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College is for Freshmen

As we’re helping our youngest explore his potential college selections, we have been recalling early college experiences  and memories.  The transition to college can be difficult on so many levels - social, academic, cultural - especially when you go far from home.  As parents, we can’t be there (and shouldn’t be there); we can only share our own experiences and hope that there will be people looking out for our kids the way that other folks looked out for us, even when we didn’t know it.

A number of my fondest memories from freshman and sophomore years include Dr. Burnaby Munson.  Dr. Munson taught Chemistry in the Honors Program, and I was fortunate to have him for 2 semesters as a freshman.  In the classroom, Dr. Munson openly coached us to think about and exercise judgment: whether we came to class or not, it was our choice; exams were scheduled for 3 hours during the evening, and we could show up at any time during the time period to take the test - many times, students were studying in the hallway for the first hour, with plenty of time to complete the exam in the remaining 2.  However, we were the product or our decisions, and Dr. Munson was not shy about reminding each of us - don’t come to class, perhaps you missed the key to the harder questions on the exam; show up later to the exam, you reduce the time you have to complete it; the end of the exam is fixed, no extra time because you chose to show up later.  Accountability is a gift and a responsibility, and we learned it.

Dr. Munson’s investment in the classroom was dwarfed by his investment in the freshman class.  As part of the Honors Program admission, we were housed in specific dorms, in which Dr. Munson held a “study break” snack extravaganza each Friday night.  Yes, the implication was that we were studying on Friday night, and as a freshman engineer, I certainly was!  My roommate and I rarely missed a Munson StudyBreak; it was a social event, and the good Doctor was available for a quick Chemistry question, a discussion about classes in general, judging an occasional eating challenge, and always supporting us with whatever was going on in our lives.  I remember Dr. Munson was one of the first to congratulate me when I landed my first internship, and he was patient with my friends as he was pulled into the discussion about how my shoes matched my bag.

As a sophomore mentor, I was invited to events wherein Dr. Munson would talk with parents of new freshman.  We (the mentors) were invited so we could hear his counsel, and provide our own version of the experience as we toured parents while the students were in scheduling discussions.  His talk was masterful.  He introduced himself as “positioned slightly to the right of Queen Victoria,” providing context and credibility as he addressed the difficulties of transition.  He highlighted the process each student would progress through; the importance of leaving the students at school to meet new friends; a reminder to be supportive as they find their way through food adjustments, doing laundry, waking on time; introduction to the challenge of October, when every student realizes that the semester is half over and grades are truly important; and the importance of letting their children grow, each in his/her own way, to pursue the career that fits best, even if it’s not the choice you, as the parent, would make.  Dr. Munson shared a roadmap, developed from experiences with thousands of students, and advice on how parents could navigate for the student’s ultimate success.  

By creating and sharing experiences, we could chart our path through Chemistry class, freshman year, and years beyond.  Thanks, Dr. Munson!

For more on Dr. Burnaby Munson, here’s a recent article written upon his retirement in 2017.

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