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There was a time when a college dean or faculty member greeted new students at orientation with a talk that included these not-very-encouraging words: “Look to your left, look to your right; two of you won’t be here next year.”

Today, every college and university is committed to graduating as many of its students as possible. Despite these efforts, nearly one-third of new students entering college this fall will not return for a second year. Forty percent will never earn a degree.

For nearly 30 years, I was the dean who welcomed new students at orientation. My goal was to encourage and challenge them to begin their collegiate journeys with attitudes and strategies that made persistence and graduation more likely.

Following is some of what I said.

• Take responsibility.

Unlike high schools, colleges cannot share any information about a student with anyone without the student’s permission. Yes, this means even parents cannot receive report cards or any other notices when you are not performing satisfactorily.

After the wild cheering quieted down, I added, “You’ll discover many professors don’t take attendance. No one will leave a recorded message for your folks when you miss class. Not going to class is your personal choice. For us, it’s one less test to correct, one less paper to grade. We already have your money!”

However, do the math. Consider how much each class costs you. You should include not only the annual tuition, room, board, and books you are paying for, but also the forgone earnings — money you’re not making because you are in college.

My students recalled my burning up a $100 bill (actually a facsimile thereof) as I continued, “Every time you decide to sleep in and miss class, that’s a hundred bucks.”

More importantly than wasted dollars, however, you miss out on what you are there for: opportunities to increase your knowledge about the worlds in which you will live your life and to acquire the skills needed to thrive in such worlds.

As an emerging adult, it is now your responsibility to make choices about your future. We will support you in that process, but ultimately the decisions are yours to make.

• Manage your time.

Time management continues to be the most challenging task for new students. Unlike high school, you’ll only be in class 12 to 15 hours a week. No more parents looking over your shoulders making sure assignments are completed. No more reminders, “Tonight’s a school night.”

Rare is the student who says, “Hey, I’ll have more time to study!” Unfortunately, a more common response is, “I get to sleep in, watch more daytime TV, and hang out with friends!”

I encourage you to follow your high school schedule — either being in class or studying between the hours of 8 and 4. Doing this will put you on track for a successful first year — both academically and socially. Residence halls are usually quiet between those hours, as is the library, and there also are few parties to be missed.

Planning and following a managed time schedule is one key to a successful life. As a wise person once observed, “The secret of success is to make a list every day of things you must do — then do them.”

• Accept criticism and overcome failure.

A while back, professors were asked what student characteristics are essential to success. In addition to academic skills and knowledge, they identified the ability to accept criticism and deal with failure.

Willingness to receive criticism of your work without perceiving it as a personal attack on your integrity, intelligence or creativity is crucial. Do not merely accept constructive criticism. Demand it. Use criticism to get better, not bitter.

Failure is also an important part of learning. There may be times when you will fail an assignment, or even a course.

Does that mean you are a failure? Obviously not. All human beings fail; however, falling down is not failure, so long as you keep getting back up, ever more determined to achieve your goals. It’s not how far you fall, it’s how high you bounce.

Finally, we want you to be successful, and there are many people and resources available to help you succeed. Have the courage to reach out for help when you need it. A journey is much easier when you don’t have to travel alone.

Best wishes for a great first year and see you all on graduation day!

(Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to


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