Op-ed: An Open Letter to Incoming (And Returning) Students

Richard West is an Emerson professor in the Department of Communication and the former President of both the National Communication Association and Eastern Communication Association. West recently co-authored “An Introduction to Communication” which was published by Cambridge University Press in 2019. 

It’s here.

As sure as “Ridiculousness” will feature two skaters jumping into a foam pit, your first semester in college has arrived! With over 150,000 students living in the city of Boston, it’s hard to escape the energy, anticipation, and sentences filled with words such as “like” and “dank” and more than a few people who, oddly, keep looking up as they walk. Just four months ago, you may have been reading entries in your high school yearbook or turning your cheek as your Uncle Jake tries to kiss you at your graduation party.

Those. Days. Are. Gone.

As the performing arts community says: “It’s curtain time.”

As a professor starting his 35th year of teaching, and as a former dean and department chair, I’ve heard and seen quite a few student success stories. Sadly, I’ve also seen some tragic stories.

Unlike high school education, higher education will require you to figure things out fast. I mean very fast. No mom around to do your laundry. No sister to help with your clothes. No BFF at the beach to Snap. No one in homeroom texting you about volleyball practice.

Nope. What really counts is how you, as incoming students, will manage your time away from home. For the first time in your life, you won’t have a curfew. People from around the world will be living with and around you, and your professors won’t care how many Advanced Placement classes you took in high school (seriously, we don’t care).

But, one thing’s definite: You’re sure to continue your love affair with Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube, streaming stupid videos of Cameron Dallas talking about his favorite places to tan!

So, using popular shows as our guide, let me “Countdown” the “Top Ten” tips related to college life for those who have left high school, hoping that even our veteran returnees will be reminded of their importance at this school of over 4,000 students where you’re all “Grown-ish”:

  1. College is more than “60 Minutes” of learning. Professors love students who ask questions, engage themselves in class discussions, and show a genuine interest in the content. But, professors do not like students who are backward thinkers. And don’t be a “Big Mouth” in your dorms or in your classes, and don’t come to class like you’re part of “The Walking Dead.”
  2. It’s unavoidable: You’re going to C-BS throughout your college years. I wish I could say that everything you’ll learn in college will be valuable and have lasting value throughout your lives. Even at $1,438 a credit, I can’t. Both in and out of the classroom you’ll hear a lot of people talk—we’re a communication-centric school, don’t forget. And yes, even “Dr. Phil” would have a tough time listening to the endless loop of meaninglessness. All I can say is: endure it. Look at these times as preparation for what you’re going to encounter outside of Emerson!
  3. Have a little “Will & Grace.” When things go well, don’t think they’ll last; when things go wrong, don’t think they’ll last. In other words, maintain your dignity, and help others to stay afloat during tough times. And there will be tough times. Students often forget that college is not this “Amazing Race” where someone wins.
  4. There will be a lot of “Stranger Things” than Emerson! Yes, walking on Boylston between classes, you’ll see orange hair, T-shirts emblazoned with messages like “I’m not easy but we can discuss it,” and lots of weird laughing. But “This Is Us.” There will be many moments that will make you happy you got accepted and chose this fantastic school. And there is no other time in your life where someone will help you become a better thinker, writer, and communicator.
  5. Avoid the “Deadliest Catch.” Sure, it’s not pleasant to talk about, but even the savviest of students find themselves in unsavory circumstances. Drinking is not cool. Drugs are dumb. And 50 percent of sexually active students will have at least one STI by age 25 (“Sex Education” is good, by the way). But drinking, drugs, and sex, while all mainstays since the first college opened its doors in 1636, can lead to trips to the ER, home, or both! And don’t forget that all college campuses have “Cops” to maintain “Law & Order.”
  6. Sometimes you need to head for “The Hills,” find some “Bizarre Foods,” and escape. School is not, and should not be, all work. Everyone needs a break. Shop at Primark, work out, eat at South Street Diner (one time), bike the Esplanade, go to Coolidge Corner, and do other things that will help you get some balance in your life. Go ahead and ask others about the “Parks and Recreation” beyond Tremont Street.
  7. “NCIS”: Never Communicate in Silence. So many paradoxes exist in college: Why do students who cannot stop talking outside of the classroom keep quiet once they step foot inside the classroom? When roommate conflicts happen, why is the “silent treatment” invoked rather than an open dialogue? After being confronted with acts of academic dishonesty, why do so many students clam up rather than fess up? Being open, deliberate, and thoughtful in your communication is paramount to being an outstanding academic.
  8. Emerson is not an “American Horror Story.” Rather, we’re an eclectic group of people who seem to be in our own worlds at times, but who, in the end, are there for each other and who all have one goal in common: a career. Some of you will be Human Resources directors and others of you will be production assistants. Some of you will write for major news outlets, and others of you will spend your day helping those with speech disfluencies. It’s not career paths. It’s the energy so many will exert to help you move toward “The Good Place” related to job success.
  9. Be a “Survivor.” That’s it. Sometimes it’s not week-to-week or month-to-month. It’s day-to-day.
  10. In the end, we’re all part of a “Modern Family.” Professors, staff, students, and families are all in this together. We need to forge relationships that are sometimes clumsy and not altogether clear. Emerson is some sort of a system, an amalgam of odd constellations with unique responsibilities. Regardless if you’re a “Big Brother” or a “Family Guy,” remember that you’re not alone. It can be scary––butterflies-in-the-stomach scary–but there is always someone around to hang out with.

And if you can’t find anyone, drop by my office. I have a Keurig with lots of different coffee flavors.

 

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