Advice for the Freshman Class

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It’s time for another Off-Topic Tuesday post. In 1995 and 1996, I wrote a column for the Daily Iowan, the student newspaper at the University of Iowa, which I attended from 1995 to 1997. I have an electronic version of this but I can’t lay hands on a clipping, so I am not sure whether it actually ran, or if it was just a draft. If it ran, it appeared 20 years ago this month. I’ve edited it a little.

Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of everybody who’s been here for a while, let me welcome you to the University of Iowa. During your orientation, you paid close and careful attention to everything you were told. You may have convinced yourself that you know exactly what to do, where to go, and how to cope. But what you have done so far to prepare for college life is not unlike preparing to ride a bicycle by reading about how to do it. Now, you’re actually getting on the damn thing and trying to keep your balance, and you may find that the instruction manual skipped a few useful items. But that’s why I’m here.

—This institution values diversity. There is no greater learning experience than coming into contact with people from other regions. I am not referring to other races and nationalities, although you certainly will have that experience and learn from it; I am referring to people from other parts of Iowa. Sioux City and Bettendorf are not the same kind of place, and the differences are instructive.

—Within a couple of weeks after classes begin, you will awaken one morning scared to death. What if you can’t handle your coursework? What if you have to return to Sioux City or Bettendorf in shame, to a life of running the french fry machine? It’s true that some people teeter on the brink for as long as they’re here, always feeling as though the next semester could be their last. Others fall into the abyss, and really do end up under the Golden Arches in a paper hat. But the good news is that most of you will make it. Your chances for academic success are inversely proportional to how strongly you believe you’ve paid the cover charge for a four-year party. Getting your priorities straight is critical.

—Abandon your preconceptions about everything. Iowa City is easily the weirdest place in the state. This town is like a giant piece of perpetual performance art with a cast of thousands—ivory-tower Marxists, shaven-headed lesbians, sixties-vintage burnouts, testosterone-addled frat brothers, strident reactionaries, brilliant intellects, naive farm girls, inner-city homeboys, and cynical newspaper columnists, starring Hayden Fry as himself. Don’t be intimidated; enjoy it; contribute to it. As Hunter S. Thompson says, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

—Don’t feel like you have to go to football and men’s basketball games. From the outside, big-time intercollegiate sports looks like an important part of this place. From the inside, it’s a sideshow. But in this, as in all things, decide for yourself.

—Go to the main library and just wander around. Poke through the stacks, government documents, the map room, reference, special collections. There’s no place more impressive on the whole campus.

—Leave your car back home. There’s no place to park, and besides, in this town, if the bus doesn’t go there, you don’t need to, either. You’ll be in good hands on the bus. Many of the drivers have one or more advanced degrees.

—Visit your professors personally at least once during each semester, even if you don’t have a specific question or problem. Size them up; you never know when it might come in handy. And you don’t have to write down every word they say in lectures. I once sat behind a guy who dutifully wrote down the professor’s jokes every day. Take it from me: they won’t be on the final.

—Read the Viewpoints page of the Daily Iowan first, especially on the days I’m in it.

And so, newcomers to the University of Iowa, we grizzled veterans welcome you to our little corner of the academic world. If you ever need our help, don’t hesitate to call upon us. We’ll be at the bar.

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