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College. Everyone who’s been seems to have something to say in the way of advice: maintain a healthy diet to fend off the freshman 15, don’t procrastinate on your work, and, my personal favorite, get at least eight hours of sleep a night. However, these concepts are pretty much common sense. They’re things we know we should do, but being a human is hard, and sometimes your midnight cravings get the best of you after scrambling to finish a paper due at 11:59 p.m. that you’ve procrastinated on for the past week. C’est la vie

The thing is, these aren’t very complicated pieces of advice, and while important, they’re pretty much universal truths that should be employed whether or not you’re in college. And while I prepared myself for the practical matters of college, such as completing my FAFSA, finding a place to live, and researching student organizations on campus, I didn’t prepare myself mentally or emotionally. Many people talk about how college is difficult, but not many elaborate on what that means or how to counter it. The following are things I believe aren’t emphasized enough when preparing students for college. These tools comprise the parachute you can use to safely leave the nest and still land on your feet.

Connection

I’m about to use a word that strikes fear into the hearts of many, or at the very least will make any introvert reading this slightly uncomfortable: networking. As someone who doesn’t even like to talk to customer service representatives on the phone, I find the thought of making a conscious effort to have conversations with people daunting. But it’s really not as bad as it sounds. For some people, what we call networking is as natural as simply having a conversation.

Here’s the thing, though: that’s what it is. It’s engaging in regular conversations with people and discussing their interests, passions, and hobbies, just like you would with someone you meet at a social function or through a mutual friend. But this time, it just happens to be centered around their work. 

So how does one network? The most important thing is finding people who are passionate about what they do. It obviously helps if they excel at it, but the information from a person who is enthusiastic and enjoys talking about what they do is going to be infinitely more encouraging than from someone who lacks that passion. They’re not just going to tell you what their work is like but also what books to read, podcasts to listen to, and organizations to join.

How do you even find people like that? For starters, consider how many email lists you are a part of, whether those messages be from schools, organizations, or institutions. I’m guilty of disregarding many of the messages that come my way, partly because I’m already inundated with mass amounts of communication on a daily basis and also because I’m hesitant to add anything else to my already-over-occupied schedule. But I received an email one day from the career center at my school about an upcoming event. Initially, I didn’t know if I wanted to go; the words career, professional, and development are enough to intimidate this natural introvert. But I bit the bullet and signed up, and I’m glad that I did because it was part of a series called Curious Conversations that facilitates interactions between students and professionals in their fields of interest. During the event, I was able to hear about all the steps this professional took to get to where she is today and what she recommends for those looking into that particular career. 

But if group meetings aren’t your thing, then just ask someone you trust to point you in the direction of a person whose expertise would benefit you. It really is just as easy as asking someone to make an introduction. 

These connections will be crucial when you near the end of your college career. If you’re cognizant of these opportunities early and start accumulating this knowledge now, your senior year will be much less painful as you’re deciding what you want to do after you receive the diploma that states that you’re a capable, career-ready adult.

Balance

Many people, myself included, don’t make enough time for themselves when they get caught up in the craziness of life. It’s easy to justify swapping out your downtime for doing extra work just to continue to check off your to-do list and be as productive as possible. Many people also feel guilt when they take time to do things for themselves, because how dare a person not commit themselves to their job, schooling, or personal development 100% of the time they’re awake?

But discipline, resilience, and productivity are all skills that must be developed over time, and plunging into the deep end without a fail-safe for when you start to feel mentally or emotionally drained can be disastrous. If you don’t have that contingency plan, you could be setting yourself up for some nasty burnout, which many college students can testify makes a tough situation nearly impossible.

Don’t stop doing the things you love and enjoy; you make them a priority, too.

So what do you do? Well, it’s actually a question of what you don’t do. You don’t stop doing the things you love and enjoy; you make them a priority, too. Granted, we all have to work to make money, but the trick is finding that equilibrium between the two. Many people call it work-life balance. But as someone who can’t separate my life from my work, I call it life-life balance. It’s about preparing yourself for future exertions and repairing the toll that previous exertions have taken. Let’s face it: being a human is draining, and being an exemplary human is exhausting. Taking care of yourself and supporting yourself is crucial to keeping up with everything life throws at you.

So just like you wouldn’t expect your car to run well without the proper maintenance, don’t expect yourself to be able to operate at full capacity when your own routine maintenance hasn’t been performed. Do you want to know the trick? Pay attention to your check engine light when it turns on.

Priorities

If social distancing and quarantine have shown me one thing, it’s how I’ve placed too much value on extrinsic motivation (recognition obtained from outside sources, such as praise or tangible rewards) and not enough on intrinsic motivation (the personal satisfaction you feel from engaging in something you are passionate about or find fulfilling). After the second semester within COVID times, I started to feel burnt out, and it wasn’t necessarily from a surplus of work. I felt deflated, like energy was constantly leaving me but nothing was being replenished. I was so swept up in the hustle and bustle of life that when the world was put on pause, I was suspended in midair, furiously trying to continue what I had been doing before, which was to run as fast as I could toward the next reward: good grades, praise from my professors or supervisors, and other forms of external motivation. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with extrinsic rewards, but when they’re not balanced carefully with intrinsic rewards, it’s easy to lose sight of what really matters. 

People say that living in alignment with your values is one of the most important things you can do to take control of your life and cultivate a fulfilling existence. But what about when you don’t really understand what your own values are, what’s important to you, or what you even want to do in life?

It’s not an easy question, and there is no easy answer. It requires personal reflection. There are many ways to do this: meditation, journaling, or guided deliberation with a mentor or counselor. I find that the easiest way is to keep one question in the front of my mind at all times: why? Why do I feel this way about this subject? Why do I struggle in this part of my life? Why did I react this way? Implementing this mindfulness practice will prevent you from feeling like you’re aimlessly floating through life without an overall purpose or goal. And when you’re overwhelmed with assignments and obligations and wondering, What’s the point?, you’ll have that intrinsic motivation to keep you going.

The parachute

There are many things that I can say I wish I knew before going to college, but overall, I wish someone had said one thing to me: it’s OK to fail. This isn’t giving you a free pass to quit before you start, but try anything and everything, and don’t be afraid to fall.

The truth is, there’s no way to be perfect. You may drop the ball in certain areas of your life, receive a less-than-ideal grade, and have moments of self-doubt. But you have your parachute: the network to support you when you feel lost, a balanced life that allows you to take the hit and keep going, and a clear set of priorities that reminds you of what’s actually important. 

College is the ideal time to try new things. You’re in an environment designed for exploration and surrounded by people who want you to succeed. You’ve prepared for this moment, and now it’s time to take the leap.