College - What I Did Right and Where I Screwed Up

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Reflections on five years at the University of Southern California.

Having spent all of two weeks as a college graduate and invited to deliver my life story in three minutes for the USC Board of Trustees this morning, I figure now is a proper time for reflecting on my college undergraduate experience and, in particular, what I think I did right and where I screwed up. As an added bonus, I offer bold, unwarranted advice for students and educators.

What I Did Right

1. Not Selling Out Until I Found My Passion
I entered college without a clue of what I wanted to do with my life and entertained doing everything from making films to being a chef to being a sherpa. Instead of giving up on finding my passion, pursuing a career in medicine, law, or finance, and relegating my enjoyment of life to weekends and semiannual vacations, I spent my first couple of years at USC “shopping” for a passion by sampling from just about every program and opportunity USC had to offer. I explored international commerce in Hong Kong with the business school, tried to bring clean water to villages in Honduras and India with Engineers Without Borders and the USC Stevens’ Global Impact program, immersed myself in Chinese language and business through a summer internship in Shanghai via the USC Global Fellows program, led an initiative to bring the Flexcar car rental service to USC (now acquired by Zipcar), and backpacked western Europe. My major shifted officially from history to business to computer engineering to chemical engineering and unofficially to probably another dozen disciplines.

It was not until my third year at USC that I found something that stuck. That year, I took an introductory course in electricity and magnetism with Professor Paolo Zanardi that undoubtedly changed my life. Though I had taken physics classes in the past, it was Professor Zanardi’s style of teaching that introduced me to a new way of asking and answering questions about the world that resonated with my natural curiosities and loves of mathematics and problem-solving. I unashamedly abused his open office hours by drilling him with questions for hours on end multiple times per week and his ad-hoc whiteboard lessons and suggestions for further reading fueled late nights curled up in bed with a textbook, furiously solving problem after problem. In addition to being an excellent teacher, Professor Zanardi served as a living example to me that science was a viable and rewarding career path. Though I had fallen in love with mathematics in first grade, I had never known a scientist until college and had subsequently adopted the utterly false stereotype that scientists are no more than automatons who mindlessly carry out the “scientific method” at lab benches. It was meeting Professor Zanardi and other scientists that conveyed me to just how creative and exciting an endeavor science truly was. Professor Zanardi also offered me my first significant research experience the following summer in Italy, which made it clear - science was indeed the career for me.

After my decision to focus on science, life became, in many ways, far easier. I stopped worrying about classes or homework because I wanted to do the assignments anyways. I no longer felt an inclination to “build my resume” because the activities required to do so were exactly what I would have chosen to do in my free time. In summary, my internal motivations became aligned with external incentives and there was no longer any struggle to define what I should be doing - I just did.

An important caveat to this story - I was, in many ways, completely miserable during my first two years at USC. Devoid of any clear goals or direction, I felt foolish for not knowing exactly what I wanted to do. How could I not summon an answer to such an obvious question as: what is your passion? I spent hours and days writing and reflecting, trying to “discover” the answer by looking inward, and learned two important lessons. One, identifying your passion is not necessarily easy. Two, looking inward to “find yourself” is not necessarily an effective way to find your passion. Instead, I found that serial sampling of each of your latent interests and allowing yourself to get lost in each and every activity can be far more effective.[1]

Given my experience, I offer the following suggestions.[2]

Suggestions for students: your first goal in life should be to identify at least one thing you truly enjoy. (Note that you may, or even should, find multiple such things.) Then, and only then, might your goal shift to receiving a particular type of training or degree. If you find at least one such thing before college, great; pursue it. If you do not, use college to carry out massive parallel experiments in each of your possible interests. Actually, even if you come into college with clear goals, consider sampling from secondary interests anyways. In each case, lose yourself in these activities. While reflection is important, constant reflection can be a barrier to actually experiencing anything resembling passion, so reflect with caution. And have patience. Do not settle for a career in something you do not truly enjoy. Dabble widely until you find something you are truly passionate about. Ignore stereotypes about possible career paths and the pressure to chose something based on your parents’ preferences or potential for fat paychecks. When you pursue something you are really passionate about, happiness and success will come naturally.

Suggestions for educators: encourage students to spend time testing out their spectrum of unexplored interests. Offer and advertise optional programs that introduce students to other disciplines without forcing them to change majors. Most importantly, encourage academic advisors to ask students what they really enjoy doing and hope to accomplish, instead of merely focusing on helping them to fulfill degree requirements and resolve scheduling conflicts. Be careful in making decisions and defining goals for students; learning to make your own decisions and form your own goals is an essential part of life that should also be an integral part of education.

2. Finding Great Mentors
Mentors played an essential role both in helping me find my passion and in pursuing it. Paolo Zanardi stoked my interest in physics, fueled my self-study outside of the classroom, showed me that science was a viable career option, and gave me my first significant research opportunity. It is safe to say that I am a scientist because of him. Bartlett Mel taught me how to combine mathematics and biology to “see the neural forest for the trees” and intuit how brains do what they do, as well as how to effectively bridge the communication gap between theoretical and experimental neuroscientists. Andrew Childs taught me how to become a more independent researcher and gave me my first opportunities to give a research talk and write a journal publication. Gene Bickers and Stephan Haas introduced me to the quirky world of academia, answered long lines of physics questions, and helped me navigate many professional and personal problems. Kwabena Boahen and Ted Berger allowed a naive physicist-mathematician to charade as a biologist in their labs and, hopefully, absorb some knowledge about the brain.

Reading books and websites or attending classes is no substitute for working with a great mentor. Great mentors have followed a similar route to your own and can offer recommendations that take into account your strengths and weaknesses and anticipated obstacles on the road ahead. Finding appropriate mentors can be challenging and time-consuming because (1) they must possess knowledge relevant to your goals and (2) you must get along with them, but the trial & error necessary to find them is worth every bit of time and energy.

Suggestions to students: seek out multiple appropriate mentors. The great value of being on a college campus is not the ability to take classes (you can do that online); it is the interaction with people who are currently or have in the past pursued goals similar to your own and can offer relevant advice.

Suggestions to educators: establish programs that help professors learn and share best practices on mentoring. Additionally, establish formal programs for students across the university to help them identify and learn from appropriate mentors. Emphasize mentorship as an essential piece of undergraduate education.

3. Building the Communities I Wanted that Did Not Exist
While I spent my first semester of college reveling in the sheer number of different communities available to me, I soon realized that there were still a couple missing.

First, I wanted to live among a community of inquisitive, clean, and passionate people, so that my day would be infused with interesting conversations (and not marred by the overflowing sinkfuls of dirty dishes, typical of a college dwelling). Initial attempts, including my misguided joining of a fraternity, failed miserably. Eventually, I decided to build my own living environment. I found a 7-bedroom house and hand-picked friends and friends of friends to fill it. That was easily one of the best decisions I have ever made. The three years since have been chock-full o’ stimulating conversations[3] and have convinced me of the benefits of communal living.

Second, I wanted to get off-campus, out of the city, and into nature more often. Despite USC’s prime position as a basecamp for hikes and camping trips exploring the geological chaos surrounding Los Angeles, I could not find a single student hiking group. So I started one. What began as a small group of friends organizing under the banner “USC Trekkers” soon ballooned into a 300-member Facebook group, and I have spent the past three years hiking just about every other weekend. Though I rarely use that Facebook group for organizing hikes these days, it seeded a now quite strong community of hikers at USC. I hike and camp now more often than ever with a revolving community of friends, and a fantastic official USC student group, SC Outfitters, has since spawned and gained popularity.

Suggestions to students: if you are searching for a community that does not exist, build it. It certainly takes effort to organize and develop a new community, but the results and experience are well worth the time and energy. If the communities you are searching for already do exist, great; join and improve them. However, due to the sheer volume of students organizations at a large university, it is easy to drift apathetically from organization to organization, feeling that each one is tolerable but “not for you” and finding yourself at graduation realizing that you did not experience college as you wanted to. Do not let this happen.

Suggestions to educators: make it easy for students to find the guidance and resources necessary to start new communities (USC does this quite well actually). In particular, offer avenues for students to easily organize living communities around mutual interests.[4]

4. Learning Outside the Classroom
As my family and friends know, I read textbooks like novels and have since high school. Doing so has helped me in several ways. One, it guided my selection of courses by indicating areas of interest or weakness. Without reading on my own, I would have been at the mercy of degree requirements and minimally informative course descriptions in allocating my time and energy at college. Two, it allowed me to get much more out of my classes, in part by knowing how to ask the right questions. I have found that learning requires at least two passes through a body of knowledge. During the first pass, one gains a sense for the general concepts and relationships between them but spends a great deal of time confused and unsure of what questions to ask to alleviate this confusion. During the second pass, one now has a sense of the general story and can focus on the details as well as asking the right questions to clarify confusion, recognizing the essential assumptions and tools necessary for the production of knowledge, and solidifying links between the important concepts.

Of course, textbooks are neither the only nor necessarily the most appropriate route to learning outside the classroom. In fact, I would argue that what I did outside of the classroom and beyond textbooks was most important to my education (textbooks and courses merely enabled me to do some of these things). For example, leading an initiative to bring Flexcar to USC taught me that proactively solving your own problems often helps others in the process, an 8-week internship in Shanghai developed my Chinese language skills far more than 3 semesters of coursework, working to bring clean water access to a village in India with students from engineering, international relations, and health promotions taught me the value of interdisciplinary teams, starting a weekend hiking group taught me how to organize and motivate people, helping to build an open-source web platform for scientific collaboration (CoLab) taught me how to monitor the zeitgeist of a community and channel it into a useful tool, and perhaps most importantly, doing research at and outside of USC conveyed to me the joy of scientific problem-solving and taught me how to pursue original research and communicate it to others. Looking back at my time in college, it is these non-coursework opportunities that I value most, not the classes. As I mentioned above when discussing mentors, the value of college is not the coursework; it is the professors, students, and opportunities that one gains access to.

Suggestions to students: do not restrict your learning to your coursework. Read outside of classes to inform how you choose courses and projects in the future. Preview course material so that you can ask the right questions and get the most out of your time with a professor. Perhaps most importantly, go beyond courses and textbooks; seek out opportunities and start projects to help you explore your interests and solve problems important to you.

Suggestions to educators: your primary goal should be to instill a curiosity and love of learning and problem-solving in your students. With that in place, they will carve their own paths. Also, de-emphasize the lecture. Encourage students to view video lectures or read textbooks outside of class and emphasize Q&As, discussion, and collaborative problem-solving in the classroom in order to maximize the value of student-professor interaction time. Integrate into courses projects that allow students to solve real-world problems of interest or importance to them. Offer plenty of non-major-specific, optional programs that allow highly motivated students to gain real-world experience solving problems of interest to them. Offer resources for students to easily propose and implement new projects and programs. Be flexible in allowing students to take less courses, forego homework assignments, or take a semester off to pursue such opportunities.

Where I Screwed Up

1. Teach
I have found that I do not truly understand something until I can (and do) teach it. When teaching, you are forced to understand every nuance of the relationships between concepts, the big picture as well as the fine details, and which assumptions are required for certain arguments and why, and you must be able to anticipate and answer every question that a naive but inquisitive student might ask. Combining this with my suggestion above that learning requires two passes, my educational mantra for achieving deep understanding has become: learn twice, teach once. Ideally, I would love to see teaching experience integrated tightly into education so that each generation of students is encouraged to teach and mentor the generation younger than them. For example, middle schoolers might help first graders learn to read, high schoolers might help middle schoolers learn algebra, college students might help high schools learn neuroscience, and so on. Beyond gaining additional familiarity with some body of knowledge, teaching also offers valuable experience in presentation, including how to combine an understanding of someone else’s background and the material to be presented into a coherent and satisfactory explanation.

Despite my love, appreciation, and proselytization of teaching, I failed to gain any consistent, formal teaching experience in college whatsoever. I did not mentor local high school students,[5] tutor other college students in introductory material that I knew quite well, or even study or do homework in groups, which would have exposed me to spontaneous opportunities to teach. My rationale for foregoing the first two opportunities was that I did not have enough time to learn all the things I wanted to learn and do research and teach. My rationale for not studying in groups was that I did not want to water down my learning with socialization, piggyback on the problem-solving abilities of classmates, or devote the additional time required to organize such study sessions. In retrospect, I may have been mistaken in both of these choices. As I mentioned, teaching is an excellent opportunity for learning, as well as a rewarding experience in its own right. In the future, I will find ways to inject more teaching opportunities into my life.

Suggestions for students: teach! Teach to solidify your learning experience. Teach to learn to present. And teach because its fun and rewarding to witness and be responsible for the spark of understanding in the eye of another.

Suggestions for educators: integrate teaching experience into every level of education. Have middle schoolers teach primary schoolers, high schoolers teach middle schoolers, and college students teach high school students. Recognize that peer-to-peer teaching is not only valuable for conveying ideas to the taught student, but also for solidifying the understanding of the teaching student and for providing opportunities for spontaneous mentoring on additional academic and non-academic issues. Offering small, optional tutoring problems is not enough; make teaching required and easily accessible.

2. Have a Long-Term Project
I changed research groups in college more often than I changed running shoes (approximately 10 times to 3 times). I dabbled in groups working on everything from cognitive science and neuroscience to nanoengineering and neuromorphic engineering to quantum information and computational physics.[6] In doing so, I gained an appreciation for the spectrum of how science is done as well as confidence that I have chosen the field that is most exciting and important to me. However, I also missed out on the opportunity to nurse a research project from vague proposal to implementation to publication. Most of my projects were done in collaboration with grad students or post-docs and focused on a sub-problem of someone else’s project. Only once did I feel that I truly owned a project and even then, the original project proposal was made by a professor (we collaboratively worked out the details).

In retrospect, my serial research sampling seems like a necessary part of converging on what I wanted to do with my time and energy in the future (I did not even consider science as a career until late in my sophomore year and had a bit of catching up to do). However, ideally I would have converged on a general topic before college, carefully chosen a research group based on advisor compatibility and research focus, and nursed my own project from vague proposal to publication throughout my undergraduate career.

Suggestions for students: to the extent possible, come into college with an idea of what you want to accomplish. Start a project or organization as early as possible to tackle a problem of interest and importance to you. Explore every aspect of that project and own it.

Suggestions for educators: encourage students at an early age (well before college) to begin considering what they enjoy doing and what is important to them. Emphasize reflection, independent decision-making, and goal-setting, so that students are more likely to enter college confident of what they want to accomplish. In college, emphasize these same themes in academic advisement and work with students to develop a set of goals that include an independent, long-term project of personal interest and importance.

In Summary…
…I found my passion, learned from great mentors, built the communities I wanted but did not yet exist, and did not restrict my learning to the classroom, but I also missed out on opportunities to teach and pursue a long-term project. All things considered, I have changed a lot over the last few years and while that is not sufficient for indicating progress, it is at least necessary.

Feel free to learn from my perceived successes and failures… or make your own mistakes. I confess the latter is probably more fun.

  1. David Brooks recently wrote a NY Times opinion article making a similar point. The (short) article is worth a read. 

  2. Everything I mention here generalizes beyond college life. Feel free to replace “students” with “young people” and “educators” with “parents.” College is certainly not an inevitable part of everyone’s life, nor should it be. 

  3. …and dirty dishes, to be fair. You win some, you lose some. 

  4. The Greek community is not the solution. (1) Fraternities and sororities, in general, are organized around binge drinking and mate selection, which do not span the full spectrum of possible human activities. (2) Fraternities and sororities are usually far larger than what I have in mind. I am suggesting an easy route for students to organize communities of 5-10 people who live in the same house and share communal space and mutual interests, be it hiking, writing computer games, or cooking. 

  5. During freshman year, I did mentor a local high school student with the USC student group, SCitizen, but only very briefly. 

  6. I did eventually find a group and advisor at USC that I would be quite happy spending another 6+ years working with.