Fall, the time when millions of students all over the world – including Pakistan – will start their college journeys, is upon us. Many will be first-generation students, the first in their family to go to university. Today’s op-ed is addressed to all the new college goers, first-generation in particular. It is an accumulation of pointers that I hope will help college students settle into their new lives smoothly and make the best of the opportunity life has given them.
You are legally an adult now, even if your university will not always treat you like one, something you will feel when staff routinely address you as ‘bachay’, ‘beta’ or ‘beti’. The transition from school to university will be the most drastic you will go through in your academic career.
In schools, your teachers had a great deal of authority but with that authority came the responsibility for your learning. When you skipped a homework submission in school, teachers would follow up with you, with your parents, and would give you reminders. Now, as you transition into adulthood and university, the balance of autonomy and responsibility shifts towards you. Class sizes will be bigger than you may be used to from school and professors will not have the time or resources to chase you (they might not even remember your name!).
If your family is educated, you may have enjoyed the benefit of help at home in your school years. For most, that advantage will evaporate now.
According to 2020-21 numbers, 2.7 million Pakistanis – a little more than one per cent of our population – study in degree-awarding colleges or universities at a time. By virtue of having reached a college or university, you are statistically already a member of an elite group. Whether you choose to make the best of your time and opportunity or prefer to spend it hanging out at the campus cafe is up to you; you are responsible for your own progress.
Let me take this opportunity to dispel a lie you might hear early and often: ‘Grades / GPA don’t matter’. This is not true. Low grades can permanently bar your entry to some graduate programmes and scholarships and will play a part in where and how quickly you land your first job.
Cost of attendance is a significant barrier to entry to universities. If you are struggling to keep up with educational expenses, find out if your university offers merit scholarships or need-based tuition support. A recent study showed that a surprising number of universities in Pakistan offer one or the other. At the same time, be mindful that the tuition fee you pay does not automatically entitle you to a degree. All it does is buy you an opportunity, not a guarantee, to show your work and earn a degree qualification, regardless of how ungodly an amount your tuition bill might be.
Get organized. Perhaps the real sign of being an adult is when you start maintaining a calendar to keep track of tasks, deadlines, meetings, and appointments, whether it is in an app or in a diary.
Like the Scout motto, always be prepared. Practices across universities may differ, but even if it is not explicitly required, complete your readings before you come to class to get the most out of them. Do not expect a lot of handholding from professors. Big class sizes mean professors cannot redo topics until most of the class understands. This is possibly the biggest adjustment you will have to make.
Teaching assistants and/or professors keep office hours when you can drop in – use them, but do not expect to receive a replay of a class lecture. The etiquette of asking for help demands you first make your best attempt using the resources you already have (lecture, text, reference books, etc) before you make demands of others’ time. You would be shocked to learn how mediocre most lectures at some of the world’s best universities can be. Coming in, what few college students realize is that tertiary education is a lot of self-learning.
Build your network: We think of ‘reference’ as a dirty word, but a 2015-16 research study conducted together with LinkedIn showed that 85 per cent of positions are filled via networking. No, it is not just us in Pakistan – that is the way the world works.
Long before universities began offering their courses online, Harvard Business School published case studies it used in its programmes for others to use. Textbooks and materials used by its other schools and programmes, and indeed all universities, are not state secrets but are available to everyone. What additional value is there in attending a (prestigious) university in person at great cost versus going through its course materials by oneself? The real value in attending Harvard or any great university lies in the network it allows you to build. A good portion of US presidents and world leaders in government and business attended the world’s top schools.
In her 2013 book ‘Your Network is Your Net Worth’, Porter Gale writes “I believe that your social capital, or your ability to build a network of authentic personal and professional relationships, not your financial capital, is the most important asset in your portfolio.” Your university may not give you the same level of opportunity, but the principle still holds.
Look past graduation. Connect with your university career services office early and know what services they offer. Most career services centers connect you to potential job and internship opportunities, advise on career options, help you create a resume, and prepare for interviews. Know what yours can help you with. What they do not do is serve jobs on a platter.
Do not wait until graduation to work an internship. Students work internships even after only one year in university. That means being ready for opportunities when they present themselves. Your resume (no longer than one page) should be a living document – updated frequently.
Maintain a carefully curated online presence, especially on LinkedIn, which is now essential in most job markets and sectors. Do not treat it like your Facebook or Twitter feed – refrain from posting quotations, jokes, anecdotes, political/religious content, or memes and restrain yourself from unprofessional language. Also, I recently learned that some quarters are monitoring students’ and university staff’s posts on regular social media to spot anything problematic that can be twisted into blasphemy charges.
Over the years, I have spoken to many faculty members and asked them if they can identify common traits of students who go on to have successful careers. One observation I have heard being made over and over again is that it is often easy to spot the ones who will do well professionally. It is the ones who participate in extracurriculars, are involved in student chapters of professional associations, volunteer for activities, and do more than the bare minimum of attending classes.
These activities develop skills that are sought by employers and the center of much attention in local education circles these days, what is referred to as ‘soft-skills’ but are really life skills: teamwork, organization skills, taking responsibility and delivering on assigned and accepted tasks, public speaking, presentation and communication skills, the emotional intelligence required to deal with all kinds of people.
University life can often be stressful and that is being recognized by universities. An increasing number are now offering counseling and mental health support services. Staff numbers and qualifications vary widely, but you should know what support your institution has available in that regard if you need it.
Finally, for many, this will be the first time you will be studying with students who are not your gender. At 18 or 19 years of age, it is the most natural thing for you to be curious but remember you are also all just people. College / university life is not as depicted in TV dramas and Bollywood movies.
To the young men that are reading this: Know that no means no. Please, do not attempt to wear down a fellow student with unwanted advances. That is called harassment. Be a gentleman.
To the young women reading: If anyone, student or staff, harasses you, report them. Many more (if not most people) understand not to blame you. It is not 1995 anymore. If you find yourself in a situation that makes you uncomfortable, even if you cannot put your finger on why, always trust your instincts and extricate yourself.
That said, meet people and make friends. Universities are a place to meet people from different parts of the country, with widely varying views and backgrounds. They can be our country in microcosm. You may not be part of such a diverse community ever again in your life.
By progressing past high-school, you are, in our context, already in a privileged position. Make the best of it. Let the next four years not become the peak of your life. Let them be the starting point to a life of achievement. Welcome, Freshmen!
The writer (she/her) has a PhD in Education.