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One-on-One with Higher Ed Experts: Jim Terhune, Student Life

We asked Jim Terhune, V.P. for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, for his take on everything from the biggest surprises about college life to top do's and don'ts to the best place to grab a bite.

Ever wish you could get the college facts straight from the source—those higher ed MVPs like deans of admission, directors of financial aid, and executive coaches? Well, we’re bringing you the next best thing: a one-on-one chat with the people at the top! So keep reading for an expert take on the ins and outs of admission, college life, and campus survival.

This conversation concerns student life. We asked Jim Terhune, V.P. for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, for his take on everything from the biggest surprises about college life to top do’s and don’ts to the best place to grab a bite. Keep reading for his insider college advice!

And if you have more questions you’d like to see answered by the experts, just check out our Ask the Experts section and send us your suggestions!

Student life insights

How does “real” college life differ from the movies?

I guess to a certain degree the answer depends on what movies you are talking about. College life--at least for most people--is not one wild party frequented exclusively by movies stars who want to be your best friend. And, though I am surely biased on this point, the faculty and deans are not one-dimensional villains driven by an uncontrollable desire to make students’ lives miserable.

To the contrary, we’re teachers who want for you to succeed and to help you get the most out of your college experience. By and large, as is true of most things, “real” college life is a lot more ordinary and complex than the way college life is portrayed in the movies. By ordinary I mean that there is no magical or mystical transformation that occurs when you step onto a college campus as a student. At first there is a lot about being at college--particularly if being at college for you includes living on your own away from home--that is new and different. The academic expectations are different. The relationships with faculty are different. And figuring out how to balance life and work and family and friends takes some time. But you work it out and very quickly your life at college starts to feel very normal and natural.

How can students find extracurricular organizations that fit them?

There is no “one size fits all” answer when it comes to what activities will prove most valuable to students. Each student needs to figure that out on his or her own. I encourage students to get involved in one or two activities that have particular meaning for them and give enough time to them to get an accurate sense of whether or not they will ultimately prove to be a good fit. In the end, for most students it is less about the activity of focus of the group/organization that is most important--it is about the people who are involved in it and finding a group where the other students involved share your interests and values.

What might students find surprising about campus life?

I think the most surprising aspect about life on campus for new students is how much time they have, and how hard it is to manage their time well. College students, even those with the most demanding schedules, spend way less time in formal class/lab settings than they did in secondary school. It is easy for students to think of their schedule exclusively in terms of when they have class and maybe athletic practice or music/theatrical rehearsal. They believe they have a lot of time to get work done and socialize, etc.

We encourage students to include time for sleeping, meals, activities, socializing, and most importantly studying out of class in constructing their daily and weekly schedules. Students who look at their schedules in a holistic way actually find they have much more “free” time than those who are less organized. The important thing is to see their lives in a comprehensive way rather than as chopped up component parts.

What are your top “do’s and don’ts” for soon-to-be college freshmen?

  • Do: Read everything that your college sends you and be sure to complete tasks on time (e.g., submit housing forms, register for courses, etc.).
  • Don’t: Let your parents/families choose your courses or look over your shoulder when completing these forms.
  • Do: Spend time thinking about why you are going to college and what you want to take away from your college experience. It is easy to get caught up in doing things because others around you are doing them, even if they don’t match up with what you want. Be open to new ideas and directions, but have some ideas about what you are hoping to achieve in college.
  • Don’t: Try to plan out every detail of all four years before you even start. Some of the best things that will happen to you will be things that you cannot anticipate right now. Most of them are not accidents. Rather they are the result of absorbing the experience and moving forward in a thoughtful way.
  • Do: Continue to work hard in all of your classes during your last months in secondary school. The best predictor for struggling academically in college is coasting and letting grades slide at the end of secondary school. Really! We see it all the time. The academic expectations are going to be far greater in college and the worst thing you can do is get into bad study habits just before you start.
  • Don’t: Give into the notion of the senior slump.
  • Do: Talk with your family about how often you want to communicate with them while you’re at college. Between calling and e-mailing and texting, it is really easy now to be in constant contact with people at home. But a big part of college is about living and managing your life on your own, and that requires establishing new norms with respect to communicating with your family.
  • Don’t: Go for six weeks without calling, e-mailing, or texting your family. It is good to strive to become a more independent and self-reliant person. But that doesn’t mean going into the witness protection program. The right amount of communication differs for people given their own unique circumstances. Talking on the phone once or twice a week is probably average. Talking on the phone once or twice a day is too much.

What challenges do you find college students typically face?

I’ve mentioned a couple already. Time management is a big one. Likewise, figuring out how to manage academic expectations is a challenge for just about every student in one way or another. On the personal/social side, I think the most common challenge has to do with finding a group of friends who share one’s interests and values. In most cases, at the end of secondary school students have made friendships and established social groups that have evolved over several years wherein the members know each other in a variety of ways that give a sense of comfort and belonging.

Students starting college are dropped into a new living and social setting and have to make their way with very little information. As a result it is common for new students to find themselves in friend groups and social settings that aren’t necessarily a great match for them personally early on in their college careers. But, when students have a sense of what they want from college and are deliberate about reflecting on their experience, they are able to adjust as they go.

So, again, the important thing is to be open to new things and understand that the choices you make will ultimately shape your time at college. Finally, students need to remember that there are lots of people at your college who are there to help you.  Deans and counselors and advisors and coaches and peer mentors of many varieties exist precisely to help you succeed. Use them. They can be enormously helpful in negotiating the bumps in the road that you may encounter.

How can students best survive midterm and finals weeks?

This is the one where deans and faculty advisors sound like your parents: The best way to manage midterms and finals is to stay current in your academic work throughout the semester. Do the reading when it is assigned. Speak to the professor or teaching assistant if and when you encounter difficulty in a class. Start working on papers and labs and other graded assignments well ahead of time and make sure you hand them in when they are due. And when it comes time to actually take midterms and finals, study hard but avoid cramming and all-nighters. It is far better to get plenty of sleep, eat well, and carve out time for exercise in ways that are more or less consistent with the rest of the term than it is to try to adopt some frantic exam schedule where you are sleep deprived, hopped up on caffeine and cold pizza, and glued to a study carrel in the library.

Having said all that, I know that many of you are going to have to figure all this out for yourselves and that being told to eat your vegetables by some dean is more likely to elicit eye rolls than gratitude. This is one of those hard and immutable truths that we all have to come to accept eventually: when it comes to doing your homework, getting plenty of sleep, and eating well, your mother was right. Deal with it.

College insider scoop

What's the best way to spend a weekend on Colby’s campus?

I think the great thing about Colby is that there truly is something for everyone when it comes to the best way to spend a weekend on campus. If your thing is the outdoors, there are miles of walking/hiking/running/x-country skiing trails right on campus that can be enjoyed literally any time of year.

If you’re into sports you will always find crowds of enthusiastic Colby Mule supporters decked out in blue and gray cheering on their friends and classmates on the playing field. If you want theater and/or music there are always a wide range of concerts and recitals and dances to attend. And of course, there is just time and space to be with your friends or your books or your thoughts.

What is one can’t-miss event at Colby?

One can’t-miss Colby event is the annual Elijah Parish Lovejoy Convocation. Lovejoy, one of Colby’s first graduates, was a journalist and activist advocating for the abolition of slavery in the 1830s who was the first known martyr to the cause of free speech in the United States. In his honor, each year Colby recognizes a journalist who exhibits extraordinary courage in her/his work. In turn, the winner of the Lovejoy Award is invited to campus and delivers a speech to the campus community. It is a moment of great pride for the College and an opportunity to hear from some of the most remarkable journalists active in the world today for our students.

Where is your favorite place to eat on or around campus?

I swear I’m not just saying this but the food in the dining halls is really good, so that is where I like to eat on campus. But my favorite place is the Dairy Cone, which is just down the hill from campus--a 10-minute walk--and has the best ice cream in town. 

Looking for more insights from Mr. Terhune? Check out this interview concerning student drinking on campus—it’s an interesting perspective on that not-always-legal student pastime and how school officials perceive it. He’s so cool and straightforward about it, you’ll probably want to join him for a beverage yourself to talk about the subject some more.

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