Responding to an incoming freshman’s request for college advice, I reflected on the things I’ve read, the things I’ve heard, and the things I’ve experienced, and synthesized this piece. Whether the reader is in high school, college, or just graduated, my hope is that it will be useful in some small way, or provide some insight into life in general.
If my college years could be described by one word, it would be wandering. I’ve wandered much in academics: I majored in Electrical Engineering; minored in Computer Science; at some point considered a minor in History, Astronomy, Physics, French, and Mathematics; took classes in Chemistry, Dance, Art, and Music. I’ve wandered much in activities: I hit up the party scene a few times, joined Crew for a quarter, played badminton for a year, played table tennis for four years, played all kinds of intramural sports along the way, and joined a Christian fellowship two years ago.
Back then, I wasn’t sure why I moved around so much. I wanted to make my college years “colorful,” as my dad described it. I wanted richness of experience, spontaneity, and novelty, a chance to do things I’ve never done before. Yet at each stage, I felt unsatisfied. There was nothing I was really passionate about, nothing I could call exciting. Certainly, I was interested in many things, and I would spend much time exploring them and improving in them, but never really mastering them. I suppose you could say I wanted fulfillment, but I didn’t even know what that word even meant, let alone knowing what could fulfill my desire.
In writing this piece, I stumbled upon what it means to have fulfillment: to discover a purpose to which is worth devoting one’s life, to be able to realize that dream, that cause, or to find joy in trying. And for me, I have found that fulfillment in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, whom God has revealed to me by His Holy Word. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he spoke, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)
Regardless of whether you are a non-Christian, a weak Christian, or a strong Christian, and whether you like it or not, true fulfillment comes from God only, as you seek Him, learn about Him, pray to Him, read about Him, worship Him, proclaim Him, and serve Him and His people. Everything else in life — wealth, comfort, glory, power, romance, even philanthropy and humanitarianism — is ephemeral. You live one day, you die the next, and the world continues without you. But in God, we find the eternal. In Christ only is there no death, because He promised life to those who believe. And because of this promise, we find richness even in poverty, comfort even in suffering, glory even in humiliation, power even in weakness, and romance even in sacrifice. Without God, there is no true purpose to anything in this life, but only meanings invented by well-meaning people. For those who seek fulfillment in service to fellow man, we must remember that before philanthropy, before humanitarianism, there is the Gospel, “for what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:25)
Therefore, without any hesitation, my most important advice for students is to pursue a spiritual life, a relationship with God. For the non-Christian, challenge yourself and others with questions. Is there life after death? Does life have a purpose? What is the point of doing anything? Is seeking pleasure or happiness the only end in life? Why should one believe that the Bible is true? How reliable is it as a historical document? Why do people believe in God? How does Christianity explain science? How do Christians defend their faith? For the Christian, whether weak or strong, try to find a community of believers with whom you can have intimacy, with whom you can grow in the knowledge of God, whom you can serve and be served, who can keep you accountable (that is, who can rebuke you, encourage you, and share with you), who can comfort you in times of need.
Invest in People
The subject of community leads me to the subject of relationships—that is, friendships, mentorships, and fellowships.
Spending time with people and understanding them on a deep level is worth more than receiving a high GPA, for who will celebrate with you if you achieve success? Who will assist you when you’re in trouble? Who will converse with you late into the night? Who will debate with you the meaning of life? Who will challenge you with new ideas and philosophies? Who will give you wise instruction? What will be your most valuable memories of college? At the same time, be careful not to spread yourself too thinly. You only have a finite amount of time with which to water those relationships that you sow. Spend quality time with friends, but also spend time with advisors, professors, and older students. They are a valuable resource, not only in your academic career but also in your maturation as an intellectual and as a citizen. They provide connections, advice, instruction, and even friendship. Take advantage of that for which you are paying.
Besides a small group of friends, it is also beneficial to form relationships in a fellowship setting. Find people who share common interests, beliefs, or talents, whether on a sports team, on a literary publication committee, in a community service organization, or in a religious group. More than providing you with opportunities to meet many new people, with whom you can exchange experiences and explore passions, these groups are also your communities away from your friends and away from home. For me, the Fellowship in Christ is my family at Stanford; we toil together, we eat together, we play together; we share with each other, we serve each other, we love each other.
While I do believe that relationships are more important than academics, I am not suggesting that one should abandon one’s studies. On the contrary, I advocate trying your best in every class, even the required ones that do not seem to make any difference. Your parents are after all paying tens of thousands of dollars for you to get a college education. Not trying your best not only wastes money, but does not honor your parents either. On a more practical level, having a good grade point average will help you on scholarship applications, graduate school applications, and medical/law/business school applications. Furthermore, you’re in college not just for the degree. You’re in it to acquire a broad foundation of knowledge, to develop effective communication, to be trained in problem-solving, and to build a good base of skills. Incredible intelligence aside, diligence is required to fulfill your potential as a student.
Time and Money
I do have one warning, however. It is very easy to be caught up in school work and to make academics and idol, and it is very easy to make a heavy course load an excuse for skimping on everything else. While staying up late may be necessary at certain times, if you find that you are doing that often, and you are not getting enough sleep no matter how efficient you try to be (notice I didn’t say “how efficient you are”; there exists an upper bound on efficiency, which is limited by burnout; having the time to work, one sometimes lacks the desire to do so), it is a sure sign that you have too much on your plate. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to take challenging classes. You’re in college to learn new things, and overcoming obstacles is a very rewarding process.
Try to find a balance between work and play. Taking 3 years to graduate and saving $50,000 but taking 20 units per quarter is not worth the sleep deprivation, stress, suffering, and a shortened life-span. You have the rest of your life to make money, but you won’t have the same opportunity to form lifelong friendships. These college years are special because you are always around peers. You live together, you eat together, you commute together, you work together, you have fun together. Therefore don’t rush, and if you can, try to even go abroad or do research. Make the most of your time, but be careful about being stingy with it; do go out and have fun, and spend some quality time with friends. The memories that you create in college are priceless.
Don’t be stingy with money either (though be wise with it). If you need healthy food (even overpriced healthy food), or a book, or a computer, or a bike, by all means, buy it. Don’t be stingy, because most of the time, you get what you pay for. A $300 bike will far outlast a $50 bike, saving you both the trouble of replacement as well as the discomfort of the cheaper bike. Of course, it is also possible to obtain a used $300 bike for $70.
One More Thing
Throughout this discussion, I omitted an important suggestion. It is one that I wish someone had told me when I came to college, because as a graduate student seeking a research group, I now realize how critical it is. I strongly urge you to seek out an academic passion as early as possible. Procrastinate, and one day four years later, you will realize that you are still undecided about what you want to do with your life. Seek out a passion early, because a clear direction will greatly enrich your academic experience. More important than job prospects and more important than pleasing your parents is being able to enjoy your work and to look forward to it constantly. That is the greater blessing, “for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 8:15).
Update (2013/11/03): Looking back on this six years later, I’ve learned that passion is not necessarily something one possesses in a vacuum. A lot of passion comes from being good at something, and of admiring the fruit of one’s hard work. But to become good, it takes at least an interest in developing that skill.
College is more than just attending lectures, reading textbooks, and taking tests. It is a period of growth in character and growth in wisdom, learning from others, from trials, and from errors. It is a time of enjoyment but it is also a time of challenge. It is a time in which one learns not only to solve theoretical problems, but also very real ones, from organizing groups to mediating interpersonal conflicts. It is a time in which one learns how to behave in a social setting, where peers and oneself are treated as adults, a time in which one learns social etiquette and gains an awareness of the larger global context. It is a time of growing spiritually. It is a time to lay a path for the future, whether one learns and applies the principles of quantum mechanics or one learns and applies the principles of godliness and moral behavior. In everything you do, remember God, because He has given you this opportunity to glorify Him. May you be blessed by this precious gift of an education you are receiving, and may you use what you gain during this time to bless those around you.