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What would be a good way to effectively balance and explore all sorts of college opportunities?

I'll be a Mechanical Engineering freshman this Fall and hope to take the most out of my college years. However, with so many different opportunities, and so little time- even though I know it is quite common for engineers to take more than four years to graduate-, it seems a bit hard to balance research opportunities, internships, co-ops, study abroad programs, and regular academics. I intend to participate in study abroad programs and internsh​ips on my summer breaks and, during the school year, try to focus on academics, research, and student-run clubs. I know it's better not to totally predict the next couple of years, since some unexpected doors may open, nonetheless, I would like to use the experience as a way not only to grow academically​ ​but also professionally and personally. If you, guys, could share some thoughts on what sorts of experiences could help the most in a future professional career, or which would simply smooth college years a bit, and how to balance them, I would really appreciate.

Thanks for taking the time to read such a huge question!

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Matt’s Answer

Hi Miguel.

Great question.

First, I applaud you for how you're thinking about college. It's certainly a time to have fun but it's also an incredible season in your life with unique opportunities to grow and learn. So wanting to take advantage of those is a great mindset to have.

As you noted, there will be no shortage of options available to you. I think one thing that can really help is to get exposure to as many aspects of mechanical (and other engineering fields) as early as possible. This will happen somewhat through your classes but can also be accomplished through internships, clubs, and even contacting local engineering firms to see if you can shadow someone for a day. (One side note: It's important to know that while you're a college student people tend to be much more open to talking and meeting with you than once you've graduated and started working. I'm not sure why, but take advantage of it!) Getting a better understanding of the field early can help guide you in your coursework within mechanical engineering or may even guide you out of mechanical engineering and into another field. (I once heard someone talk about their son who came to college on a tuba scholarship and ended up with a degree in chemistry. You just never know.)

Summer internships can help with what I mentioned above but they are also a great way to grow in the non-academic areas that will be important in your career. Aka, "soft skills" such as communication, time management, prioritization, influencing, working as part of a team, etc.

College will help prepare you for a career but there is a lot more to life than work. Be sure to take advantage of all the learning opportunities the college campus provides. Try out interesting clubs (as you mentioned). Listen to guest speakers from outside your field of study. Take some classes outside your field of study. Travel to places that may be difficult to travel to later in life. Make good friends and be a good friend to people who could use one.

Having said that, you obviously can't do everything. You just have to keep your goals in front of you and prioritize accordingly. What is the best use of your time for any given hour, week, semester, summer? (Learning to prioritize is an important life skill too.)

I guess the last thing I'd say (sorry, this got a little long) is remember that you should and will never stop learning. Don't feel like you have to learn everything before you get out of college. Learn how to learn. It's an important foundational skill that will serve you well the rest of your life.

Hope that helps.

Matt


Thank you comment icon Thanks for your feedback, Matt! I'm sorry it's been a year, but your the points you made were really helpful and aligned with what I had in mind. Now, starting my second-year, I've tried two clubs (robotics, automotive) and joined a research lab on biomechanics. Next spring, I'll have my first rotation in a co-op too. Miguel
Thank you comment icon The idea of reaching out to local firms about shadowing for a day is great! I had no idea they would be open about it and will definitely try out. Prioritizing is indeed super important and is something I’m still trying to master, specially in the hourly/daily level (really bad idea to procrastinate with due dates in some classes). Listening to guest speakers not only in my school, but also in other institutions has been an amazing way to learn different things (for this I recommend having a ‘spam’ email to join all possible mailing list and hop in every once in a while to see what’s up). Miguel
Thank you comment icon Overall, I’ve been having an amazing experience and definitely had a great amount of personal and professional growth. I still feel kind of overwhelmed with all the awesome things available to do, but, now, I know the ones that interest me the most. Hope you’re doing well! Miguel
Thank you comment icon Hi Miguel. I'm glad to hear your first year was good (even with all the COVID craziness). It sounds like you're learning a lot a taking advantage of the opportunities available. Keep up the great work! (And plan to continue to constantly learn after you graduate. It's critically important!) Matt Zellmer
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Amanda, Becky, Magnus, & Owen’s Answer

Hi Miguel,

It’s great to hear that you’re already having a fulfilling start to your college career, despite the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced to campus life.

To add to Matt’s response, step out of your own comfort zone when you’re deciding between all of these options. It can be tempting to just do the activities that you’re good at or where you’ll just be improving the skills you already have. It can also be tempting to follow the friends you’re comfortable and familiar with, and only do the activities they do. If you want to learn new things and challenge yourself, consider choosing the opportunities that will put you in a completely new environment where you don’t know anyone — it’s the fast track to meeting new people who will diversify your thoughts and experiences.

You also mentioned wanting to do a study abroad program. While traveling is probably out of the question right now, studying abroad when it’s an option again should definitely be at the top of your list. Going somewhere new, especially where you don’t speak the language or know many people, is such a transformative experience. It teaches you to become more independent, come out of your shell, and broaden your worldview with exposure to new cultures — not to mention it’s so much fun!

Best,
Amanda, Becky, and Magnus*
*Note: This answer combines input from a group of marketers with more than 20 years of professional experience — all currently working at a global tech company. We hope you find our answer helpful and wish you the best of luck!
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