Lessons From My Time at Iowa

by Gabriela Magalhaes (2017 BA International Relations and Portugese)

            Here are some lessons that I have distilled from my four years at Iowa. The largest caveat I will give is that these are just the lessons that stand out now, as I prepare to graduate. In a year or two or ten the lessons that I took from my time here will probably be quite different, because what you have learned largely depends on where it takes you. These are the lessons that have gotten me to this point, but that is not to say that they are they are the only important ones.

Create a theme.

Strangely, of all the choice you make in college one of the most disregarded is which classes you choose. Internships, jobs, volunteer experience, sports, and your major all get plenty of airtime, but rarely does anyone ask, or even consider the consequences of which courses you select. Fortunately, at a school as large as Iowa this is a real choice, because aside from the relatively few required classes you will have to take for your courses of study, you will also select a large number of other classes in that major/minor/certificate. Don’t do this at random. Instead, be strategic. For instance, I am very interested in Latin America, and so I have sought out classes in that subject area for both of my majors, my certificate, and my minor. This has lent significant continuity to my academic career, and combined with my semester studying abroad in Latin America (Brazil), has allowed me to feel that I have a firmer grasp on a marketable subject area than I would have otherwise.

When it comes to extracurricular activities depth will probably do more for you then breadth.

In high school, like many people, I was a part of so many extracurricular activities that my parents began to complain that they never saw me. The pressure to be involved is intense, and it doesn’t dissipate in college. You’re shepherded to student org fairs during your first week on campus and from that moment on your school inbox is constantly bombarded with mass emails advertising various clubs, groups, and committees. Don’t feel you need to join them all. Join a few, absolutely. Go to a couple of meetings and decide that you’re not very interested in the group and quit. However, don’t join groups just because you feel like you need to be a part of everything. Early on in my college career I dragged myself to quite a few meetings for groups I frankly had no interest in because I was afraid I wasn’t involved enough, but frankly I got less out of them than I would have rereading the Harry Potter books for the 10th time.

If you are in a couple/few select groups you can really invest time and energy into it, rather than coming to every third meeting. Additionally, proving your commitment by investing time in a group will put you in a very favorable light to be selected for leadership positions, and you’ll have the time to do a good job. We all want well-rounded resumes, but you should also be able to speak at length about the work you did in each group rather than just being able to recite a litany of groups whose meetings you attended without being able to provide any substance.

Work. Like, for money.

I am a big proponent of working while you are in college. First, it allows you to feel a certain level of control of your financial situation. This is important, because unless your parents are far more charitable (and wealthy) than mine you’re probably already mostly on your own financially, even if it doesn’t quite feel that way. Get in the habit of checking your bank account. Think about how many hours of work that night out/meal/dress/car is. Learn to budget. You’ll thank yourself later.

Second, it helps you learn about the value of your work. I have had jobs where I know that I was not paid nearly enough for the effort I put in and responsibilities I took on (summer camp where I watched 50 kids ages 4-13 for $7.25 I’m looking at you). This allows you to be strategic. Sometimes that unpaid internship is worth it in the long run. Sometimes that tutoring position where they only pay you for half of the work you do is not (I choose not to come back after a semester).

Third, it prepares you to be patient. And calculating. I have held 6 different positions in the past four years, and have taken and left each for various reasons. Circumstance has ended a couple, and others I have moved on from because I was offered better positions. Chances are you’ll hold quite few jobs in your lifetime, and this is good early practice for learning which to keep, which to stay at, and which to leave behind.

Just apply for that scholarship.

This is going to be short. Working is great, and important. However, when it comes to actually affording your education your minimal hourly wage may not actually get you that far. Scholarships, on the other hand, take relatively little time to apply for, and the possible gain is much greater. Take some time over your winter break, identify some scholarships you qualify for (departmental, through CLAS, etc.) and apply. We all know you’re not going to do much else in that month anyways, so this will make you feel less bad about watching all 10 seasons of Friends in 3 days.

It’s okay not to know.

Generally speaking people are supportive and understanding if you start college undecided about what you want to do. Maybe not your grandmother, but a lot of people. Seriously, it’s okay. Chances are you’ll figure it out, or you’ll at least choose the least bad option and make the best of it. On that note, it’s okay if you haven’t determined exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life by the time you don a black sack with a zipper and place the strangest headgear known to man on your head. Take some time to figure it out, and in the meantime do SOMETHING. Find a job, join the Peace Corp, take that internship. Keep moving, keep thinking.