The Importance of Showing Up: College Edition

I spent this weekend talking over email and in person with students who (for very valid life-issue reasons) have completed – or want to complete – a flexible-time, low-cost, online-only path to breaking into a new career in tech.

Bluntly: Unless your last name is Gates or Zuckerberg, that’s not going to work. Experience as both a student and teacher has shown me two reasons why in-person classes are so vitally important: 

  • Social skills and networking. Most students do not realize what a precious gift these are at the college level. You’ll learn a tremendous amount by simply talking with classmates and staff in passing, developing relationships, and supporting each other. Doors will open that you never knew existed.
  • Time discipline! Very very few students can function at the level needed without the built-in structure forcing you to set aside FOCUSED time blocks for the commute and the class and group meetings. Logging in at home is simply not a sufficient substitute. You won’t absorb enough. You won’t keep up.

Social interactions and time discipline help you shape your competitive advantage. What will set you apart from the 100, 500, 1,000 resumes that flood in for one open position? Will it be that you showed competency (still important) or that you excelled in some fashion (what employers really want to see)? What’s your “special sauce”? Does an acquaintance who already works for the employer (maybe alumni, or a former colleague on a group project, or someone who worked with you in a club) have a reason to believe in your potential? Do you have external references whom the employer will trust and know by name, and who have recently spent time working with you? Did you prove your persistence and drive by achieving something not everyone can do, such as complete an accredited college degree with a 3.5 GPA or higher? Do you walk into an interview with the confidence that comes from setting such a difficult goal and achieving it?

Teachers can only help so much

I try to make it easy for students to work around life issues – maybe their car breaks down, or they are sick and don’t want to infect anyone, or a sibling is getting married in a foreign country. For these students, I offer makeups for in-class activities, and I post audio and video recordings of my lectures, so that they can watch while sniffling in bed or listen to my voice on commutes.

But I have also learned that students who enroll and never show up are, essentially, planning to fail — in the course, and afterward. It’s not only because they miss so many in-class points, such as presentations and exams. It’s really not that no one knows them, because colleges build in enough online interaction through our learning management software, Discord, Slack, and email communications to make others aware of their presence. No, these students have demonstrated to others that they do not show up, and they do not keep up. No one trusts them. No one wants to pick them for a group project. No one has a reason to go out of their way to help them. They have no peer to explain an assignment to them, or to help them study, or commiserate over a difficult concept. There’s no one to go to the trouble of Zooming them into a group discussion. Definitely, there’s no one reminding them that TOMORROW is the midterm or final, when 20% or more of their grade is up for grabs.

Hat tip to Marc Allan for the image suggestion!

Make a conscious effort to show up

Plan to succeed. Car-pool to campus. Arrange a babysitter. Talk with your boss about time off for attending class. Switch work shifts. Go to the club meetings. Go the extra mile in group projects. Don’t overload yourself – take only 1-2 classes per semester if you work full-time. Take out that loan – it’s an investment in yourself and relieves your money worries. Cancel streaming. Study on Saturdays. Cut back on drinking and drugs. Save as much as you can in a 529, 401(k), IRA, or other tax-advantaged account for the day when you can attend college full-time.

Your future self will thank you.