Several weeks ago, I was asked to say something to incoming freshman about adjusting to college. In many ways, I was delighted. This is a subject I really know something about. I myself adjusted to college quite well...too well. I adjusted so well that I spent 12 1/2 years as a college student. And I'm now beginning my tenth year of college teaching. See I *really* adjusted well to college: so well, that I'd find it hard to adjust to being anywhere else. And since I know that many of you will enjoy college every bit as much as I did, it's a real privilege to be able to welcome you to what I hope will be some of the most wonderful, exciting, and profitable years of your life.
But there's a bit of a problem, too. See, while I'd love to give you advice, I'm not sure how much of it is worth giving. In many ways, I feel like Polonius in Shakespeare's play Hamlet. Polonius gave his son (and everyone else) lots of great-sounding advice. But it didn't really help much, and, in fact, it often made things worse. Now I am sure I can give plenty of great-sounding advice myself. But I'm not all sure that I can do that much better than Polonius. And in the end, my main piece of advice (as you will see) is to ignore my advice--and find a much surer way of adjusting, not only to college, but to life itself.
Now most of what I can tell you about adjusting to college you already know or can easily figure out for yourself. So I am going to shut up? If you think that, you don't yet know what college professors are like. I'm going to tell you some things you almost certainly know, starting out with things you know you ought to avoid.
Number one: avoid drugs (or, at least, don't inhale). I'm sure you know already how drugs can mess up your school career and your life, but let me give you one example from my own college days.
I was sitting at dinner in the dorm dining hall one evening, talking with Kathy, the daughter of one of the professors. All of a sudden, Kathy catches site of a good-looking young man rushing into the dining hall. Kathy did kind of a double-take, and then shouted out, "Steve! How are you? It's been ages... Where have you been?"
Steve (not his real name) immediately came over to our table to join us. He turned out to be a very entertaining sort of person. Kathy (and that is her real name) told me later that he was one of the most brilliant students she had ever met at Stanford, the kind of guy who memorized "pi" to 150 places just for fun. Anyway, we were having a fascinating conversation--when all of a sudden two uniformed police officers came into the room. They looked around and came right up to Steve, grabbed hold of him, cuffed him, and hauled him off.
You see, Steve had just escaped from a mental institution. He was apparently very dangerous, and the officers were quite relieved that they had apprehended him so quickly.
Now what was this brilliant young man doing in a mental institution? Kathy found out later that Steve had been experimenting with LSD--and that it had basically fried his brain. A sad waste.
So--don't end up like Steve. Resist the temptation to use drugs.
Now for most of you, that one is pretty easy. The more serious temptation, at least on this campus, is alcohol. And my number two bit of advice to you is this: avoid alcohol.
Once again, I'm sure all of you know how alcohol can mess up your school career and your life, but I'll give you a couple of concrete examples involving Northern students.
Winter, 1989. Cold around here, as always during the winter. One young student got drunk at a party, and tried to find his way home. He got so confused, he wandered into someone's backyard and couldn't find his way out. They found his frozen body the next morning.
A few years later, four Northern students, three young men and a young woman, were drinking together. The campus community never got the full story of what happened, but the three young men were all charged with rape. One of them ended up committing suicide. One drinking party: four ruined lives. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
One semester a student group put up outside the bookstore a thing called "the wall." Students were asked to add to the wall their own comments about the ways in which alcohol had affected their lives. It was really depressing to read--lots of real tear-jerkers. A typical example:
A young woman wrote that she had gotten drunk at a party. A guy gave her a ride home, and she ended up sleeping with him. The problem was, she had a steady boyfriend, who she said she loved. And she wrote "on the wall" that now there was this "dirty secret" between her and her boyfriend.
When a Northern student does something really stupid, something that really messes up their school career and their life, I can almost guarantee that alcohol was a factor. My advice: stay away from alcohol entirely.
So far, I've given you nothing but "Polonius" advice, nothing you didn't know already. But there is maybe one thing I can say to you that you don't already know. I titled this session "finding what you're not looking for" because I think the main reason students don't enjoy their college years as much as they should is because they don't really know all that the college experience has to offer.
Most students think of college primarily as career training: the ticket to a better job. There's nothing wrong with that, but if the job after graduation is all you're looking for, you'll find it a mighty difficult four years.
For those who are focused on something beyond a job, this campus is a great place to be. There is always something new to learn: music, computers, foreign languages. One of the chief things I got out of college was the ability to enjoy all sorts of different things. And if you use your college opportunities well, you'll have a life full of all sorts of things that make life more enjoyable and satisfying. Be sure to explore different areas and take advantage of the opportunities you have here to learn about different things--not just in your classes either. While you are here, you should have the opportunity to try different kinds of sports, eat different kinds of foods, hear speakers on all sorts of different topics, and meet people from all sorts of different backgrounds. Be outgoing, and enjoy all the different kinds of things there are to enjoy.
Now with all the wonderful opportunities there are on this campus, you'd think there would be no problem adjusting--that you are almost automatically going to be happy here. But you know what? It's not so automatic at all. Why? Because there is one thing here that students find it very, very hard to get used to. Something absolutely dreadful. History professors? No. Far worse than that-and far more frightening.
You are going to be free at Northern in a way that you've never been before and probably will never be again. No one will tell you you have to go to class. No one will tell you how to spend your time. No one will tell you exactly what subjects to take, or what to major in. You basically will run your own life.
Now being free should be a wonderful thing. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream speech closes with the dramatic words, "Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last." But freedom isn't any good if you don't know what to do with it. The Israelites longed to go back to Egypt. Even many freed black slaves wanted to go back to the old plantations. One of the French novelist Andre Gide's characters says, "This useless freedom tortures me." And the freedom you have at college may be, in some ways, a torture.
Partly, this is because it's difficult sometimes to do what you know you should do. It's hard to force yourself to get up for classes when there's nobody making you do it. It's hard to force yourself to study when there's a card game going on. But even if you're making all the right choices, freedom is hard--because even the right choices don't always seem to pay off as they should.
One of the really disturbing things about Stanford for me was the realization that most of those things one might think would bring happiness don't. We had in our little dorm an Olympic gold medalist, the captain of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, a Fullbright Scholar, a Rhodes Scholar: bright kids, kids with all sorts of talents. What they all had in common was an extraordinarily high degree of self-discipline, the ability to force themselves to do what was necessary to reach their goals. But you know what? Despite all they achieved, and despite all they had, few of my Stanford friends were happy. And my professors, despite all their abilities, weren't happy either.
Why? Because even when you make the right choices, when you avoid drugs and alcohol, pay attention to your studies, choose a major that leads to a good job, there's still a kind of emptiness: so what? So what if you earn as much as Bill Gates? So what if you can win elections like Bill Clinton? So what if you star in a comic strip like Bill the Cat?
I can almost guarantee that, at least during part of your college experience, you'll feel an emptiness in the pit of your stomach. And you'll think it's homesickness, which, in part, it may be. But it will also be something more: a deep uncertainty about the future and what you should do with your life. When you face that emptiness, none of your professors will have answers for you. And none of your friends will have answers for you. And you won't be able to find answers of your own. And then...
Well, believe it or not, this emptiness might be the best thing that ever happened to you--if you deal with it in the right way. Most students don't. Some turn to drugs, some to alcohol. Some just give up and go home.
So what's the right way of dealing with that emptiness? My son leaves for college this week, and I've been thinking a lot about what advice to give him. Unfortunately, if I told you what I'm going to tell him, I'd get into trouble.
You see, what I'm going to tell him is that the most important thing anyone can do to adjust to college (or to anything else) is to turn to God with their whole heart. I'm going to tell him that when that homesick/emptiness hits, the best thing to do is to hit his knees and open his Bible. And I'm going to tell him that, before that emptiness hits, he needs to hit his knees and open his Bible.
I'm going to tell him that there is the great opportunity before him, that if he can learn to truly hear from God and to learn to walk in the way God guides him, that he'll be on the road to joy. And I'll tell him that, when he's lonely, he should call home...but he should also call to his true home.
And I'll remind him of a song we both know and love:
When you go, go with God. Let His laughter be your banner. Let Him bring to life the vision that He's placed within your heart. And when you go, go with God. And remember that we love you. You will take a part of us when you go.
I'd like to say the same kinds of
things to you, because I truly believe the only way of making a happy adjustment
to college or to anything else is walk in submission to the will of God.
But I'd get into all sorts of trouble if I told you things like that. So
I won't. I will, however, wish you good luck at Northern and joy throughout
your college careers.