Back to the future: VCU notables answer the question, “What do you wish you knew when you were a college freshman?”

President Rao, Shaka Smart and other VCU notables answer the question, “What do you wish you knew when you were a college freshman?”

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It’s Welcome Week at Virginia Commonwealth University, and at the center of all the hustle and bustle is a freshman class of approximately 3,600. As students both old and new arrive on campus and settle into the swing of classes, VCU News asked a selection of alumni, faculty and staff to take a moment to reflect on their own college experiences and answer the question, “What do you wish you knew when you were a college freshman?”

For kicks, we also asked them to submit a photo of themselves from their college days, a daunting task considering that most were in college long before the days of digital cameras, Instagram and iPhones. Each of them had something different – and valuable – to say.


Michael Rao, Ph.D.
President of VCU

“Growing up in rural Florida, many of my neighbors and those with whom I interacted daily were many years older than me.

I will always remember being a young boy and sitting with them to watch the nightly news. Often, it included coverage of some tragic event, which prompted my older neighbors to comment on how much better the world would be if human beings would simply take care of one another. They would turn to me and say, ‘Michael, don’t wait until you’re our age to learn what’s most important in life. It’s not money, fame or what you accomplish for yourself. It’s doing something for someone else. There is nothing more important, and you’ll get no better feeling than when you do something for someone else.’

I took this lesson with me to college and began using what I learned to help my fellow students as best I could. It is the most important lesson I have ever learned, and one I hope our students at VCU embrace from Day 1.

The most important things you will do at VCU are those which you do for someone else.”


L. Douglas Wilder

Former Virginia governor and the first black elected governor in the U.S., Distinguished Professor and namesake of VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs

“What I wish I’d known as a freshman was the importance of better grades because just doing well enough to get by is not good enough. And that’s what I did. I didn’t study enough. That all changed in law school when a professor said, ‘I don’t think you’re committed.’ I don’t think we understand that you don’t go to college to learn, you go to college to learn how to learn. I also would have also done more to establish my own personal credo. What are the things that I believe? It’s hard for anyone to teach you that.”



Grace E. Harris, Ph.D.
Former VCU provost and namesake of the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute at VCU

“When I was a freshman, I wish I knew more about all the available resources on campus – like how to make the best use of the library and the different financial resources available to students. I’d recommend that all freshmen keep the following tips in mind:

Reach out. Reach out to your professors in each of your courses. They will be your gateway for succeeding in your studies and beyond. Reach out to other students who are doing excellent work in similar classes to you. They will be your support system. Make the most of the social activities provided throughout campus. College is also meant to be fun!

The best advice I could give an incoming freshman would be: Don’t complete your various assignments at the last minute. Develop good study practices and patterns in the beginning of your academic career, so that they become a habit.”



Shaka Smart
VCU head men’s basketball coach

“Looking back to when I first went to college, I wish I would have slowed down and enjoyed the moment a little more. I was too much in a hurry to get to the next thing and didn’t appreciate everything around me enough.”










Dick Robertson (center)
Dick Robertson (center)

Richard T. “Dick” Robertson
Retired president of Warner Bros Domestic Television Distribution, 1967 graduate of the VCU School of Mass Communications and namesake of the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences

“I had such a great experience in my four years at VCU in so many ways but the one thing that I wish I had learned earlier (and is the root of all business) is the ability to read and fully understand a balance sheet. I say that because, regardless of your studies, that’s where ‘the rubber meets the road!’”




Michele Young-Stone
Author of “The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors” (2010) and 2005 graduate of the VCU M.F.A. program in creative writing

“I wish that I knew I was talented; I wish I’d been less uncertain and insecure, spent less time floundering.”



Stephen Fong, Ph.D.
Associate professor and associate chair of the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering in the VCU School of Engineering

“What I wish I’d known when I was a freshman was … how to speak Thai.

As a freshman, I was in a new city where I didn’t know anyone so my short-term and long-term goals were 1) to make some friends and 2) to do well in my major (chemical engineering) to get to grad school. While both of these happened, the most memorable parts of my undergraduate experience were that I spent three months in Thailand, one week in Spain and one week in Russia. Unforeseen opportunities that don’t fit into our plan come up all the time, and some of them may be lifelong memories so keep your eyes open!”



Quanitra Hollingsworth
Professional basketball player and 2008 graduate of the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences

“You are simply who you make yourself out to be (not who you say you are or thought you were). Be a sponge and take in everything around you.

Have your mind, heart and ears open to those surrounding you. Communicate with parents, teachers, friends, fans and even foes. A lesson is to be learned from every situation – yours or others’, good or bad.

College is not the time to play it safe; step out of your comfort zone (but do it with a focus of becoming a better you each moment)! There is a lot of fun to be had, but whatever mistakes are to be made, let them be your own! Grasp the concept of yin and yang. There is time for work and time for play!

You are growing with these people around you; help them as they help you. Don’t be selfish to them or even to yourself. These are the relationships that are sure to last a lifetime.

Enjoy! GO RAMS!”


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