity and adversity—all to be experienced as a young adult who is just learning to navigate life.

As I prepare to welcome first-year students to my institution, I find myself thinking a lot about what I wish I had known when I started college and what I wish I could whisper to each of the students who will be in my classes this coming year before they ever set foot on campus. I also reached out to friends and acquaintances who are faculty members and asked them what they would tell freshman if given the chance. In the letters that follow, I hope to impart some of what my colleagues and I have learned studenting and teaching over the years.

As I pray for you to settle into a thoughtful and exciting year of becoming, I hope this advice is helpful.

GO TO CLASS. My first year of college my roommate was a sophomore. She quickly informed me that I did not need to go to class the first day of classes because it was just a syllabus day. I chose to sleep in and not attend any of my classes until the second meeting. Throughout that first semester, I continued this laissez-faire attitude toward class attendance. I was under the impression that college was about submitting the assignments, and my attendance in class really didn’t matter.

I was wrong.

As a faculty member, I can honestly tell you that class attendance matters. It speaks volumes to a professor about whether or not you are diligent and invested. Many faculty will voice the opinion that it is your education, you are paying for it, and it is your choice whether or not to attend class based on how beneficial you find the class. They may actually feel this way, but this does not stop them from making decisions about your potential based on your class attendance. Faculty want you to attend class. They are prepared, and they want you to be as well.

Do you need to get the perfect attendance award? No. When you cannot attend class for a legitimate reason, is it okay? Yes. How should you address missed classes with your faculty member? As early and professionally as you can.

Whenever possible, email your faculty member prior to missing class, explain the circumstances, apologize for missing class, and note that you will be prepared for the next class session via the LMS or another student (always find a student buddy in your class so you can find out what you missed—exchange contact information with the person on your left and right!). If you have an emergency (illness, a family member dies, etc.), then email the faculty member as soon as possible to explain the situation.

Just remember that attendance matters, and it is one of the easiest ways to illustrate diligence.

GO TO OFFICE HOURS. I know. It sounds so corny and over the top. But, seriously, faculty office hours are for YOU. It is time that faculty have set aside to meet with students. Go to their office. Introduce yourself. Tell them what you are excited about for the class. Ask any questions you may have about the syllabus, the assignments, or their expectations.

When you have your first major project for the class, ask the faculty member if you can come to their office hours to review your submission and get advice on how to be sure your work meets their expectations.

I am not saying you need to become the class pet, but I am saying that you want your faculty to know you. You want them to notice you. You want them to be invested in you personally.

CHECK EMAIL AND WRITE PROFESSIONAL EMAILS. I know you primarily communicate with snapchat, but your university and your faculty members will not be snapping you. Check your email so that you know if a deadline is changed or if your faculty member needs to cancel class. Check it every single morning as part of your routine.

And learn how to write a professional email to faculty and administrators. Below is the “email blurb” from my syllabus:

In addition, we will do much of our writing in digital spaces—some formal, some informal. So, please adhere to appropriate etiquette in our online discussions and activities. As we will discuss throughout the semester, different spaces and situations require different styles of communication. An informal message to a classmate, for example, may be casual in style and tone, while a polished project should have a style and tone appropriate for an academic audience. A significant part of learning to be a successful student and scholar is knowing what is appropriate in a given situation. An email to me, to any other faculty or staff member on campus, or to anyone in any position of authority must be respectful and professional in tone.

I suppose I could be more specific. In the subject line of your email be sure to clearly summarize what the email is about. Identify yourself, your class, and your section so the faculty member can easily figure out exactly which class is being referenced. Include a professional greeting (e.g., Dear Dr. XXX) and a professional sign-off (e.g., Best Regards,). Be polite. Use polished writing.

Also, NEVER write the following: “I am sorry I missed class on Thursday. Did I miss anything?”. You missed the entire lesson, and there is no way for you to “make up” what you missed. Instead, check your LMS and your syllabus to see if there is homework already listed for the next class and if you still need information, ask the professor what you can do (in addition to the assigned homework) to best be prepared for the next class session.

This letter is clearly going to take me longer than I expected, and these basics seem like a good stopping point. I know these suggestions seem obvious, but they are not. Following these three pieces of advice will ensure you get off to a good start in each of your classes.

All of my love,

Your Professor Mom


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