5 Tips for University Success

By Ben Clayman

I was at minyan this morning and someone who I never met before gave me a Sholum after davening. We started speaking and he was quite shocked when I told him I am currently in a secular university. He then asked how I stayed tahor while being on campus. Having graduated university and I wanted to share some the insights, experiences, and tips for students and parents on how to strive and thrive in difficult environments in 5 easy to remember tips (Baal Teshuvahesque disclaimer: consult a Rav on any halacha and get the proper hadracha for any environment). .

1. Positive Attitude-
When I first came to university, I was negative, called a ‘grouch’ by one of my siblings. I did not want to be on campus, did not want to be out of yeshiva, and did not want to read Freud, Marx, Oedipus, or Foucault. I still wish I stayed in yeshiva and am going back the day I graduate, but once you are in a situation, thank Hashem and pray to be the best person you can be while you are there. Make the most out of your time on campus, it can be a serious tikkun hamiddos and wake you up to the needs of Am Israel. Learn what to say to an appikorus, solidify your beliefs, and practice kiruv.

2. Dress the Part-
I should preface this one by saying this worked, for me. It might not be for everyone and you might not be comfortable enough yet, but it was one of the greatest piece of advice R. Noach Weinberg zt’l gave me a few days before I started university three years ago. Be as flagantry Jewish as possible. I had a long beard and payos most of university. When I went back to Israel for the summer or was with my parents, I trimmed up but while on campus, I was “The Jew”. I could have hid my kippa or tucked in my tzitzis but I could never hide my beard. Once you wear the uniform of a Yid, you start to act more like a Yid (see Brachos 28a). This might be the toughest, but the benefits are well worth it, you can be a walking Kiddush Hashem on campus and give courage to other Yidden on campus to be more Jewish.

3. Don’t Waste Your Time-
A degree which will lead to nowhere is worthless. Listen to your passions and investigate your zeal for your interests. However, have a plan before going to college. I was able to finish in 3 years while taking the minimum amount of classes for almost every quarter by planning ahead. Take courses that will give you skills in the future or can help your emuna, I took an astrophysics course which was my lowest grade by far but was the greatest for marveling at Hashem’s greatness as the Creator of the Worlds. My chevrusa on campus was able to finish Shas Mishnayos, 5 mesechtas of Gemera and conversational Hebrew during his time in university, you have plenty of time to learn lots of sweet Torah while in school.

4. Offense is the Best Defense-
Do kiruv. As a student, you are a peer, not a rabbi or parent, who can show them that you are happy, love Torah and Mitzvos, and want to teach fellow students with no pressure. You also have the greatest social networking ability to help your campus Chabad or kiruv rabbis recruit. Volunteer with the rabbis on campus, start a chabura with the Modern Orthodox guys, become a NCSY advisor, or start a Jewish Heritage/History/Education club.

5. Experiment (Not What You Think)- I have not-yet-frum (I don’t like to say secular, frei, not frum, reform, or any other negative term) friends who speak a lot about finding themselves by experimenting in college. There are kosher ways to channel those actions. Spend a Shabbos in the frum community and go to the hardcore Hassidic community, build a Sukkah in the middle of campus with signs of “Free Gilad” or “Shake this Thing”, Take your friends to crash a random wedding (for the dancing only), spend Shabbos with professors or alumni, and question everything. The problem is not questioning, it is maintaining the resiliency to find the right answers.

I still would not recommend secular university to anyone, but if your parents insist, you are currently in the middle of university, or you are just starting to grow in Yiddishkiet, don’t despair. University is a crucible like any another that can be conquered and you can come out purified with the right amount of heat and a healthy dose of the above tips.

Originally Published in August, 2009

14 comments on “5 Tips for University Success

  1. It need not be said how unthinkable it is for someone who has any understanding, much less a deep one, of Jewish sensibility on this score, voluntarily to place his own child into such an environment.

    I very strongly disagree with this kind of thinking.

  2. As to Ben’s statement “I still would not recommend secular university to anyone”, perhaps he means that if possible, a person should be well grounded in Torah before he immerses himself in secular university and is constantly exposed to many philosophies that are contradictory to Torah.

    I doubt he means that. I think he is probably saying something along the lines of what LC said: It’s not the college learning, it’s the college world that is the big stumbling block in our time.

    What a tragedy it would be for someone who makes so much effort to live a life that reflects the Torah’s values regarding modesty, dignity and appropriate relations between the sexes to put himself or herself to such a severe test as presence on a modern-day college campus would constitute.

    It need not be said how unthinkable it is for someone who has any understanding, much less a deep one, of Jewish sensibility on this score, voluntarily to place his own child into such an environment.

  3. Thank you for the responses.

    Peleg-The purpose of the article was not to be negative at all but to try to help other Jews who are in need of a boost.

    Ksiva vChasima Tova,

  4. I’m writing to thank Ben and other Jews like him for their incidental Kiruv in secular environments. I also want to add my take to the “value” of secular education for observant Jews.

    During my six years of graduate school in Alabama, it was my Friday dinners month after month with a frum couple that reinforced my Jewish identity, deflected the temptation of intermarriage, and made possible my later BT Derech. I now have four young FFB children, and in my view, they owe their lives to those Shabbos dinners so many years ago. If Joel and Miriam gained anything from their education since then, so much the better… but there’s no question, from my perspective, their education was worth it.

  5. “And if you actually do a proper job of secular learning, you should come away an understanding that it is only a threat to the frumkeit of those who don’t really understand the secular way of thinking.

    Interesting position.

    I’ve got some highly educated non-Jewish colleagues who express great concern regarding the environment on campus for their children. And these are parents who provided a proper, civilized upbringing for their children.

  6. In a recent discussion with a friend about young people’s knowledge of history, she made the statement that you can’t expect people who go to college to know anything about history because of professors like Edward Said of Columbia.

    My response to her, which I think fits in with this post, is that while political professors such as Edward Said get a lot of media attention, the overwhelming majority of teachers at every college are doing their job: teaching. Additionally, for every Mark Rudd or Tom Hayden or “Bluto Blutarsky” (or their modern replacements) there are dozens of students doing their job: learning.

    We should vett a college’s housing and social scene in order to give our children guidance in choosing a living arrangement at a particular school, or deciding if they should even go to that school. But to put general knowledge on the back burner or dismiss it outright because of a few bad apples in the faculty or the student body is counterproductive.

  7. Also, “campus life” is a large part of an American college experience.

    I don’t think the in-class education is a big deal in most people’s book, but the rampant immorality and iresponsibility – and encouragement to do likewise – permeating dorm life are a big deal, especially to a teenager straight from his/her parents’ home.

    From experience, I’d say a young BT (public HS, etc.) has a much easier chance of success than someone who went to day school and grew up sheltered to any degree. For an FFB to not get sucked in takes a strong commitment from day ONE to consciously hold on to their Yiddishkeit, and I’d guess many “day school” kids aren’t thinking about it in those terms. Someone who has already made a conscious choice *knows* it won’t be easy.

    A strong Jewish presence on campus helps too; Chabad, frum Hillel, etc.

  8. Tesyaa, only a small percentage of people comment here, and speaking to our contributors, Rabbinic advisors and lots of readers who don’t comment, I know for a fact that most of them do value secular education.

    Peleg, secular education covers a wide range and there is a vast difference between the hard sciences (math, physics, chem, etc..), the soft sciences (psychology, sociology..), practical subjects (accounting, computers) and subjects like philosophy, english literature and middle east studies.

    I also think that your treatment of the Yeshiva world’s view of secular subjects is a bit superficial. For starters, the Gemorra itself says that there is wisdom in the secular world. In America, most people immersed in Torah do value secular knowledge, but there will be differences on evaluating the pros and cons of studying each particular subject for a given person.

    As to Ben’s statement “I still would not recommend secular university to anyone”, perhaps he means that if possible, a person should be well grounded in Torah before he immerses himself in secular university and is constantly exposed to many philosophies that are contradictory to Torah.

  9. Ideally, all one’s knowledge would be consistent with a proper approach to HaShem and to our own lives. That includes practical and theoretical knowledge. Immorality on campus is not some marginal activity; it’s pervasive, as anyone attending from the 1960’s on should be honest enough to acknowledge. Concern about it (this is not “paralysis”) is normal for a Torah Jew. Lack of concern about it betrays a basic unseriousness about Torah living.

    In today’s society, the left/liberal administrators and faculty members of educational institutions view student indoctrination into their own social/political beliefs as essential. People who have seen this in person or have read about the well-documented indoctrination campaigns can’t be snowed by some mere blog comment. Think a moment about why Yale mandated coed dorm life for undergrads.

  10. Peleg, there are frum Jews who agree with what you’re saying, but from my experience, they mostly don’t frequent this site.

  11. I can’t stand it anymore! Can we stop denigrating a secular education? I mean, it’s not like going onto a campus is like going into a seedy bar. What, you haven’t seen scantily-clad maidens on the street? Or, you’ve never run into secular, anti-G-d ideas before? At least on campus, you will hear those ideas in a well thought-out manner and get a chance to understand them, and not just run from them all in blind fear.

    And if you actually do a proper job of secular learning, you should come away an understanding that it is only a threat to the frumkeit of those who don’t really understand the secular way of thinking.

    Well, yeah, there is one more thing. You gotta let go of this silly notion that *ALL* knowledge is contained in Torah. That is about the weakest defense of Torah and frumkeit that I can think of because even an idiot can think of so many counterexamples.

    Oh, right, the answer is that we just don’t know how to find that knowledge in Torah. If so, then what is the practical difference of it not being there at all? And if it was there, but we could only find it by going to a university and have it explained to us by secualar chachamim, then what is the problem with that?

    Remember, it is secular, humanist knowledge. It is not about G-d or religion. (Funny that one would think that such knowledge would be in Torah. Well, you said it, I didn’t.) Most of it isn’t anti-G-d, or religion. It is just all rather matter-of-fact and very empirical. Most of it isn’t about ABSOLUTE TRUTH, but the quest for that TRUTH. Humm… Sounds like Torah right there. They say they are still looking for it, we say we’ve found it. They say we’re idiots, we say they’re closing themselves off to a wonderful, additional body of knowledge and way of life.

    How about realizing that we are not really playing by the same rules for what determines knowledge and truth? So, which set of rules is better?

    Well, our way of life isn’t physically better because of the things we get from Torah. Incredible machines and electronics and medicines weren’t discovered by a bunch a rabbis. While some of them may have had semicha, but they weren’t functioning as rabbis when they did these things, so I don’t think that that could be offered as a valid rebuttal.

    Likewise, we don’t learn what is right and what is wrong, how to live a proper, good life (using all those incredible inventions) from a bunch of scientists and engineers. When they are talking about such things, they are not functioning as scientists and engineers and their answers to those ethical questions are never all that good. Those questions are best answered by our rabbis and scholars and, the way I see it, they generally do a really good job of it. Our rabbis and scholars are the experts at that sort of thing because they’ve got the best textbook for that sort of thing.

    I was on campus myself for quite a few years a while back, and I wish I could have made my career there. Some of us are just more enthusiastic (turned on?) about that kind of learning, that way of thinking, that way of finding out about G-d’s creations, than by the way Torah approaches the same thing. I don’t think a person who devotes himself to secular learning is any less valuable to have around that a talmud chacham. It should be obvious that we need both.

    When you get sick, your doctor is a very important and valuable person in your life. When your car breaks down, your doctor is useless. It depends on what you need at the moment, what you are trying to accomplish, what you are trying to find out, doesn’t it?

    So, let’s get honest already. The problem with a university education is not that it is inherently evil. It isn’t — it is inherently neutral. The problem is that our fear that someone may fall off the derech is so paralyzing that we will do and say anything against anything that is percieved as a threat. We even lie and distort the truth. The university isn’t trying to recruit us to apikorsus. It does’t care about such things. The problem is that we have been too closed-minded and fearful to actually look at the challenges coming from that direction and to honestly confront that challenge.

    But to do that, you have to know the enemy, and we don’t. I know, there are supposed to be great rabbis who have had, they claim, a good secular education. Well, perhaps they sat on campus for a while, but from what I hear them say, I would not call their secular education good and they seem to be completely devoid of any real understanding of it.

    Before you respond, give me a second to don my kevlar clothing…

  12. Ben,

    What specific career or personal objective (other than graduation itself) brought you to the campus in the first place? Were you able to meet this objective while also doing your amazing kiruv work?

  13. This is terrific. I guess the only “thing,” Ben, is you appear to be an extraordinary young man.

    That means your advice may not work so well for us “ordinaries,” which even some BT’s are.

    On the other hand, you do make the case for what extraordinary focus, effort and commitment can look like. It’s hard not to think that, notwithstanding the time lost to focusing only on learning, you are not better and stronger for this experience.

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