The five best practices for success in your major

Kevin Joffre

They’re all awfully different from each other, I thought, looking around. The Distinguished Alumni-in-Residence were gathered at the Alumni House for a luncheon, during which they would share how their experiences at GVSU prepared them for success in their fields. Some of them were pursuing careers in art or music, while others had gone into management or teaching, and they ranged in age from a little older than me to a little younger than my dad. But despite getting degrees in diverse areas of study—there were representatives from Chemistry to Philosophy, Studio Art to Physical Education—the alumni had all followed similar practices while students at GVSU. Those five best practices were:

1.Apply for undergraduate research projects. Many of the alumni had been recipients of the Student Summer Scholars (S3) grant, which provides a stipend for students to pursue individual research with a faculty mentor during the summer. This is a way to achieve something noteworthy in your field of study, and it translates really well into future accomplishments. For example, Matthew Breen, the alumni from the AWRI, did his S3 project on gear selectivity of fish in fyke nets. He was then published and has since become a project leader for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

2.Travel abroad. According to Craig Reynolds, the alumni from the Philosophy Department, traveling abroad (especially studying abroad) allows you to appreciate the culture of your home country while providing the understanding that your culture may not know everything. See the Padnos International Center if you’re interested in studying abroad.

3.Apply for scholarships and awards in your department. Go to your major’s website and click on the “Scholarships” tab. This will provide a list of department or community scholarships that you can apply for. Also be on the lookout for competitions that you can participate in. Hunter Eberly, the current Principal Trumpet for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, won first place in multiple competitions while majoring in Music at GVSU.

4.Be involved in groups associated with your major. Honors societies, mentoring groups, and clubs provide ways for you to get to know your classmates and develop personal relationships with them (so you no longer refer to them as “that guy who sits in front of me with the earring”). They also keep you honest. If you’re in a major that requires production (like the arts or Writing), groups like these can offer inspiration and accountability to keep you on track.

5.Connect with faculty outside of the classroom. Out of all of the commonalities between the alumni, this was the strongest. Ty Ham (Classics) spoke movingly about the unfailing supportive and nurturing environment that GVSU promotes for students. Jordan Moon (Physical Education) wanted students to know that professors are real people and their titles shouldn’t dissuade us from approaching them during office hours with questions. Hannah Rodgers (History, Anthropology) took it one step further; she said she often invited professors out to lunch or coffee. Most students react to that notion with something like horror. Professors seem to think it’s a great idea.

The Distinguished Alumni-in-Residence event demonstrated that it’s not so much the major you choose that determines whether or not you’ll be successful. Instead, success is indicated by what you choose to do with that major while you’re at GVSU. Now, I don’t mean that you can’t be successful just by attending class, or that following these five practices will guarantee success. They’re not, after all, a checklist. But they do two things. First, they provide you with the kind of life experiences and relationships that prepare you for the future. Second, the people that have the self-dedication and skill to be successful at the five practices usually have the internal drive to find achievement in the larger world as well.