Making the Most of College

What’s Your End-Game? Making the Most of College

Dr. Rick Ostrander
Cornerstone University Provost
September 2011

What’s the purpose of college for Christians? First, we go to college to learn to make something of the world. God made us in his image so that we can enjoy his wonderful creation and make something of it. That’s why Genesis begins in a garden, but Revelation ends in a city – because along the way we humans are wired to develop God’s world in creative and interesting ways. You don’t have to tell a kid at the beach to go make a sand castle; it comes naturally to him. College helps us develop this God-given capacity to the fullest. Any child can make a sand castle; it takes a college education to design a functional and beautiful skyscraper.

Second, college prepares us to make a difference in the world. Despite the beauty of God’s original creation, humans have basically made a mess of the world. As Christians, therefore, God gives us the privilege of helping him to fix the mess and restore his creation to the way it was meant to be. College equips us to do that in every corner of creation from education to business to journalism to music.

But you’re already here at college, so hopefully I don’t have to convince you of the value of a Christian college. What I want to focus on this morning is the next logical question: How do you make the most of college once you’re here? Here’s an astounding statistic: 60%. That’s how many people who begin college actually complete a degree within six years. In other words, 40% of Americans who start college never finish. Even at Christian colleges like Cornerstone, the graduation rate is usually not over 65%. If a college education is so valuable, why is it that so many students drop out along the way?

To answer that question, let me begin with an analogy from the world of cycling. There are two basic kinds of bikers. There are the weekend warriors like these people who simply want to get some exercise once in a while. You’re more likely to see these people out on the roads when the weather is nice. When it’s cold or wet, they’re more likely to stay inside and do Wii cycling (if there is such a thing), or maybe lie on the couch and watch videos of people riding bikes. On the other hand, there’s the cyclist who actually trains and prepares for a race. Here’s the most extreme example – a rider in the Tour de France like Alberto Contador. Unlike the weekend warrior, the bike racer has a specific end-game, a long-range goal that he is preparing for. For Contador, that goal is to win the Tour de France. Since the Tour starts at the beginning of July, cyclists like Contador begin with that end-goal in mind and work backwards from there. From the previous December on, everything that Contador does – not just on the bike but his eating habits, his sleeping, his weight training – is governed by one question: What does he have to do to be in peak condition on July 1? In other words, there’s a purpose and focus to Contador’s biking. If he’s scheduled to do an 80 mile ride in January as part of his training schedule, then it’s irrelevant to him whether it’s snowing outside or he doesn’t feel like riding. His focus on being prepared for July 1 dictates his behavior for the entire preceding year.

College is similar. For some people – the weekend warrior types – college is kind of a phase of life that happens for a few years and then goes away. If all goes well you graduate, or if things get too difficult you fall by the wayside. I would suggest that college is too important – and too expensive – to simply let it happen to you. The most successful college student takes the bike racer’s approach and begins with the question: What’s my end-game? What do I want to get for my four years and $100,000? In other words, “How do I want to be different when I walk across the graduation platform in May 2014?”

Ultimately every student has to answer that question for him or herself, but at Cornerstone University we express our goal for each graduate in this way: Our aim is to produce students with the passion and the ability to effectively engage the cultures of our world for Christ and His Kingdom. That means that you develop qualities such as spiritual maturity, critical thinking, professional competence, cross-cultural experience, and creativity. All of your specific courses and experiences are intended to help produce these outcomes. But ultimately, for this to be successful requires that you take ownership of your education and, like a professional athlete, approach your college education with the end-game in mind.

So what does that look like in real life? How would being goal-focused affect your approach to college? Here are four implications: First, preparation for May 2014 begins now. In bike racing, cramming doesn’t work. It takes years of training and thousands of miles on the bike for the body to achieve the physical condition needed to compete in the Tour. If Alberto Contador decides in June that he’s going to start preparing for the Tour, it’s too late. His body will be in nowhere near the condition needed to ride 3,000 miles in three weeks, let alone win the race. In fact, in cycling where everyone wears spandex, it’s pretty easy to tell who has been training all winter and who has been living on pizza and beer.

It’s the same in college. The skills and tools that you’ll need to impact the world for Christ when you graduate don’t happen overnight. They are the product of steady, consistent, and diligent preparation over the long haul. You need to start thinking now about how you will budget your time for coursework, developing relationships, engaging in extra-curricular activities, and taking care of your body. Concerning your classes, let me suggest a good rule of thumb that’s been the traditional standard (and what your professors will expect from you): you should plan to spend two hours outside of class preparing for each hour in class. And let me remind you of what all the recent neuroscience reveals: Your brain is part of your physical body; it needs rest and nutrition and cannot subsist on Lucky Charms, chocolate milk, and three hours of Halo every night. College is a lot of fun, but it’s also a demanding time of training to develop the skills and insights that will equip you to make a difference in the world. Start that preparation now.

Second, having an end-goal gets you through the difficult times. Anyone who’s trained for a race knows that there are times when you don’t feel like working out. Some mornings are cold and wet and your body is tired and the last thing you want to do is go out and bike 50 miles. Those are the times when the weekend warrior rolls over in bed and hits the snooze button while the bike racer suits up for a ride. The difference is that the racer sees the particular training ride as simply one step toward the overall goal of being ready on the race day. The result is perseverance through the tough times.

College also has its share of cold rainy mornings. For some of you it might look something like this. Or an English professor who keeps returning your paper for revisions until it’s flawless. Or a difficult relationship with a roommate that you can’t seem to work out. Or the difficulty of balancing a part-time job with 16 hours of pre-med coursework. Or a campus leadership position that seems beyond your abilities. These are the kinds of situations that explain why 40% of students don’t make it to graduation day. And they are the times when keeping the big question in mind – what do I want to be like in May 2014 – can give you the motivation to persevere. It’s not about the C- in Chemistry, or the difficult roommate; those are just steps toward the end-game of becoming a mature, educated Christian ready to serve God in a confusing, complicated world.

Third, serious, goal-driven training requires a guide. Everyone remembers Lance Armstrong for his seven victories in the Tour de France. Most people, however, don’t know about the brains behind the victories – a fitness coach named Chris Carmichael. During the years Lance was winning bike races, Christ Carmichael was monitoring and prescribing every calorie that Lance consumed and every mile that he rode. Lance came to trust Carmichael completely. If Chris prescribed a diet of wheat germ and raw eggs, that’s what Lance ate. If Chris said that Lance should get up at 6:00 a.m. and ride a hundred miles one day, then sleep in until noon the next day, Lance trusted Chris’s wisdom and followed his instructions. He knew that Carmichael had the end-goal in mind and knew how to get there.

Getting the most out of college also requires a guide. We call them professors, resident directors, and student development staff. And while sometimes it might seem that their purpose is simply to torment you, their real purpose is to prepare you for what you’ll be like in May 2014. Their instructions may not always make sense at the time; sometimes they might even challenge what you came to college believing. But give them a chance anyway. That doesn’t mean that your professors are always right, or that you should believe everything they say. That would be indoctrination, not education. But I would suggest that you give them the benefit of the doubt and submit to their regimen. They’ve been through the process themselves and know what it takes to make it through successfully.

Education involves being willing to step outside of your comfort zone and maybe even un-learning some of the things you have been taught. (That’s the point of the crossword puzzles in my book.) But the overall purpose is to make you stronger in your faith – it just may require a roundabout way to get there sometimes. So be open to new ideas and to the training regimen that your guides prescribe, even if they might be uncomfortable at times.

Finally, serious, goal-oriented training requires focus and attention. Certain types of low-intensity training allow you to focus on something else while your body works out. That’s what you do when you work out at the local health club with a dozen TV monitors blaring at you. What’s interesting, though, is that you don’t see professional athletes doing much of this kind of training. The sort of intense training that prepares you to race in the Tour de France requires complete focus and attention. It’s not the sort of thing you just can do in the background while watching Oprah. You can’t text a friend when you’re biking up a mountain road with your heart rate at 180.

The same is true with college, and this is one of the biggest challenges that college students face today. Technology has provided us with tremendous new tools for learning. I used to teach the Renaissance by showing photos of paintings on slide projector. Now I can take students for a virtual tour of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. But technology has also provided us with so many means of communication and entertainment that it becomes difficult for us to focus on one particular topic or task with any real depth or intensity. We call it “multi-tasking,” but it’s really just “task-shifting” as we quickly switch from conversation or source of information to another. This undermines significant learning and the forming of deep relationships that are so essential to a college education.

So my advice is not to get rid of technology but simply this: Don’t dissipate yourself; be in one place at one time. God gave each of us one body, soul, and mind, and we learn best when all three are in sync and focused on the task at hand. Approaching education with the end-goal in mind means that you use each day strategically and focus your attention on one task at a time. When you’re Facebooking focus on Facebook. When you’re in class, be completely in class – not partially in class and partially in Youtube. When you’re in a small group in your dorm, be fully present there and save the cell phone for later. Multi-tasking doesn’t work for serious athletes, and it doesn’t produce significant intellectual or spiritual growth either. Getting the most from college requires focus and intentionality on the task at hand.

As provost, I get the privilege of announcing the names of the graduates when they come up to receive their diplomas at graduation. So my question is, when you sit in this same building four years from now in your cap and gown, how do you want to be different than you are today? And how will you get there? I would encourage you to keep in mind four things: Start preparing now; focus on the long-range goal to get you through the tough times; trust your guides; and be fully focused on the task at hand. And I’ll try to get your name right when you walk across the stage.