Classrooms. Desks. Notebooks. Pens. Teacher/instructor.

Hmmm, I thought. This is just like high school.

(Narrator’s voice): “Tragically, Stallard would learn that college, in fact, is not the same as high school.”

As I see my friends posting on social media photos of their offspring heading off to college, and as I meet with other “older” folks getting ready to begin their own forays into higher education, I’m here hoping to offer a few first-semester survival tips. The national attrition rate among first-semester students is pretty high, with some numbers claiming up to 50% of those enrolling in the fall failing to return for the next semester.

The list of reasons — notice I didn’t say excuses — is long and varied, so rather than look at anyone else’s college struggles, I’ll use the easiest example I can find.


Yeah, my first semester of college falls into the “train wreck” category. We’re talking a Titanic-worthy disaster. I’d like to think by sharing my own failures and the reasons behind them, I can help someone else avoid the same result.

First, I tried treating college the way I’d treated high school. I showed up for class (most of the time), but I didn’t take notes. I didn’t know how, nor did I actually know how to study. Once class ended, whatever books I had went into my backpack and into the back seat of my car — same as in my high school days. I wouldn’t open the books again until the next class. When exams rolled around, I found myself “cramming” — which, in actuality, is an attempt to memorize entire volumes of information in a single setting.

Nope. Didn’t work. What a shock.

I also treated college like high school in that I put forth the minimum effort, thinking since doing just enough to get by worked before, it would work again. Nuh-uh. It did not. In my senior year of high school, I was having breakfast with some friends one morning before class when one guy asked me if I’d remembered to write my essay the night before. Dang it. I’d forgotten.

I went inside the restroom at the restaurant, pulled out a long roll of paper towel and wrote some stuff on it. Sucker looked like an ancient scroll, but I submitted it anyway.

My high school teacher took it. I even got a passing grade.

College? No way. My instructors gave precise instructions and expectations, and my high-school grounded mind didn’t adjust. For some reason, they refused to baby me the way some of my high school teachers did. Not once did any of those professors call my house to find out why I was skipping class. The nerve of those people.

I also failed to understand how college classrooms are true learning environments. We had movie days and “free” days in high school. Not once did I have one of those in college. I was actually expected to listen and learn every single session.

Weird, huh?

I didn’t understand how as a college student, I was trying to become a professional something. I hadn’t decided on a major at the time, but my instructors were trying to teach us some very important tenets of professionalism: Be prompt, do your best work and submit the work on time. Same expectations any employer has of its employees.

Writing a crappy essay on a paper towel wasn’t exactly professional, now, was it?

Maybe the biggest mistake I made in my early college career was my failure to prioritize. I mean, college never says it has to be the No. 1 priority in one’s life, but I learned the hard way, it had danged sure better be in one’s Top 2. Instead, I allowed my job and a ton of distractions — mostly my hard-partying, non-college-attending friends — to pull me in the wrong directions. I’d sit down after work with every intention of focusing on class when I’d get a call or a knock on my door.

“Hey, man, party time!” someone would yell. I’d mumble about having to study or work on an assignment, and they’d answer, “We’ve got girls and beer!”

Slam! There went my books, right back into the backpack.

Looking back with an honest assessment, I can narrow my struggles down to two main areas: my own lack of focus and maturity. Those were my leading causes of failure.

Thankfully — and for me, forever gratefully — I learned from my failures, and those failures didn’t leave permanent scars. When I finally went back years later for another attempt at college, I remembered how easy it was for me to screw it up the first time. Yes, I was way older and slightly more mature, but I also was brutally honest with myself about what I’d need to do to avoid another ugly experience.

Oddly enough, it only took some slight adjustments on my part.

I took better notes in class. I highlighted anything I didn’t understand, and I either looked it up later or reached out to my instructors for help. I found tutors on the campus. God bless ’em, they were patient and amazing.

I also blocked out a specific time of day just to go over my class stuff. I treated the time as if it were another class. I found the best time was right after my last class of the day. I parked my butt in the library and worked on stuff, knowing how many distractions were waiting for me at home. I overcame my penchant for procrastinating, and the difference in the results was humongous.

Lo and behold, all of it worked. No longer was I “cramming” for any exams. Somehow and miraculously, those daily reviews allowed me to retain more information, so when it came time to study, I wasn’t seeing anything new or strange.

Who knew, right?

Most importantly of all, I finished what I’d started. Yup, I was on the verge of “old man” status when I graduated, but I didn’t care. All the time and effort I’d spent paid off — and is still paying off. Earning my degree changed my entire life’s course. I’ll preach it until I croak.

The “piece of paper” in the frame at my house doesn’t say a word about “sucked at algebra” or “totally screwed up his first attempt at college.” The word “failure” doesn’t make a single appearance.

My piece of paper just says I did it.

Hang in there, new students. College is an adjustment, but as with anything worthwhile in life, it’s worth the effort — and the frustrations.

The paper you’re going to earn will last you a whole lot longer than a paper towel.

Gary Stallard is a regular contributor to the Opinion page of The Lufkin Daily News. His email address is