Are you still in high school? A Welcome Letter for College Freshmen

Originally published in abridged form in the Daily Bruin 2011 Registration Issue
illustrations by Caroline O’Driscoll


Hello Bruins, and welcome to your first fall term. I remember my own. It started in September, 1987, and I was so excited to begin classes that I woke up long before my 8 am lecture to watch the sunrise from the top of Janss Steps. Now I teach writing here at UCLA, and every quarter, I get just as excited about the first day of class as I did when I was eighteen years old.

Because I teach so many introductory courses, I meet a lot of freshmen and witness your transition to university life. I can feel our shared enthusiasm for a new start, but I have noticed that while you are sitting in class, some of you are stuck in high school—on the inside.

Are you one of those people? If you ask your instructors the following questions, you might be!

1. Did I miss anything important?

Students who miss class also use this variation: Did we do anything in class? Of course we did something in class! Of course I think it’s important! I spend a great deal of time and energy creating a curriculum for you. I’m invested in your experience. I care if you come to class or not. I care if you feel inspired or discouraged. Ask me what you missed in class, but don’t imply that it might be unimportant. Writers choose their words carefully, and while you are taking a writing class for several months, you are a writer. While you are taking a sociology class, you are a sociologist. Think of yourself as an active participant in a conversation with a larger community, rather than a passive consumer of information that may or may not be on a test.

2. Can I go to the bathroom?

This one might sound ridiculous (or merely polite), but I am always surprised that even some of the most independent thinkers among you still ask for my permission. Why are you asking me this? Do you think I’ll tell you to wait until recess? Folks, that part of your life is over. You will never need a hall pass again. You are an adult, and adults don’t ask other adults if they can use the restroom. We simply attend to our own needs.

Girl Studying

3. How can I use this in the real world?

I appreciate this question. It’s a good idea to think about application, action, and consequence. However, there are some faulty assumptions embedded in this inquiry. The classroom IS a real world, and the more you contribute to it, the more real it becomes. If you wait for someone else (the teacher or particularly engaged peers) to create your experience, your own disconnect makes school feel simulated. I like to think about the classroom as a sacred space—and yet utterly ordinary. On the one hand, it is an extraordinary place designed for communal learning. This thrills me and makes my heart beat fast. Let’s turn off our phones and become more conscious by plugging instead into the process at hand. And yet, I don’t want you to shut yourself off when you walk in the door because you regard the classroom as special or separate. Are you chatty with your friends but silent in discussion section? Why? If you remember that the classroom is also just a space like any other, you might not dismiss it as unreal or useless. Any experience can be educational, and every class teaches us more than a specific set of skills; we are learning how to learn. This is why a university education can support and stimulate us for the rest of our lives.

4. What can I do for extra credit?

Nothing! Do the assigned work to the best of your ability, and do “extra” work when you are motivated to learn independently. The “credit” counts toward your future self. Who do you want to be? I challenge you to make a promise to that person right now. Choose a goal and then fulfill it. Do you want to be more disciplined? Set aside every Tuesday night for reading at the library and every Wednesday morning for exercise. Do you want to be more social? Sit with a new person for lunch every Friday. Do you want to get to know your professors? Go to office hours at least three times each quarter, and at least once within the first two weeks of the term. Think about what you want to train in yourself, make yourself a promise, and then stick to it. This is how you get to know your own power.

5. I want an A.

You’re right; this is not a question. That’s the problem. It’s ok to ask me what it takes to succeed in my composition class, but I don’t really care what you want. What are you willing to DO? That question is a better catalyst for a fruitful fall quarter. I’ll encourage your ambition, as long as you support it with action.

Last year, I received an email message from a student who said he’d be missing our first day of class for a fraternity event. I was planning to drop him from the roster in favor of someone on the wait list, but when he showed up in my office later that week, I decided to challenge his choice instead. Here’s how it went:

Me:      Eric, do you have a professional goal?

Eric:     Yes, I want to be a lawyer.

Me:      And if you send your boss an email telling him you’ll be missing the first day of work because you are taking your family to the park, what kind of impression do you think you make?

Eric:     Oh. I see what you mean.

At this point, I was expecting some excuse about his very important fraternity event, but instead was impressed by his response. “I want to be in this class,” he said as he looked me directly in the eyes, “and I’ll show you how much. I’m going to change your first impression of me.” I shook his hand and said, “Good! I hope so.” He left my office and I thought, We’ll see.

To my delight, he made good on his promise. He was an active contributor to discussion, he wrote creative and analytical essays, he was willing to consider my feedback and discuss it with me whether he utilized it or not, he observed deadlines, and he offered a fantastic final presentation. In fact, when I needed to miss class once due to illness, I emailed the students to suggest they meet without me and continue their work. Eric emerged as a natural leader that day and his enthusiastic engagement with course material inspired some of his peers to alter their final paper topics and reflect upon their own level of commitment. When he emailed me this summer to ask for a letter of recommendation for law school, I was happy to oblige. Eric understood that wanting an A is different than earning an A.


6. Can I use I?

Study_GroupThe problem here is not the question; it’s the reason why people ask it. At the beginning of the quarter, I often ask students to write a short, autobiographical assessment of their writing history. I want to know their self-perceived strengths and weaknesses as well as their goals and expectations for our course. Several students always look at me blankly and ask if they can use the first person pronoun. I ask how they plan to write something autobiographical without it, and the follow-up statement is what drives me nuts: “But my high school teacher said never use I.” Hmm. “Are you still in high school?” I ask them. They laugh and shake their heads no. “Then don’t expect to rely on one rule all the time.”

It’s a good idea to ask your professors to clarify their instructions, but instead of thinking back to a formula that served you well in high school, consider the demands of the immediate moment. What’s the rhetorical situation? Who is your audience? What do you want to say to them, and what’s the best way to do it? If you are no longer in high school, the five-paragraph essay is not likely to be the best option. Nor is a paper that begins with “since the beginning of time” or some dictionary definition that you don’t actually use. Delete filler phrases about how “many people believe various ideas about certain subjects” and just tell your readers which ideas and what subjects.

I, too, can be a creature of habit. I feel safe and comfortable when I always sit in the same place in class or rely on familiar methodology, which is why I try to plan new courses every summer and experiment with new texts and unique exercises. They don’t always work, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take. I also make the effort to move around the classroom and set up our tables and chairs in multiple ways. If you find yourself always selecting the same seat in every class, move around and see what happens. It’s a simple change, but the embodied shift has a cognitive effect and can help limit our habitual mind in favor of a more alert, available state. Besides, you might make a new friend if you choose a new seat!

Many students ask me how to make the writing process easier or faster. I suggest ways to make the process more productive, but not necessarily easier. The creative process benefits from moments of chaos and moments of clarity. Be willing to revisit both.


7. Is this what you want?

Let me introduce you to two students. Here is Alan: he wears nice button-down shirts, comes to class five minutes early, and always carries extra pens and pencils. He raises his hand before speaking and always asks me if he can go to the bathroom. He ignores his peers but nods his head at everything I say in class. He emails me at least once a week to ask if this or that idea is ok. When I ask him to evaluate his work at the end of the quarter, he writes: I deserve an A in this class because I did everything you asked me to do, and fixed all the things you asked me to fix on my papers.

Here is Allison: she rarely makes it to class on time. She wears flip-flops and short shorts and always forgets to turn off her cell phone. When it rings in class, she occasionally leaves the room to answer it. We can hear her talking out in the hallway. When she comes back inside, she sighs audibly and cracks her gum. Sometimes she whispers comments to her neighbors, but never shares her thoughts with the entire class.  She has never come to office hours, and despite my written warning on her most recent paper, she seems unaware that she is not likely to pass the class with her current grades. In her self-evaluation, she writes: I guess I deserve a C, because that’s what I always get in English class.

Opposites? Not at all. Alan follows the rules and Allison resists them, but both students observe the exact same code, and it limits both of them. Both posit themselves as my subordinates, and not in a way that cultivates respect, but rather resentment.

I’ve changed the names, but these profiles are real, and the italicized comments are all direct quotes. Is this what you want? Is this ok? Is it an A yet? Have I satisfied you yet?

These questions just make me sad: for the student who seeks approval rather than growth; for the missed opportunity to think critically and independently; for the student who doesn’t even realize he is merely training himself to obey orders. And for what it’s worth, the answer is no. You’ll never satisfy me. That’s not your job. My own search for truth and contentment is powerful because it is perpetual, and that’s the way I like it. My goal is to participate in that process as a lifelong learner, and I prefer hunger to satisfaction. I am happy when you succeed and I try to remain compassionate when you struggle, but my job is to challenge you as much as I support you. Expect me to ask for more, even if you do earn an A. Try to remember that enduring satisfaction is the kind you cultivate on the inside.


This space is left intentionally blank for the student who comes to my office and doesn’t know what to say or do. Sometimes he is nervous to speak with a professor. He forgets that we are just like him. We might be older, but we are also just people who want to do a good job.

Sometimes a student will come to my office and cry. She will tell me about her 20 unit workload, the fast pace of the quarter system, her job and 62 extracurricular activities, pressure from parents and the uncertainty of a new romantic interest. I understand. When I was a freshman, my parents were divorcing. My boyfriend died of leukemia. I was a mess, but I took advantage of the abundant resources available here at UCLA. I joined a grieving support group at CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services, then called by another name) and found tremendous relief there. I later became an Orientation Counselor and found a Bruin family of my own. I started to rethink my own definition of success and realized that my value as a person did not depend upon my grades.

You might think that students who receive a C or D on their first papers might come to my office and cry. To the contrary, those of you in danger of failing usually take a deep breath and confront the fact that you can’t pass a university-level class with minimal effort. I’ve seen some dramatic turnarounds over the years. The ones who seem most devastated, more often than not, have received a B+ on their first essay. “But I thought it was good!” they insist. “It would have been an A in high school!” Sometimes, I try to soothe this student: “It is good! B+ is a high grade, and you should be proud of your work.” And sometimes, I want this student to snap out of it: “Don’t you think college should be more challenging than high school? If you want to cry about a B+, go ahead. If you want to know what would improve your work even more, then let’s chat.”

I witness the occasional emotional breakdown because I am often the first person to apply university-level standards to people comfortable with high school criteria. I also teach small workshop-style classes and I get to know most of you beyond the usual chit-chat, so I don’t mind a few tears. It can be healthy to release frustration and even more healthy to ask for help when you need it. This is a sign of strength and self-care. But to those folks whose response to stress is to cling to a childhood or high school paradigm, I’d like to say: let it crumble. The breakdown will allow you to see the pieces plainly. You might then reassemble them or replace them altogether, but at least you’ll be more aware of your foundational perceptions.

Hand_diplomaI am writing this with a genuine desire to be of service to you. I’d like to help propel you into the next chapter of your life so that it doesn’t take you as much time as it took me to recognize my own internal resources. When I was an undergraduate, I used to plan what I might say in class because I didn’t want to sound stupid, and I didn’t trust that my spontaneous ideas would be good enough. When I was a young teacher, I wrote out scripts for what to say in class, and if I lost my place, I’d start to sweat and worry. I was surprised at how liberated I felt when I let go of the script and started to trust myself in class. I was surprised that my students were all more willing to forgive my imperfection than me. I did not realize that I did not trust my own voice until I started using it.

You’ll spend a great deal of time here listening to what everyone else thinks is important, so take care to practice self-consultation as well: what are your own standards for success? Are you living up to them? What are your natural skills and talents and how will you use them? How do you approach what does not come easily?

A few final words of advice: Don’t leave your classes with regret; when you are drawn to speak, do it! The only way to decrease your fear and increase your confidence is to do something that scares you. We can only practice patience when we are feeling impatient. We practice endurance when we are feeling exhausted, not when we are full of energy. So when you are overwhelmed by midterms and due dates, remember that this is your opportunity to learn discipline. Many of our skills mature as we do, so be patient with yourselves during this transition to college life.

I believe that education is the most hopeful profession, and I am grateful it is mine. I love my students in ways most of you will never know. I find you to be smart and funny and insightful. Your youthful energy keeps me plugged into my own. You remind me to keep pursuing my own goals and creative projects. Helping you gives my life meaning. We’re in this together!

Bruins, enjoy this time, and once again: Welcome to UCLA!



Copyright 2011: All Rights Reserved

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