Back to School: Dean Tim Foster on Getting the Most Out of College

The ink on those high school diplomas is barely dry and there’s still a bit more to squeeze out of the summer of 2010, but very soon a whole new crop of students will be making their way to college for the very first time. Bowdoin’s Dean of Student Affairs, Tim Foster, has seen his share of new arrivals and knows a bit about what it takes for students to achieve a smooth and successful transition.

With half of August now behind us, students across the country are getting ready to embark on one of the most exciting and rewarding adventures of their lives. In a matter of days, these young men and women will arrive—some by themselves, others with full families in tow—at college for the first time. There’s no doubt that the transition to college can be both thrilling and a bit intimidating, with all sorts of new people to meet, unfamiliar surroundings, and high expectations.

In my role as dean, I have the opportunity to participate in this right of passage—to greet the first-year class at Bowdoin, to witness the pride (and sometimes, the anxiety) of their parents and family members, and to be on hand when the newest members of our community take their place and begin to form the bonds that will, for most, last a lifetime. Over the years, I have come to see that the most successful students—successful in terms of academic achievement, participation in the life of the College, and personal fulfillment—are those who dive in with energy and intention, but who do so on their own terms. They are the young men and women who take full advantage of what college has to offer, including what is truly a singular opportunity to take risks, try new things, and to learn.

So as students across the country prepare to head off, here is a bit of advice that can help get things going in the right direction:

Slow down and live the in moment. This is “counter culture” advice that requires students to reprogram themselves. Many students have lived highly managed and overscheduled lives and most don’t know how to handle being unoccupied. Less really can be more but students need to understand the value of reflection and should practice unpacking their minds and being present.

Don’t engage in things compulsively. I worry that high school and college students do what they are “supposed to do” or “expected to do” to build the perfect college resume or land the best job. But is that what they really want to do? In college, decide what really matters to you. Identify your academic and extracurricular passions and pursue them.  Vital engagement will be much more satisfying and fulfilling than compulsive engagement.

Remember that this is your college experience. It’s not your parents’, your uncle’s, or your grandmother’s. It’s not your coaches. It’s not your advisor’s. Identify what YOU want to get out of it and go for it.

Develop relationships with your faculty and feed your mind. This is a special time and a unique opportunity to stretch yourself. Each semester, find a faculty member and get to know that person. These relationships will define your experience while at college and beyond.

Accept the fact that sometimes the bear bites you and sometimes you bite the bear. This advice is about taking risks and learning from failure. This generation has been protected from failure, but it is when the bear bites you and you fail that you have your greatest opportunity for growth.

Engage your classmates. The people who surround you will define your college experience. Your classmates will be some of your greatest teachers, but only if you take the time to really get to know them and their different life experiences. If you don’t, you’ll be cheating yourself out of one of your greatest educational opportunities.

Avoid the “culture of caution.” This advice is about diversity and learning from others.  We are living in an increasingly diverse world. Nearly a third of the entering class at Bowdoin this year is comprised of students of color, and at every college there will be students who have different backgrounds, different experiences, and different viewpoints from yours. Students can create a “culture of caution” when they are afraid of asking the wrong question or saying the wrong thing. Be respectful, but ask questions of one another.

Don’t settle in, get comfortable, and close your ranks. We all lead busy and complicated lives, and sometimes it’s easier to stick close to your social or cultural group, sports team, or roommates. But in doing so, you’re just closing off other possibilities, opportunities, and relationships, so be sure to periodically reach beyond those with whom you are comfortable and familiar.

Invest in your academic success. Remember, your citizenship at your school is dependent on your academic success. It’s your academic success that gives you access to athletics, student government, leadership in a student organization, community service, etc. If you allow yourself to become distracted by everything else in Willy Wonka’s candy store, and you do poorly academically, then you will lose your “citizenship” in the academic community and everything that comes with it.

Take care of yourself. Sleep. Exercise. Eat well. Make smart decisions, especially regarding alcohol.  And finally…

Have fun. These can be among the best years of your life.


  1. Pete Seaver says:

    Tim Foster,

    Bowdoin fortunate to have you. Your practical and caring advice, based on years of experience, is a template for all of us for trying, each day, to reach our potential. Well done.

    P. Seaver

  2. Great advice, Dean Foster. I especially like the one about avoiding the culture of caution.

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