What [not] to bring to college

Barbara K. Altmann

On behalf of my faculty colleagues, administrators, and staff members in academic programs and student affairs, I'd like to welcome each and every new student in the Class of 2019. Welcome to Bucknell! After long weeks of preparation, we are delighted to have you here!

You — the incoming class of 2015 and graduating class of 2019 — are my new class, as well. I'm almost as new here as you are. This is my third week on the job, and like you, I'm learning the culture, expectations, and features of a new university, a new campus, a new town, a new set of peers. Like you, I've had to figure out how to set up in a new place to live, and that has involved shopping for some essentials. That shopping list led me to a store in Selinsgrove, a town just a few miles south of here on Highway 15. And there, in one of those stores that sells anything you could want for your room or your home, what should I see as soon as I walk in but a list of "What to Take to College"? There were lists for a number of schools in the area, including Bucknell. I picked up the Bucknell list out of curiosity. What did they think someone needed for the new college experience? Let's see...

  • Extra-long twin sheets? Check.
  • Make-up or shaving mirror? Check.
  • Desk lamp, no halogen bulbs? Check.

I emerged 45 minutes later with all sorts of things I hadn't planned to buy, and spent the ride home thinking about how prepared we can really be when we arrive in a new place for a big, tremendously exciting, important, and scary new adventure. I might actually need something other than those ecologically-friendly, compostable garbage bags, or that tiny flashlight. In fact, I realized, there was a lot I needed to get rid of, and that's a harder job than shopping. When you stop to think about it, other than lists that prohibit potentially dangerous items like anything with an open flame or those halogen bulbs, how no one tells us what NOT to bring to college.

Just recently, I did a lot of reflecting during the 41 hours of driving time it took me to get from Eugene, OR, to central Pennsylvania. By the time I got here, I had made up a list of what not to bring to my new job. What should I NOT bring? I should not bring the tendency to say, "Well, at my last school, we always did it this way...." I should not bring the assumption to assume that I know how things work here. I should not bring the urge to compare: "Wow, THIS is way better than what I'm used to, but THAT is just weird...." I should not assume that my couch will fit through the door of my new house, that I can find the same foods in Lewisburg that I'm used to, or that the rec center fitness machines will be the same ones I know. I counseled myself for the five days it took me to make the drive: "Barbara," I said to myself, "be open, listen and learn, look for cultural difference, enjoy difference!"

Once I got here, I turned my thoughts to YOU. What should you, our new class at Bucknell, leave behind? What should you take out of your metaphorical backpack in order to jump in and have the best possible experience here? I have suggestions for your list, too: Get rid of the notion that you know it all, because none of us does. Unpack the assumption that you can be friends only with people who share a similar background or have the same native language. Ditch the instinct to stick with the familiar, to seek out what is comfortable. Banish the conviction that you already know exactly what you want to study and how you are going to earn a living.

On that topic, let me say, now and always, that WHAT you study is much less important than the skills you learn. Perhaps you've wanted to be a botanist since you were eight. If that's the case, and you still think so in a year, then go for it. Same thing if you're determined to study Greek tragedy, business ethics, the art of Mongolia, the archeology of Arctic fishing cultures, or the many new uses of polymers. But leave yourself open to the unexpected and the new, as well. I am a specialist in medieval French poetry because of one class I happened to take in the spring of my senior year. It changed my life, although I didn't know it then. I had intended to go to law school. I DID go to law school, for a very short time. But I couldn't get enough of the poetry and culture of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century France. (By the way, I self-identify as a nerd, and have learned to embrace that term.) Medieval studies is not exactly at the top of the list of what are considered practical majors, but what I learned actually led in a reasonably straight line to the skills I need to be the provost at a great school like Bucknell. I learned - and what you absolutely need to learn - is good oral and written communication skills; great analytical thinking; the ability to critique and assess information; the ability and desire to be a life-long learner; and to know that a good question is worth a great deal more than any number of easy answers. Those are the skills that will allow you to do anything at all and, as corny as it sounds, to help shape the world and fix the big problems.

So what do I hope you brought to college?



A willingness to try and fail

Intellectual curiosity! A lot of it.

The willingness to S-T-R-E-T-C-H, well beyond the tried and true. Stretch your physical person, your comfort zone, your interests, your presuppositions. Be prepared to think so hard in new ways that your brain hurts. Trust in your peers and your professors and in the process. Treat school like an intellectual ropes course. You might find yourself dangling in thin air at times, but there are others to help you get to the next handhold, the next level, and to catch you if you slip.

I have two assignments for you - this is school, after all, and I'm your chief academic officer. First, get started with an easy exercise: sometime in the first month of classes, go to office hours. Visit your professor and talk about how her/his course is going for you, what you're connecting with, what is hard. Bring a question. Ask about connections to other classes or ideas. You have the luxury of being at a university with outstanding faculty in the whole spectrum of academic subjects, who want nothing more than to help you learn.

The second assignment has a later due date: I want you to let me know, between now and when you graduate, if you radically changed your mind about what to study, or you discovered an area that will be a life-long passion, even if it's not what you choose as a career. You can always find me, on the second floor of Marts Hall, or on e-mail at barbara.altmann@bucknell.edu. I'll be ready and waiting to hear from you.