Making the Most of Being a Student, Part 2

Ann Forsyth's picture

In my current series of blogs I’m returning to earlier topics—this one on how to make the most of being a student. In that earlier blog I focused on four topics:

  • Focusing attention on your own learning
  • Helping your peers learn
  • Building the capacity to continue learning after planning school
  • Taking risks--being willing to "fail" in order to produce learning

However, as I explain below there are more ways to do this. You should engage in a range of these extracurricular activities with the balance depending on how much you need to earn money during semester, your prior work experience, and how you are already interacting with faculty.

  • Read beyond the syllabus. When a faculty member mentions an author or idea in class, you can look it up. It will really enrich your education. This is the most important point on this list.
  • Join student groups and organize activities. Getting involved with groups based in your program can build community; joining campus-wide groups can help you meet people with common interests but different trajectories.
  • Join departmental committees open to students. This is a great way to influence your department but you also get to meet faculty in a collaborative setting. If you carry yourself well this can help you when you need to ask those same faculty to provide references.
  • Attend conferences and talks. This is one of the times you’ll have access to a lot of this—and it can help you in your other class work by providing additional perspectives.
  • Get an internship or do an independent real project for a client. This provides practical skills.
  • Shadow someone—many career services offices can link you with alums in practice. Shadowing someone is a great way to get a feel for a particular type of job in a short period time—from a few hours to a few weeks. This is an activity that is most available to you when you are a student or a very recent grad—after that it would be much harder to set up. Now is the time.
  • Work for pay, even outside planning, to get basic job skills. This is most important if you have little such experience and should be combined with other activities on this list.
  • If you are doing most classes with only a few faculty members, try to broaden your visibility by working with others (e.g. organizing a conference, inviting a faculty member to speak, and then carrying it off well so they could field a brief reference phone call).
  • If there are no faculty members who you’ve done more than one class with, or if your work has been less than stellar with the ones where you have done multiple classes, find a way to have some additional interactions with someone. It’s really hard to write a letter on the basis of one class. However you can increase interactions by doing an independent study, being a research assistant, or joining a departmental committee.

Of course you need to do the required classes and obtain the course credits necessary for your degree. However, these activities beyond the classroom are key to getting a great education.

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.



Don't forget local government!

Great post. I also encourage students to get involved in issues off campus, especially in the local municipality. Some professors already require students to attend at least one city planning commission meeting. Most treat this as an assignment to be "checked off," but some get a truly unique experience by looking more deeply into the local planning issues being discussed. Most appointed and elected officials are more than happy to sit down for coffee and give additional background on a particular project, and tip students off to the more interesting meetings coming up. Even if students don't have their sights set on a government planning position, many find their local encounters so rewarding that they are later inspired to serve locally themselves. We need them!

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