The ICAS Lectures


Managing a Successful College Life

Christine Kim

ICAS Summer Symposium
The Korean Diaspora
August 4, 2007 Saturday 9:30 AM - 4:30 PM
Montgomery County Community College Science Center room 214
340 DeKalb Pike, Blu Bell, PA 19422

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422


Biographic Sketch & Links: Christine Kim

Managing a Successful College Life

Christine Kim

Hello, my name is Christine Kim, and I am policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. I want to thank ICAS, and especially Dr. Kim, for inviting me here today to speak about college life. This is a great privilege, and I am excited to be here today with you.

I should perhaps begin by making a couple of confessions and caveats. First, that I'm not an expert on college life, although, beyond attending college which I loved, I spent the first half of my career working on the staff of Universities, first as an admissions officer at Yale University and Georgetown University, and second as a career counselor at Colgate University in New York.

As an admissions officer, I met mostly students who really wanted to be successful in getting into college, before they were college students. And as a college career counselor, I met students who were most worried about finding successful careers following college, after they graduated and were no longer college students. So, basically, I feel like you've asked me to speak about the only period of college life that I don't have any professional experience in, which is the in-between time of being successful during college, of being college students.

If that makes you feel queasy about your speaker, I also have a second confession: Despite my last name, I am not Korean-American. Instead, I married one. So if you want to learn how to find and marry a Korean-American while in college, which is what I did, please come speak to me after this talk for an expert's advice!

In any event, despite these inadequacies, I have had the pleasure of meeting quite a few young students eager to know about success at college (or success in getting into a college), and I've thought quite a bit from my experience about what it means to get the most out of those four wonderful, formative years at University.

I'd like to begin by describing for you a picture, a picture of a new freshman in the first days of arriving at college. This freshman, who is much like me ten years ago, is completely awed by the spectacle that greets her: She sees an aging limestone clock tower, ivy-covered gothic walls, and echoes of the carillon bells. She looks through the window in the common room of her dorm suite, into a courtyard below. This is the main campus where generations of first-year students make life-long friendships, and where the road to adulthood begins.

In the middle of the courtyard sits a stone hub, which diverges into eight narrower paths, each leading to a destination on the outer edge of the freshmen quad.

Around her, the freshman hears the murmurs of her classmates. "Oh the great works of Shakespeare we will read! What fun! I can hardly wait!" someone says. But other whispers, less confidently uttered, are not lost on the freshman, "How will I manage it, this college life?" Both sentiments echo in the freshman's mind.

The freshman turns to each of the eight paths leading from the hub in the middle of the courtyard. All eight paths seem equally long, and all destinations equally appealing (or daunting). One path leads her to the natural and physical sciences building; another to the humanities; another to the social sciences; and so on.

Other paths invite her to plunge into extracurricular pursuits, such as an acapella group, a political club (hopefully the Conservative Party, if you're from the Heritage Foundation); the daily newspaper; theater; ethnic societies; religious fellowships, to name a few.

Even on that first day this freshman realizes once she has walked far enough down a path, there is no turning back.

What paths shall I choose? Where will I go? Where will I be in four years and who will I become when I arrive at my destination?

All of us who attend college have at some point asked the same questions as this freshman. College, it seems to me, is uniquely a time period where such questions about our future paths and identity are particularly appropriate.

So how can we answer those questions in the most "successful" way? How can we get the most out of our college experience? To answer that question, I think we first have to define the meaning of success in college.

There are, of course, many ways of defining such success. Some would say that success at college means academic success, summa cum laude, phi beta kappa, a prize-winning senior thesis.

Others would say that success at college means leaving it with financial gains, a cushy job on Wall Street.

Or perhaps success is defined by admissions to a top graduate program, to law school or medical school. Certainly that's how some parents, particularly Asian parents, define success.

Then again, maybe success is less academic in nature. Maybe it just means making friends, going to football games, eating pizza at midnight with the roommates, partying on the weekends.

These definitions are all plausible. To a certain extent, it is true that each student sets his or her own definition of a successful college life, and I do not denigrate any of them.

But I'd like today to propose my own simple answer: People go to college to learn.

Profound, huh? "Duh," you might say. Of course people go to college to learn!

Yet I suggest that this aspect of college life has been somewhat lost today. We say that we attend college to learn, but what we really mean is that we attend college to learn so that: "So that I might get a good job." "So that I might attend graduate school." "So that I might make many life-long friends." "So that I can find my Korean-American spouse."

Yes, there is a functional aspect to a college education - to get a job, go to graduate school. But what about learning for learning's sake? Learning because that is a joy by itself?

This used to be our view of the college education in America. Take, for instance, a very influential early document in the history of American higher education, The Yale Report of 1828. This report, written by Yale professors in response to the trend of universities at that time of training college students only for their future vocation or profession, rejected this view, stating: "Our object is not to teach that which is peculiar to any one of the professions; but to lay the foundation which is common to them all."

In other words, the purpose of college is to teach not simply the facts but also how to think.

How should we think, or what should college teach us to think about? This is an age-old question in American educational history. When Harvard, America's first college, was found in 1636, it declared its motto as "Veritas," which means "Truth."

But in time, a group of ministers educated at Harvard realized that the pursuit of Truth, of knowledge and facts, by itself, was deficient, because it failed to acknowledge the need for a moral education, for what used to be called virtue.

These ministers therefore founded another college to compete with Harvard, one that would seek both truth and virtue. And so Yale College was formed in 1701, bearing the motto "Lux et Veritas," Light and Truth. Not just knowledge, not just facts, but "Light" and virtue were necessary for true college education.

I think Lux et Veritas holds true today for a successful college life. We should see college not just as place to learn about things, but also to learn about what is right, just, true, and good.

The formative years of college ought to shape the character, as well as the mind, of the student. And this means that college should teach us about how to relate to others.

Character, or virtue, inherently concerns the way I as a person am to treat my neighbor. A university that aims to provide an intellectual education as well as a character education inevitably teaches its students to improve their own conditions as well as the conditions of those around them. In doing so, college education strives to serve a common good.

So our definition of a successful college life is one in which we as students learn knowledge and learn character, learn about the world as well as how to live in the world.

Put another way: Lux et veritas, light and truth. The light enlightens the soul - this is the virtue part. The truth enlightens the mind - this is the intellectual part. A successful college life, therefore, ought to be marked by the earnest pursuit of the light, lux, and the truth, veritas. Thus, higher education cultivates virtue in the individual, thereby cultivating virtue in society.

Thomas Jefferson, in the Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, captures this understanding well. Jefferson was captivated by the idea of a college education, and so he founded, almost entirely by himself, the University of Virginia. In fact, he considered the founding of UVA more important even than his presidency, judging from his tombstone, on which he recounts his greatest achievements as including the former but not the latter. In any event, this is what Jefferson said about Lux et Veritas, character and knowledge, in the college experience.

First, he acknowledged that college ought to teach knowledge, Veritas, that its purposes include: To form the statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend;

To expound the principles and structure of government, the laws which regulate the intercourse of nations . . . ;

To harmonize and promote the interests of agriculture, manufactures and commerce, and by well informed views of political economy to give a free scope to the public industry;

Second, Jefferson said that college ought to teach virtue, or Lux:

To develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the percepts of virtue and order;

And, generally, to form them to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness within themselves.

To Jefferson, "[e]ducation generates habits of application, of order, and the love of virtue; and controls, by the force of habit, any innate obliquities in our moral organization."

This is all well and good, one may say. But how does the "earnest pursuit of lux et veritas" translate into the 21st century Korean-American college experience?

I suggest three points for managing a successful college experience, by which I mean for achieving the twin goals of lux et veritas.

First, the earnest pursuit of lux et veritas requires a sense of curiosity, an openness to new ideas and to being challenged on the ideas we currently hold. Learning is a dynamic process. This is a real strength of the American college education. It introduces students to new subjects and teaches them to think critically about the matter before them.

Think back to the freshman girl facing all those paths before her. I would encourage her to try a few paths. Though she's never opened an electrical engineering textbook before, perhaps she'd be surprised to discover that mapping logic gates is quite fun.

I have a friend from college, a Korean American who grew up on a farm in Arkansas. When he first arrived at college, he was set on pursuing a career in politics; he had interned for a senator the previous summer. During first semester, he took mostly political science courses and joined the debate team.

But very quickly, by second semester, he realized that politics wasn't for him, ... but medicine was. And for two years he diligently applied himself and prepared for medical school. But his medical career, too, was left unfinished.

By his third year in college, my friend, the politician-turned-doctor, had embarked on a new mission to the save the environment and declared a major in the environmental sciences.

Yet it was a film course taken on a whim that uncovered his true passion and calling in life. To make a long story short, my friend went to film school after college and became a filmmaker. His first feature-length film was accepted this year to the Cannes Film Festival, for which he received exceptional reviews.

So, a sense of curiosity and openness to intellectual discovery are important. But they have to be coupled with commitment to truth and to virtue.

This is the second point: The pursuit of lux et veritas perseveres until it finds the answer. Without the commitment and perseverance, curiosity and openness could easily undo our moral foundation.

One thing that college is very good at doing is the first point, opening our minds to new ideas. But it is not so good at providing answers to those deep questions that the openness reveals to us: Who am I; why am I here. True curiosity and openness, I believe, are intellectually honest and morally courageous.

When I think of moral courage, I think of another friend (who, as it happens, is also Korean-American) who was utterly brilliant and had dreamed from his first year of college to become a medical doctor. And yet, when the time came for him to graduate, after he had completed all the requisite courses, rather than attend medical school, he decided to spend his first year after college traveling across the globe to India, helping the poor and the sick.

And so, my friend entered college as a freshman thinking that it would equip him to attend medical school; but he left it as senior equipped to serve his fellow man. This, too, is part of a college education. And, by the way, don't worry; becoming a good person in college doesn't mean foregoing medical school-my friend is currently an M.D./Ph.D. at Stanford.

Another illustration, of yet another Korean American college student. Her pursuit of lux et veritas took on a slightly different form than the filmmaker and doctor but in essence it's the same: the same curiosity, openness, perseverance, and moral courage. She came to college from California; her parents owned an apple orchard. This friend was an excellent dancer, a ballerina in fact. She came to college to study music and Spanish, but felling love with history. The summer after junior year, she received a scholarship to do research in the UK. Following research lead after research lead, she arrived at a long-forgotten library in Scotland where the personal papers of a famous puritan had been stored. These documents were virtually undiscovered - a priceless find for a history student but a much coveted prize by established historians. My friend wrote her senior thesis on this topic, for which she received a history department prize. She then went on to study in Oxford University, and recently received her Ph.D.

To me, these Korean-American students model the earnest pursuit of truth and virtue. They managed a successful college life.

And this brings me to my third point: a successful college life will be (1) open and curious, (2) for the purpose of finding real truth and morality, but it will do so within the context of community.

Think of the word "college"-it is supposed to be collegial, to be done together, in community. It wouldn't make any sense to attend a college where you are the only student; there is a purpose for that, because really the most important and most lasting things we learn in college, are from not just our professors but also from our fellow students.

When I worked in admissions, high school students would often ask what is the best thing about college. The answer to the question was easy: It's the people you meet and the friendships you make that are the longest legacy of college. All my colleagues in admissions would answer the same.

My advice here is to take advantage of all the opportunities college offers to form real and lasting relationships. If you sing, join an a capella group. If you barely play sport, join an intramural club. Try things that interest you, but also try things that scare you.

When I was a freshman, I auditioned for a Chinese play; I had never acted before. But the director, another student, took a leap of faith and cast me as a main character in the play. I played a Chinese mother whose son was played by a six-foot-two blonde, who spoke mandarin better than I did. He too was a first-time actor. And 'til this day, he still calls me Mom, and I call him My Son. We band of amateurs sure had a lot of fun doing the play.

Of all the people I met in college, probably the most important and enduring community I found was one of the Christian student fellowships. That is where I found my best friends; that is where I found my husband. ...

Let's think back to the freshman girl asking questions about which path to take those next four years. All eight paths in front of her are potentials for a successful college. Pursue knowledge and virtue, lux et veritas, I would encourage her. It is the process of getting to her destination that matters.

Explore, ask questions and try new things, I would tell her, but keep the commitment to truth and to virtue as well. And most important of all, whichever path she chooses to walk down, do so in the company of friends.

This page last updated 10/4/2007 jdb

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