A Year in Review

I was fortunate enough to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for my first year of college. I’ve learned a lot, both from the classroom and the experience of being here (maybe more so the latter). As finals season draws to a close, I wanted to reflect on 5 really key things I learned.

There is always someone (or a hundred people) ahead of you

At a university, you are surrounded by incredibly motivated, incredibly smart people. It’s awesome. If you’re driven by competition, this is the place to be. In music, I’ve always tried to abide by the principle that you should surround yourself with musicians who are better than you. I love to be the worst musician in the room, because even though it’s scary and intimidating, you grow at an exponentially higher rate being around people who are more skilled than you.

Fortunately and unfortunately, at a university like this, there are a lot of people like you, who are highly motivated. It can be disheartening when you work incredibly hard pursuing something, just to look to your right and left and see others with a really cool internship lined up, a business started, they’ve networked at a way faster pace than you, they’re writing much better music than you, and they’re doing it all while still cruising through school. It’s not easy to see and can really put you down. However, you can either see these people as competition and a reflection of your lack of success, or you can see them as a resource and a motivator. It is crucial to start seeing other people’s successes as resources and motivators.

They weren’t joking about studying

On my first day, during my first class, my professor was talking about the expectations and structure of the course. She said that for every hour we spend in class, expect to spend 3 hours outside of class. In a course where we met for 3 hours a week in person, spending 9 hours of my own time sounded a little bit absurd. But she wasn’t wrong, I definitely needed to spend those hours to get the grade I wanted.

In high school there were a lot of people who just cruised, got decent grades, and did not learn how to work. I think most high school students identify as cruisers — at least most of my friends did. It was always kind of a joke, because parents and teachers would always say that “this type of behavior won’t fly in 5th grade… In middle school… In high school… Your senior year…” I think a part of me expected the trend to continue, and that college would be cruise-able.

It was not.

Cruisers have to adapt really quickly in an environment where you’re being tested on difficult, fast-paced content, and exams are 80–100% of your grade. I’m sure some people still are still finding college relatively easy, but I also think that for a vast majority of cruisers, they hit a glass ceiling of what they were capable of.

Some people just aren’t smart

Some people’s glass ceiling is lower.

I’m sure this is an incredibly controversial opinion. Our culture really values hard work, and the idea that with hard work, an individual can accomplish whatever they want. It’s a very virtuous principle and it definitely holds some merit. Unfortunately, I’ve found that some people just aren’t smart enough for a prestigious university education, and that there is a reason that admissions boards are so picky. On the opposite side of the cruising spectrum, there are people who worked really hard throughout high school, who have these insane work ethics because they needed to have them. Now people like this have to face the same reality as the cruisers: College is harder.

I’ve met a lot of people who have had really hard times in introductory weed-out courses. People who, despite getting tutoring, studying hours and hours a day, and destroying their mental health in order to succeed, still end up nearly failing introductory courses. I also have met people who, in the same courses, study very minimally and get close to 100s on all the exams.

We’ve ingrained in people that hard work is the only determinate factor. Because of that, young people will keep bashing their heads against a wall until either they or the wall breaks. I think that this culture is something driving mental health crises at universities, and it’s something that gets overlooked in the conversation entirely.

There IS diversity of thought at universities

There’s another really common notion that universities carry with them a lack of thought diversity. A hyper-liberal, one-way thinking street. While I don’t think that’s entirely untrue, there’s something really special that happens when you put 30,000 people, all from different walks of life, cultures, and countries together. You meet people from South Africa, India, Europe, 1st generation students, 5th generation legacy students, people from Chicago, people from very rural North Carolina. People who are working 2 jobs and people here on full-ride merit scholarships. Because of that, everyone has different ideas and experiences. The diversity of thought and exchange of those ideas can’t be captured in a political poll, you have to live it.

Sure, the vast majority of students and faculty here are politically left-leaning, and that’s not a metric to blow off, but I also think that’s a pretty one-dimensional take on what diversity of thought really means, and how diversity of thought manifests on a college campus.

Being at a university does not mean you’re going to be learning

I hinted at this in my introduction, but most of the learning that I’ve done has taken place outside of the classroom. The value found in higher education has shifted away from knowledge gaining and towards accreditation, and so most of the learning I’ve done had to be done outside of classes. That’s not to say that classes can’t be a valuable tool for gaining knowledge, but the effort-to-useful-knowledge-gained from a lot of these courses is not impressive, especially given the price point of a university education. However, a degree seems to be so highly valued in the professional world that there has to be something driving the disconnect. One of two things immediately comes to mind.

  1. The professional world and it’s standards haven’t caught up to the change in tangible use of a college degree. This is definitely possible considering how slow the professional world is to adapt to certain trends. People and companies might still believe that a degree still means the same thing as it did in the past, when in reality, the skill set of your average college graduate has greatly decreased over the past century.
  2. The other possibility is that people do recognize the lack of knowledge gained from a university education, and instead interpret the degree as a certificate of an individual’s work ethic. A piece of paper saying “I can do hard work.”

I think it’s likely a combination of both of these factors, but it’s still disappointing to know that your effort-to-useful-knowledge-gained ratio is lackluster at best. Especially when the few useful courses only have so many seats.

I’ve found it incredibly beneficial to learn skills through outside sources. You have to take advantage of the resources around you, and you can learn just as much with the free 500 hours of YouTube content uploaded every minute as you can in a $3000 course.

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Justin DeLoach

Justin DeLoach

Student at UNC Chapel Hill. I write (mostly) about the market. Email me @justin.deloach@live.com