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Don't Forget the U in Education

UNLV offers a world of new choices to incoming freshman. Here's some advice from life sciences professor Brian Hedlund on how to sort through them.
Campus News  |  Aug 20, 2014  |  By UNLV News Center

Life sciences professor Brian Hedlund. (Geri Kodey / UNLV Photo Services)

Editor's Note: 

Life sciences professor Brian Hedlund is among the speakers for this year’s UNLV Creates talks for new college students. The entire campus community is invited to attend the event 9-10:30 a.m. Aug. 22 at the Thomas & Mack Center. Here, he shares his approach to finding your direction amidst the many paths UNLV offers.


College is a time of transition that can bring childhood aspirations to fruition. At UNLV, students have a dizzying array of opportunities, including more than 350 degree programs to choose from, more than 200 registered student organizations, and international programs on all continents except Antarctica. Students have tremendous freedom to decide how to spend their time, who to spend it with, and what goals to seek. That freedom is wonderful but also a tremendous responsibility. What's the recipe for success?

After navigating my own education and teaching over 2,500 students at UNLV, my best advice is to identify and serve the "U" in education. What I mean by this is that the recipe for success for each student should be unique, just as each individual is unique. Thus, a major challenge in college -- and in life -- is to identify and serve your dreams and avoid the temptation to follow goals set by others that are incompatible with your core values. There's only one person who can lead in this regard: YOU.

As I transitioned through college, this meant carving out time for active introspection and taking "time outs" to allow my mind wander. Many of these "time outs" took place during long rides on my bike. I balanced this self-centered strategy with discussions with my parents, extended family, and closest friends to get their perspectives. These bouts of introspection and discussion coalesced over the period of a few years to push me toward biology, which made a lot of sense in light of my love of insects as a young child.

But there were a few red herrings along the way. Sometimes I noticed that advice coming from outside contradicted the common wisdom that was growing out of my own thoughts. In most of these cases, I came to realize that these friends or family members were projecting their own interests or common societal norms onto me. These people weren't malicious, but I gradually learned the importance of carefully weighing and evaluating advice from others.

And here's where data collection comes in. As young Americans, you are continually showered with data -- news, texts, podcasts, selfies. This trend will not abate anytime soon. My advice is to go with the flow but make sure you don't drown. Use the information to your advantage. Don't limit yourself to knowledge you learn in textbooks, but find a way to change some neutral or negative habits into habits that serve your greater mission.

For me, this means less time on social media and more time on scientific literature. If you can't convince yourself that exploring your chosen field is exciting, then maybe you're misaligned. The media is also a great way to make connections between what you're learning in classes and the "real world" outside of class. These connections should augment your classroom education and give you examples on how to turn your college experience into a fulfilling career.

You'll also receive data on your performance in school. Don't forget to incorporate those data into your long-term vision. If you're performing poorly in your chosen field but excelling in another, you need to ask why you're getting those results. This should lead you to redouble your efforts toward your goals or readjust them.

Ultimately, college and life are great adventures. The time and effort spent on evaluating your direction will pay huge dividends, and UNLV is a great place to start. As you create yourself at UNLV, you will also be part of creating a stronger UNLV. Enjoy the ride!