A snail-paced semester has come to a close and Missouri Southern bid farewell to hundreds of graduates and welcomed incoming freshman who will be beginning their higher education in the fall.

As eager young adults anticipate their next step in life, I can’t help but reflect on a few things I wish I knew before starting college.

First, you don’t have to know what you want to do with your life to attend college. High school pushes a narrative that teenagers will have their life goals in order before graduation, and while that is nice in theory, how can we put that kind of pressure on a fifteen-year-old? 

Higher education is not a requirement for success, but it is a commitment, and it takes a lot of dedication and work.

Upon entering college, you can speak with your counselors about going in undecided. If you do not know what you want to major in straight from the start, you can complete your general education credits first. You are not required to make a decision regarding your major until the beginning of your junior year.

In the meantime, undecided students would benefit by trying out classes in different areas of interest. For freshman who are curious about a career in business, for example, consider taking an accounting class. Different classes will let you know if you want to pursue them as careers.

Use college as a tool of self-discovery. Prerequisites can be a great opportunity for you to find interest in a field you haven’t considered before.

Some people are fortunate to know exactly who they want to be, but many others stress over decisions and committing several years of their lives to obtaining a degree in a field they haven’t had experience in.

Which leads to the next thing I wish I knew: volunteering counts. Volunteer hours are a golden ticket to showing educators and potential employers that you are dedicated, responsible, and you utilize your time to help the community, which will line up with values any reputable company tries to uphold.

Volunteering is also an asset because it allows you experience in a field you are considering on pursuing without any attached commitments. Where internships are helpful for resumes and learning about your potential career from professionals on the job, volunteering gives you a firsthand glimpse of what the career would entail and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to worry about breaking commitments.

If you consider being a doctor or a nurse, volunteering at a hospital would be a good way to see if this is the career for you. Maybe you realize that you cannot stand the sight of blood, but you didn’t know that before. If it isn’t something you feel you can get past, it may be a good idea to reevaluate your career options.

Another thing I wish I knew about was the struggles of money as a college student. Many people hesitate about considering college because of the economic strain it may have on their lives. Having a degree doesn’t ensure financial wealth upon graduation, and most graduates will not expect ample salaries upon entering jobs related to their degrees.

If you go to college to get a degree completely based on the desire of financial wealth, you will likely not finish your schooling. You have to find something you enjoy, something that challenges you in ways that excites you and utilizes your skills and strengths in a way that makes you feel valuable.

The saying goes, “if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” While this cheesy saying has merit, it also goes without saying that you will also find financial security as you attract better paying careers from employers who admire your dedication to the field.

The fear of financial success post-graduation causes stress to potential students, but the fear of paying for college can shut down opportunities completely. Many high school students are unaware of the resources available to them through financial aid, grants, and scholarships.

Apply for financial aid first, then apply for every scholarship and grant that you might have available to you before ever considering student loans. Also, Southern offers payment plans if needed.

If student loans are necessary in continuing your education, consider taking out only what you need, and do not take more than what you think you can pay back. Again, see college as a tool for you, do not let it become a straight line toward overwhelming debt.

Before starting college, I wish I knew about the positive atmosphere it provides. College is not like high school. Professors are professionals in the fields they teach you about, and they treat you like adults. Most classrooms I have walked into, especially in my major classes, provide an aura of appreciation for the field that makes you want to be a part of it. Your classmates and professors value your opinion and your voice.

While there are many great things about the relationships you build and the plethora of knowledge you gain, the struggle is real sometimes. College is hard. Juggling homework with work from organizations you are a part of and other responsibilities from your life outside of school can be overwhelming.

Lean on your support systems and don’t be afraid of talking to your professors and advisors about the things you are struggling with. They want you to succeed.

While you’re at it, appreciate yourself and acknowledge how hard you are working and think about why it means so much to you. Identifying your “why,” will keep you going in pretty much every aspect of your life.

Finally, I wish I knew college isn’t just about getting a degree, you should enjoy it. For the first time in your life, your education isn’t a requirement. You’re in a place that will challenge you and teach you things you might have never learned elsewhere. And while knowledge is so important, college is a place where you build relationships and find out who you want to be.

It is important to do well and study hard, but it’s also important to allow yourself the opportunity to learn what it means to become a Lion. Go to games, go to events on campus, and join one of the many clubs and organizations at Southern even if it doesn’t reflect on your major. Utilizes the resources you have at your disposal, especially when they are of no cost to you.

Don’t make college a burden in your life, make it a place where you want to be, and you will do just fine.

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