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How to Excel at Elite Institutions: A Guide for Students of Color


Note: This post was co-authored by Ufuoma Abiola, a graduate student in the Higher Education program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Elite research institutions with myriad resources can be wonderful places to gain an education; they also can be daunting for a student unfamiliar with the surroundings. We offer the following strategies for student success. Although many of these recommendations apply to all students, they are specifically directed toward students of color.

With regard to academics and maintaining a high grade point average, students should visit faculty members during their office hours. Faculty members have these open periods for discussion for a reason—to help you better understand the course material. Take advantage of these opportunities. It is also important that you dedicate time to studying each day. Make appointments with yourself and do not cancel them. Be disciplined. Find a place to study that feels comfortable and is conducive to reading, thinking and writing. Create a daily routine similar to exercising or eating meals. Although you may be tempted, do not procrastinate. Studying when you originally planned will allow for time for other facets of the college experience. 

You also should take advantage of all the campus resources to assist with your academics. Most colleges have writing centers and tutoring labs. Do not be embarrassed about using these resources—you are at college to learn, and part of learning is admitting when you need more help. Likewise, meet with your academic adviser and ask for everything that you need. If you are not honest about your strengths and weaknesses, an adviser cannot properly help you.

When thinking about your major, consider the required coursework. If you are not interested in the majority of the classes, do not pursue the major. You need to pick a major that sparks your interests and passions. Once you decide, immerse yourself in your major. Pursue extra reading and participate in independent studies with faculty members. Get all that you can get out of your academic exploration and give as much as you can.

Moreover, you must be an advocate for yourself and build a support system around you. Identify mentors who can help you professionally and personally and do not be afraid to ask these individuals to serve as your mentor. Being a mentor is a great honor, and most people are willing to do it. You also may want to create a support system outside your college as well—among your family, friends and perhaps within your faith community. Sometimes, it is advantageous to talk to individuals who are detached from the institution to gain a fresh perspective.

Further, in order to learn more about careers affiliated with your major, set up informational meetings with individuals in your field. Ask your faculty members or academic adviser to help with these introductions. The more perspectives and information you can gather prior to graduating, the more competitive you will be on the job market, and the more informed you will be once you secure a job.

In addition to your academics, be a positive leader on campus. This will make you a well-rounded individual. Get involved in a variety of activities, including social organizations as well as student government. Spend time volunteering in the community surrounding your college—give back. You will be amazed at what you can learn from volunteering. This experience will bolster what is being taught in the classroom and often makes learning come alive.

In all that you do, be organized and have a plan. Keep your calendar up to date, check your e-mail often, and have goals. Begin with graduation and have year-to-year aspirations. Your goals may change; so be flexible, but have a guide nonetheless. Without goals it is nearly impossible to achieve success. Share your goals with your faculty mentors, your academic adviser, and your family and friends. Sharing goals makes you more likely to achieve them, as it holds you accountable.

You must engage in networking. Use all of your experiences to enhance your learning experience. Networking is most successful when you are active and busy—when you attend events and conferences. 

With a positive outlook, spurred by energy and enthusiasm, you can tackle the often daunting nature of most elite institutions. Make use of the resources and the connections that the institution has to offer to enhance your learning and meet your goals and remember along the way to share all that you have gained with the next generation of students of color.

A professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Marybeth Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).

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