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Four keys of the code for college success

Like a good Buzzfeed list, here are four keys to college success

(Editor's note: Below is a slightly abridged version of the talk that was given in mid-August by Ignacio Montoya, assistant professor of English, to the students of Liberal ArtsFIT, during the preparatory week on campus for freshman students known as "NevadaFIT.")

Welcome to the beginning of another school year! I've now experienced many school year beginnings, in many different settings: as an elementary school student in rural New Mexico, a college student at Harvard, a middle school teacher in Los Angeles, a college instructor in New York City, and so on. Through these experiences, I've come to discover how important knowledge of ‘the code' can be for student success. By ‘the code', I mean the skills and habits beyond the basics - of showing up to class, completing your assignments, studying for tests, etc. - that give you an extra boost, that make it that much easier to be successful. Like a good Buzzfeed list, I will share with you the 4 Secret Keys of the Code for College Success - the third one will blow your mind!

Key #1: Build relationships. You should certainly build relationships with your peers, but you probably already know how important having good friends is. What you may not have thought of is that building relationships with professors can open up possibilities you were never even aware of. For example, I met a student last spring who was interested in my work on endangered language revitalization. After some conversations about her interests and goals, we decided she should apply to a research award that she then received to go to New Zealand to conduct research on their language programs. Obviously, not all of your interactions with professors will lead to a research trip to New Zealand, but you'll never know what opportunities will open up through connections with professors.

Key #2: Ask questions, of everyone. To begin with, go to office hours! What better way to master difficult material? Going to office hours means you get individualized support from the person who knows the course best.

Ask questions during office hours and during class, ask questions of your peers, and ask questions of administrators. Didn't understand a term a professor introduced? Raise your hand and ask. Not sure what you to major in? Ask an academic adviser. Wondering about available scholarships? Talk to the financial aid office. If you don't like to ask questions because you're afraid of looking dumb or because you don't want to bother people - I've been there, and I completely understand. However, over the years, I've come to see that, in fact, asking questions means you're actively engaged with your learning.

Key #3: Ask for what you want, but be prepared not to get it. If you did poorly on a paper and want another opportunity, ask about a rewrite. If you have something you're excited about researching, see if you can choose it as your term paper topic. If you want some real-life research experience, ask to be a research assistant. Now, as you do this, don't forget the second part of Key #3 - ask for what you want, but be prepared not to get it. You are not inherently entitled to a rewrite, or to pick your own topic, or to be someone's research assistant. However, you should feel free to voice a need, a desire, or even simply a preference. It won't always work out the way you want it to, but you'll be surprised by how effective asking for what you want can be.

A few words of caution: Be aware that you're dealing with other human beings with their own preferences and needs, so be polite in your emails, don't be demanding, and remember that professors have our own challenges and stresses, and lives outside of the university.

Key #4: Envision your success (with the help of those who went before you). Picture yourself walking across the stage at graduation. Ask yourself: What do you want to accomplish by then? What do you need to accomplish that? Now, if that sounds like you can't really know that at this point, don't worry - you don't need to have it all figured out now. And, actually, I don't believe you can really figure it all out on your own. No one else can know exactly what your path should be, but there are many people who have taken similar paths who you can ask to be your guides.

I say this as someone who didn't exactly do this as a college student. Though I am now a professor of linguistics - essentially what I wanted to do when I started college - my path here was very convoluted. My first semester I took a linguistics class and totally fell in love with it. I then took another linguistics class, and... I really didn't like it. Now, the wise thing for me to have done would have been to talk to a professor or academic adviser. However, I had the idea that this was something I should figure out on my own. I decided not to major in linguistics and only after many, many years did I make it back to linguistics. Though I'm happy with how my life has gone, I often wonder: How different would my life have been if I had gone to someone and said, "Hey, I see myself becoming a linguist, but I didn't like this class I took. What do you think?"

Let me end with some tips to get you started: Go to office hours. Ask professors about their work and about their fields. Talk about something they said that you found intriguing, or inspiring, or that you disagree with. Talk about yourself - let them know what your goals and interests and concerns are. Find something non-academic to connect on. I had a student last year who knew that I earned my PhD in New York City. He came to office hours to ask what it was like to live there. Whenever I now see him on campus, we have a quick little chat about what's going on with him. And, you can bet that if I ever hear of an opportunity in New York City, he's the first person I'll think of.

There you have it - the 4 Secret Keys of the Code for College Success. To have become a college student, you must already have demonstrated an aptitude for learning, an effective work ethic, and solid study skills. These will all continue to be very necessary, but recognize how much stronger you can be with mentors by your side along this journey. There are lots of people around you invested in your success - reach out to them.

Ignacio Montoya working at a computer

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