By: Yoni Mayer  | 

Dear Freshmen …

Dear Freshmen,

College will fly by in a flash. The days are long but the years are fleeting. I still remember my first day. I was seated at a ping pong table and a couch and bed encircled me. I was barefoot; my feet dragged through a plush carpet. I had been home for a few months due to the pandemic and began Yeshiva University virtually from my playroom.

It was a rocky start. Instead of making new friends and experiencing New York City, I was stuck at home. In between classes, I would lie down in bed, walk around or listen to music. Understandably, I didn’t enjoy YU at first. To be fair, I don't think I would have liked any college considering the situation; with only a laptop for zoom class and my humdrum homework assignments, there wasn’t anything that differentiated my college from any others. I was enrolled in the virtual campus of Zoom University.

After one Zoom semester from across the country and another semester in Washington Heights, I began my normal YU experience (bi-weekly covid testing aside). In September of 2021, I was in NYC attending classes in person and taking part in whatever YU had to offer. I joined a sports team, signed up for a few clubs and even started some of my own. I felt like my college experience was truly underway.

There’s a lot that I’ve learned throughout my time here. Of course, there’s the information that I gained from my classes. But that isn’t what I want to share with you. Who knows what major you’ll be in or if you’ll be interested in some obscure topic like Keynesian economics? I certainly learned lessons about how to succeed in school, but more memorably, I gained lifelong lessons beyond the classroom. There really is a bit of truth to that Mark Twain quote that schooling interferes with your education, isn’t there? 

I know college can be viewed by some as a stepping stone to your dream job, but for others, it is a span of time in which your passions and interests are formed and explored. So, I’d like to share 5 lessons that straddled that line for me; lessons that are applicable to both establishing your credentials for the recruiting process and for life as a whole. 

First and foremost, be genuine. This is perhaps the lesson most apropos to your time in college and the one that will shape the rest of your life the most. College is the time when you lay the foundation for the rest of your life. It is the place where you take the classes that interest you, form the social bonds with lifelong friends and have the experiences which you reminisce fondly on for years to come. Don’t live someone else’s idea of what the perfect college experience looks like. If there is a class you want to take because it’s something you are genuinely interested in, take it! If there’s an experience you want to have in New York City, get out there and do it. You don’t need to ask your friends if it’s the right thing to do or if it's something someone with “your background” would do. Get out there and do it! Wear your passions on your sleeve. Block out the noise of conformity and do what pleases you. Only by pursuing your passions will you find happiness in your time in college. “Okay,” you might be saying to yourself, “but what about the job? I need to prepare for my career and take the classes that will set me up for that best.” I agree! But that shouldn’t come at the expense of pursuing other interests you have. You can be a pre-med student and still read the books you want or pursue personal interests. Oh, and if you’re still concerned about the job and spending substantial time on anything that doesn’t prepare you for it, recruiters love nothing more than a student who’s passionate about something besides their required classes. Even beyond academics, you’ll want to have something to talk about that genuinely represents you. Being authentically you is the north star that will guide you through choosing your classes, social circles and career. 

Extracurriculars matter more: Extracurriculars are most important for two reasons. First, this is where you experience hands-on learning. You are able to practically apply the knowledge you've learned in your classes. In line with the first lesson, clubs are the time that you get to explore your passions outside of the classroom and form bonds with people outside of your degree. Second, extracurricular activities are how you will remember your time in college. Doing something with your time in college other than your classes shows a dedication to expanding your knowledge and demonstrating the traits of a worldly person. 

Who you know, not what you know: This is one of those truths of life and the earlier you grasp it, the smoother your time in college and in life will be. Relationships with people are supremely more important than the knowledge at your disposal. Of course you have to be qualified for a job or to be the head of a club. However, friends and connections are the most important asset you will ever have. I don’t mean this in just a professional sense; I mean this in a social and educational sense as well. Personal relationships with professors, friends and professionals are valuable sources of often untapped information and guidance. You learn about professionals' hands-on experience in the workplace. Your professors share lessons with you beyond the syllabus and allotted classroom time. Your friends support you in the initiatives you take on. It takes a village to accomplish most things and the more people you are connected with, the greater bank of wisdom and talent you have to work with.

Comparison Will Be Your Worst Enemy: As you join clubs, get summer internships and ultimately land a job, you will undoubtedly compare yourself to other classmates. You’ll rank your job against theirs, their achievements against yours and their future against yours. But the simple truth is: They’re not you. You will have your fair share of successes and setbacks. Everyone does. Instead, focus on improving yourself. Work hard in everything that you do not because you want to be better than the person next to you but because you want to be a better version of yourself. It is only through our own narrow lens of self-improvement that we can truly notice our progress. Otherwise, you will always end up finding someone who’s better than you. This leads to nothing but despair. Focus on your development and success will find you. As your world expands with classes and professors, world history and philosophy your mind will grasp the great breadth of the world. You’ll realize how much is out there and how much competition there is. It will intimidate you. And that is when you must focus on the personal more than anything: your own character, family and friends. These are the parts of the world we can impact and the ones most receptive to our change. 

Learn from Everything: This is the lesson I hope has most come across in this letter. I learned the most in college outside the classroom by noticing what my teachers practiced, how my friends acted and how people I viewed as mentors interacted with others. College is a fundamental time for our own development as well-rounded human beings. The flawed idea, however, is that all this knowledge comes from the classroom. Learn from everything — every person, every class, every book, every movie, every encounter. Learn something from it and use it to shape yourself into a better person. 

It is with fondness for my time in college that I write these words for my final article. My surroundings have changed entirely since those days of zoom university. I’m now in the 3rd apartment I’ve moved to. Littered across my room are mementos from my time here. A tennis ball keychain from the time I went to the US Open. Ticket stubs from the YU Broadway club trip to the theater. Movie posters under my bed from that college phase of plastering my walls with favorite movies. Picnic blankets tucked away in the closet from the time I ran a weekly outdoors club. And too many more to count. I’m surrounded by memories of all that I did with my time here and grew to love. I’m a far way away from the carpet of my playroom.

So, dear freshman, I hope you take these lessons to heart. Your college days might be spent in a city or on a campus. You may attend a Jewish college or a non-sectarian college. You may even attend an Ivy League college. But these differences are trivial. The lessons I’ve learned are ones that can be imparted by any college and will extend far past your undergraduate years. I share these lessons as a precursor to your time in college to prompt you to think critically about what you wish to achieve, but it is up to you to determine how you will best be able to do that. College will fly by in a flash; hopefully this gives you a bit of a head start.