In college, you get to be wrong over and over in a low-stakes environment. James Olstein

During my handful of years as a college instructor, I repeatedly heard a phrase that drove me up the wall: "The student is the customer."

You, a student forced to spend more than ever on a college degree, might be attracted to this idea. And on a purely transactional level, I understand you are technically exchanging money for services.

Sponsored
Sign up to ride the 7 Hills of Kirkland this May!
The month long cycling event takes place this May, with ride challenges, prizes from Zoka Coffee and Primal Wear, and funds raised benefiting Attain Housing.

But this consumerist ideology frames you as a passive recipient of a product called "education," and if you go in there thinking you're dropping $50,000 and four years in exchange for a job, I guarantee that you will miss out on the whole point of the thing. Which is to earnestly engage in the incredible, fascinating, routinely humiliating, completely fraught, and ultimately liberating process of learning.

To that end, here are some words of advice...


You don't know more than your teachers.

For the most part, your teachers will be completely overworked, underpaid graduate students or adjuncts who are, especially in the introductory classes, only five or six years older than you.

Why? Long story short: "fiscally conservative" state legislatures.

Nevertheless, those teachers are working as hard as they can to keep up with the largest workloads college-level instructors have ever had to bear, and they're not even getting paid enough to live. You would be shocked to learn how little they make. The grad student instructors are taking out just as many loans as you have to take out just to get the education they need to move up to the next level, and/or they're on food stamps. So if they're having an off day, consider taking what you can from the experience rather than yelling at them about how you're paying their salary.


No, seriously, you're the stupid one, not your teachers.

Yes, it's true, some of your teachers will be people who don't speak English as their first language. If you speak only English, then you might have a hard time understanding those teachers in class. But before you complain about their heavy accent, try working a little harder. Put in the effort. After all, they did.

They do what they're teaching you to do, except in multiple languages. That's harder to do than listening better. Moreover, many instructors from different countries have taken a huge risk to work here. This is especially true given the current president's immigration policies. While you might have a harder time understanding them through their accents, look at it as an opportunity to practice communicating with people with different backgrounds. As capitalistic enterprises continue to push people all around the world, this won't be the last time you'll be in this position.


Use that gym membership.

Whether you like it or not, your college tuition pays for a gym membership. If you're not someone who typically goes to the gym, this will seem like a great injustice. I was one of those people. But in grad school at the University of Washington, I got fed up paying for a benefit I wasn't using and decided to start going, mostly out of spite. That decision changed my life. I started slowly, swimming laps every other day in UW's giant, liquid sapphire pool, before eventually moving on to the weight room and the treadmill.

In high school, exercising was pitched to me largely as a vanity project, or a "healthy choice" akin to skipping ice cream for a bowl of cottage cheese. Nobody told me that moving around with intensity for 45 minutes or so gives you endorphins and energy, and improves your mental health while also making you smarter and better in bed. The other thing nobody told me: You can smoke and drink all you want and still go to the gym. You'll still probably die of cancer or whatever, but you'll feel great before then.

This gym is the cheapest the gym will ever be for the rest of your life. And, if privilege or circumstance is allowing you to go to school without having to hold down a full-time job, you definitely have time to go to the gym—so no excuses. When you eventually turn into an Amazon drone, you'll have to squeeze in a run between your insane work schedule and your desperate attempts to maintain your rapidly evaporating friendships. Enjoy it while you can.


Leave campus.

It's easy to get stuck on university island. Everything you need is within walking distance. But after the first couple of years, you'll need to spread your wings and fly off the quad. It'll be good for your brain, good for your professional life, and even good for your dating life. Investing your swipe time into a hobby or genuine intellectual interest will do you wonders, trust me.

Consider volunteering for a city or state political campaign. If you're more issues-oriented, throw in with NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, Northwest Abortion Access Fund, Sunrise Movement, Black Lives Matter, or ROOTS Young Adult Shelter. Dedicate one afternoon every two weeks to working at a food bank. Check out one of the free daily readings at Elliott Bay Book Company or University Book Store, or join a writing group. Oh yeah, and read the newspaper! If you don't have a news routine by the time you leave college, you'll never get one.

Whatever you do, don't just pay your tuition and half-assedly participate in class. That's what a customer does. Being a student is a harder but ultimately much more rewarding role to fill. I wish you luck, and also many long, tedious, enriching, hilarious conversations. And as much consensual sex as you want. And naps. And whole afternoons where you just listen to music at full volume when your roommates go out of town. And hangovers devoid of that crippling psychological component.


Practice being wrong and try to enjoy it.

In his now famous commencement speech, David Foster Wallace argued that a liberal arts education doesn't really "teach you how to think," as the saying goes, but rather it greatly expands the number of things you can choose to think about. This is a life-saving skill we all need to develop in order to break free from "a closed-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up."

To prevent self-incarceration, Wallace prescribed cultivating "attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day."

Support The Stranger

But that's the preventative medicine. The way you build that attention and awareness and discipline is by showing up to class and learning lessons every day. And that process involves being wrong, boldly, in public, a lot, and then talking about why you're wrong with people who are smarter and stupider than you.

The major benefit of college is going through that process over and over again in a relatively low-stakes environment. As a student you will be—or you should be—protected from the harsh criticism of the rest of the world, and you'll have time to figure out the right answers through the fraught process of reading, writing, and self-reflection. But after you graduate and enter the world? Well, then you're fair game.