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It’s already July, and while for many people July means summer is just getting started, most college professors are already starting to think about the new school year. The start of a new school year is always nostalgic for me. I have loved school all my life—which is why I never wanted to leave it.

As I think about a new fall semester and all the new students who will be coming to college for the first time, I think about what that experience was like for me. I grew up in a family in which going to college was not the norm, but from early on, it was something I knew that I would do. And I couldn’t wait.

Even so, college was very different from what I expected. Of course, I had no idea what to expect, despite being in a college preparatory track throughout my high school years. I ended up loving college more than I had even dreamed I would. In high school, I had breezed through the classes that were easy for me and rebelled my way through the ones that weren’t. In college, for the first time, I was able to take ownership in my education (literally, since I was paying for most of it).

While the awe of my experience is not entirely transferable to what other students will experience for themselves, some of my formative college experiences have helped me over the years be a better professor to my students. And although a lot has changed since my college years several decades ago now, some things will never change. These are some of the lessons I learned then that I think students today are also facing when they arrive at college.

I learned what I wasn’t cut out for.

I entered college as a social work major (and even selected my school based on its social work program). But I soon found out that I didn’t really know what social work was. I had developed an interest in psychology during high school and thought that a social work major would let me do the same kind of work without all the math and science classes. One semester of statistics proved me wrong.

I learned what I was cut out for.

During my first semester, while I still thought I was going to be a social worker, my American Literature professor told me I should major in English. I told him I would never do that—words he gleefully reminded me of one year later when I went to his office seeking his signature for permission to enter the program. English had always been easy and fun for me in school, so easy and fun that I had no idea until college that it could be taken seriously, be demanding, and be so life changing.

I learned that I hate panty hose and cubicles.

I still didn’t trust that pursuing the subject I loved—English—would be enough. I “knew” I didn’t want to teach (I wouldn’t unlearn that belief until graduate school), so I decided to gain a “practical” minor in communication and public relations and did an internship with a marketing agency during my senior year. That experience taught me some of the most important lessons I needed to learn about myself (seriously), namely, that I hate office life, hate cubicles, and hate panty hose. (I believe the rest of the world has now caught up with me on that last one.)

I learned that students make honest mistakes—and need grace when they do.

During my first ever week of final exams, I walked into one exam to find myself in the right room at the right time with the right professor—but on the wrong day, as testified by the sea of unfamiliar students filling the seats. I was mortified. My professor—a stern, intimidating woman not inclined to tolerate such foolishness—must have seen the terror in my face. I will never forget the severity in her face softening as she looked at me and then quietly invited me to take a seat whereupon she handed me my exam. I’m known as a stern professor myself, and I believe that if I hadn’t had this experience, I’d have been more so than would be humane or right. So, I thank God for this lesson, which has reminded me many times that students can make honest mistakes and to be kind when they do.

I learned how not to teach.

I spent my Psychology 101 class sitting in the back, reading my English assignments while my professor read aloud from the textbook pages already assigned, which I’d already read. I later strove to become the kind of professor whose class students can’t—and don’t want to—miss.

I learned not to write “then” when I mean “than.”

My English finals were blue book exams. (Some of you reading this will remember these. The rest of you can Google it.) Writing a timed exam by hand isn’t easy. Errors will be made. One of mine was scribbling “then” when I meant “than.” My English professor knocked my grade from an A to an A- for it. I have committed a lot of typos since then. But I don’t believe I’ve ever committed that one again.

I learned that encouragement from a professor can make all the difference.

I had an experience during my speech class (a subject that was already traumatic enough for me) that is too painful (and inexplicable) for me to recount in detail here. But when I found myself after class sobbing to my professor, the tears only compounding my humiliation, the professor was not only kind, but she was aggressively affirming and encouraging. I ended that class not only as one of the top students but as someone who had gained far more than tuition could ever buy.

Those of us who have been in the college classroom for years can easily forget what it’s like when the entire experience is new, challenging, and confusing. Remembering our own growth and struggles when we were students can help us not only to be more welcoming to our students, but, ultimately, more effective teachers both for their good and God’s glory.

Karen Swallow Prior

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Karen Swallow Prior is Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press, 2012), Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson, 2014), and On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos, 2018). Her writing has appeared at Christianity Today, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, First Things, Vox, Relevant, Think Christian, The Gospel Coalition, Books and Culture and other places.


  • Gordon Moulden says:

    Oh boy; did I ever learn grace from–an English teacher. And yes, I have learned the value of encouragement, and how not to teach (but also how). And yes, I do love the life of working as a college professor.
    Thank you for sharing!

  • Gary Epp says:

    My first college experience was very humbling. Traffic that first morning was one of the worst in my years of college. I arrived late and flustered. When I opened the door to the lecture room in a 100 year-old building, I discovered to my horror that the doors were at the front of an amphitheater classroom that seated 150 students. I slinked to an open seat on the front row. As I sat down the professor announced he was starting with chapter 11. In puzzlement I turned to the student next to me and asked whether this was first semester Chemistry. “No,” he said, “It’s second semester Chemistry.” After a pause, I swallowed my embarrassment, gathered my things, and quickly slipped out the door and went looking for the right classroom. Fortunately, my college academic experience was mostly uphill from there as I was able to graduate summa cum laude.

  • Emmy Irobi says:

    Karen Thank you.