One Sunday in late August 2007, my college swim coach sat down with me and six of my teammates. Our American peers had been dismissed and we were left, a group of international students representing Sweden, South Africa, Croatia and France.
"This first week of classes, you have a special assignment," he said. "After each class you must introduce yourself to your professors. Then you must come up with a question, go to their office hours and ask it. It can be a question you already know the answer to; it doesn't matter, just go anyway."
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It was the evening before the first day of classes. I was a 19-year-old freshman at Limestone College, a small college in rural South Carolina, and was strongly considering not completing my coach's seemingly pointless assignment.
Later I realized it was the most important piece of advice anyone gave me during my years in college.
Most college professors share a number of attributes. They enjoy learning, which is why they chose a profession allowing them to read and research. They enjoy being around young people, which is why they chose to work in a college environment. And they, too, have been young at some point.
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As an international student you bring to the table knowledge and points of view that can differ widely from those of your American peers. For a professor, usually an expert in his or her given field, this is extremely intellectually stimulating. Professors also, like any teacher, love to share their expertise.
Being able to carry an intelligent conversation with your professor on the subject he or she teaches will therefore elevate you to a level far above that of the average student. Seeking help outside of class doesn't show that you are unintelligent, but that you are a motivated student.
So when you eventually fall behind, miss a class or fail to hand in an assignment, the relationship you have established with your professor will become invaluable. Your occasional tardiness can always slip by, because you have already proved that you are a good student, right?
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U.S. colleges often have dozens of scholarship programs funded by various earmarked endowments, and more often than not professors make up most of the committees selecting the recipients. The hours you spend getting to know your professor may end up being rather lucrative.
And although you probably won't be thinking about graduate school during your first week of classes, one day you just may, and already knowing whom you can ask for a letter of recommendation will lift a significant weight off of your shoulders.
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Last but not least, most professors are genuinely nice and interesting people, which itself is enough reason to reach out to them.
As for me, I ended up doing what my coach told me. It resulted in not only an additional academic scholarship, an academic award, solid grades and a number of grad school recommendations, but also friendships that have lasted to this day.
It all began with an outstretched hand and a "hello."
Anders Melin, from Sweden, is a former collegiate swimmer for Limestone College and the University of Missouri, where he earned an undergraduate degree in finance. He is now pursuing a master's degree in journalism at New York University.