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How to find direction and purpose in college through meaningful cross-semester projects

Next in our series on the six key college experiences for future success is working on a meaningful project across semesters.

Students often feel like they are checking off boxes in college.

Take these classes - check

do an internship - check

and be involved in a few activities - check.

Each semester feels like its own little island, as you take classes, never think of them again, and move on to the next term.

This leads to a lack of direction and motivation because there isn't a cohesive purpose and movement towards a larger goal.

This is a very compartmentalized view of how to do college.

To make the most of college and set yourself up for future success - connect what you are learning and doing to each other.

If you're paying attention to what sparks your curiosity and joy...

you can notice when a class you take

leads to interest in a similar class the next semester

with the same professor

who has gotten to know you

and has an opportunity for you to do research

where you have the opportunity to lead a project

and mentor newer students.

Over the course of a few semesters, you will find that this has been a meaningful journey that helps you see your next steps after graduation.

Can you see the difference?

What are some of the ways you can make meaning across semesters?

Research - if you love the idea of having a question that you get to dig into and solve, research is for you! And research is NOT just for science majors. Research is needed in every field of study. Professors all have research questions they are trying to answer and good undergraduate students are a hot commodity to help. Ask your professors if they are seeking research assistants. Many colleges also have an undergraduate research office that can help you find opportunities. If you are thinking about graduate school, research is a great way to prepare. And if you find a research lab you enjoy, stay there - you'll be amazed at the opportunities for growth.

Capstone - capstone or design projects are another great way to connect your learning over two semesters. Sometimes, these are required for your degree (commonly in engineering); other times, a capstone might be an elective you can choose. These might be team-based or individual work. Capstone projects usually result in a tangible deliverable and are a cumulative way to demonstrate the knowledge and skills you have acquired in college.

Thesis - a thesis is based on research. Many honors programs or majors with an honors option offer the opportunity to do a thesis. A traditional research thesis will be based on a question, a review of existing research, an examination of new ideas related to the topic through quantitative or qualitative methods, results, and ideas for future study. Some fields of study lend themselves to creative theses - an original music album or a novel, for example.

Leadership/Activities - up to now, we've only discussed academic forms of meaning across semesters, but it's important to note that many students create multi-semester projects from their extracurricular activities. One prominent example is student government. A student might have a few different officer positions in college that culminate in a vice-president or even president position. Perhaps you are involved in an organization as a member and then committee chair. In these positions, you can pursue specific interests. One student at UT Austin became president of the student government during his senior year and developed programs and policies around student housing. He then went on to law school, planning to focus on community housing policies.

Independent Study - independent study is often an elective option that comes in handy when you become interested in a topic that is not covered in an existing course at your university. You can essentially create your own course. Typically, you would develop a proposal of readings and what you would do that semester to learn about the topic to earn credit. A professor must agree to supervise your independent study. They assess your performance, and you usually earn 1-4 credits at the end of the term. This can be a great way to connect something that you became interested in when there isn't a formal pathway to continue learning about that subject.

I hope some of these ideas have made you excited to figure out how you can make your learning meaningful as you connect your interests across semesters!


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