We all know it’s the professor that makes or breaks a class. A lousy teacher in middle school may have made you hate math for the rest of your life. An amazing teacher in high school may have inspired you to seriously pursue a career in journalism. You’ve seen first-hand that teachers have a huge impact on what we learn, how we learn, and how we feel about it all at the end of the day. It’s the same way in college, of course; but there, teachers have an even bigger impact on us, because this is the time when we grow the most as individuals and start figuring out what we’re going to do with the rest of our lives.
The reality is, high school students are often pretty passive in arranging their academic schedules, since high schools rarely offer students the option to explore a wide variety subjects or delve into certain subject concentrations; there’s a set curriculum, and students simply follow it. You high school grads now have the opportunity to place yourselves with the right people in the right circumstances by thoughtfully choosing your first semester of freshman classes… and professors.
There’s This Little Thing Called Networking
Keep in mind that college is not just about learning – it’s also about networking. You have to be a go-getter if you want to get a good job straight out of college, and you can start becoming a go-getter by fostering student-teacher relationships with the right professors, the ones that will get you to places on your career path that you can’t always get to on your own. We’re talking letters of recommendation (to accompany future resumes for future internship/job interviews), introductions to well-connected people in your field of study, research opportunities, job openings, and plain old career advice. And that starts with the first batch of classes you pick for yourself during freshman pre-registration in your last summer before college begins.
Finally, in college, you have the power to choose the classes you’re actually interested in. Mortal Combat in the Ancient World? Japanese theater? Sculpture? Astrophysics? You name it. But choosing your professors is equally, if not more, important. Some pre-frosh tend to choose the classes that sound the most interesting, purely out of instinct, without realizing that they’ve chosen an incredibly difficult teacher or a downright terrible one that may affect their performance in the class.
The Power of the Teacher
I saw my roommate Trisha Arora, now a rising sophomore at Wesleyan University, struggle through Economics last semester on account of a difficult professor. “He was just such an eccentric teacher. At first, I enjoyed his strangeness. But then I realized, he doesn’t teach what he tests. I was understanding what was happening in class, but I didn’t understand what he would ask on tests… He was one of those professors. It sucked.” Her Labor Economics class heavily influenced her decision to drop the economics major altogether – it’s always a scary time when you think you’re not cut out for the subject you previously believed you were destined for – because the teacher majorly turned her off to the subject. She had several other options for economics classes, but she risked taking a higher-level class with a bad teacher (she saw it coming from what she’d heard and read about the teacher from her peers and online reviews) to get ahead of the typical economics major timeline. From what I had seen as her roommate, Trisha is amazing at economics, but it goes to show that a bad teacher can completely kill your vibe.
The best teachers, on the other hand, can make you fall in love with a subject you used to hate, or one you never realized existed. Arranging your academic schedule based on choosing the best teachers (rather than the best classes) encourages you to explore different subjects, which is such an important experience as a freshman. I never liked history in high school, but I enrolled in a History of the Atlantic class for my first semester of college to fulfill a General Education requirement, and the professor got me obsessed with Native American land deeds (Yeah, super obscure topic. Probably won’t amount to any more than table talk when I’m 30 years old throwing a dinner party…). I’ll never major in history, but that class was still a great experience that helped me improve my presentation and analytical skills (plus reading-heavy courses are often great preparation for the GRE). Exploring new subjects under the tutelage of great professors was an integral part of my academic experience as a freshman.
When you finally decide on your major, though, and start working more closely with your teachers, that’s when you’ll start to see really how much your professors can do for you and your career. Last year transfer student Eloy Salinas left Santa Rosa Junior College to attend the UC Santa Cruz to major in Robotics Engineering and minor in Astrophysics. Engineering is an incredibly tough field for any student, let alone a first-generation student like Eloy. You have to love it. In his words, “If it’s not your hobby, you can’t hang.” He admitted that “the engineering classes [at UCSC] are pretty tough, but so far all my teachers have been great.”
Eloy talked about the Mechatronics class he took in his second quarter and how the professor quickly became his favorite teacher, despite the difficulty of the course. For their final project, the class split into random groups to build autonomous robots that shot ping pong balls at the ‘enemy’ (it was Star-Trek-themed,) and dodged obstacles across a maze-like field. Eloy’s group had a hard time when one of the group members slacked off, but Eloy shared with us how helpful it was when his professor “would stay with his students in the 24-hour lab room, sometimes until 3am, to help us with our projects.” This professor is now Eloy’s major advisor, and Eloy is excited to see how his career in robotics will develop with help from his new mentor.
Fostering productive student-teacher relationships is a crucial part of advancing your career in college. New students should thoroughly research their professors, check out a professor’s bio (look at his/her interests, concentrations, past education, publications, current research), look up a professor’s ratings (try Rate My Professor, and always take rating sites like this with a grain of salt), or email the professor before school starts to discuss the class and anything else academic that you have in common. Your college professors are here to mentor you through the best years of your life. Choose your mentors thoughtfully.