Brian Peterson Urges Students to Maximize Their Hamilton Experience

Brian Peterson, author of Higher Learning: Maximizing your College Experience, talked to a group of more than 60 students in KJ’s Red Pit on Sept. 16, as part of the Cultural Education Center’s Lecture Series. Peterson’s mission is not only to prepare students to get by in college, but to inspire them to excel.

Peterson earned his undergraduate degree in engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, completed a master’s in secondary education, and is now pursuing a doctorate in education. He is the co-founder of two nonprofits. The first, Ase Academy, is a secondary-school program that instills in students the idea that college is a worthwhile and achievable goal, and the second, Lion’s Story Inc., is a group that researches and supports other education groups and projects. He is the author of four books. Published in 2010, Higher Learning is the most recent and was the focus of Thursday’s lecture. Above all, Peterson is dedicated to helping students succeed in college. “It’s about more than just making it” he said, “it’s about finding your own story.”

Peterson started the lecture with his high school experience and his not-so-easy transition to Penn. He admitted that in high school, he had little interest in pursuing any type of higher education. As he put it, he did not even know that Penn was an Ivy League school when he was encouraged to apply. He chuckled, “That’s how invested I was in the college application process.”

As an African American at the urban-centered, predominately white Penn, Peterson experienced what he called an “identity crisis.” He felt as though he was at the wrong place and constantly asked himself if he belonged there. This questioning of identity unfortunately came with academic struggle, and Peterson found himself doing the bare minimum for his classes and receiving grades he had “never seen before.” His own academic struggle inspired him to design a strategy for incoming students to take advantage of their four years.

Peterson gave the audience the raw outline of his book, including the three major components to education success. The first is understanding why you are here – at college, in a specific area of focus, wherever you might be. He emphasized the power of finding an “intense personal connection” to your work and using this enthusiasm to ride through the tough stages. He explained that college kids are sometimes too busy being students to think about what it means to be a student, and this can be an important refocusing tool.

The second component is knowing what you want to do. “Professors are facilitators,” he said, “you need to learn to teach yourself, guide yourself.” The third component is, of course, doing what you need to do. And it isn’t just about getting by, it is focusing your energy on specific goals and remaining passionate about those ambitions.

Peterson did not speak only in abstractions; he gave hard, practical advice. From critical reading skills, time management, procrastination, over-commitment, and paying for higher degrees, he mentioned some of the hurdles in navigating the college landscape. “People assume you’re going to fall into place,” he said, “but sometimes it takes a while.”

Throughout the lecture, Peterson kept the atmosphere relaxed. It was clear he wasn’t visiting Hamilton to dictate the “right way” to experience college, but rather to recognize the obstacles that a first-year student might encounter and discuss some of the solutions. Above all, Peterson stressed making personal connections with classmates. “Your greatest resource is your peer network,” he said, “don’t be afraid to ask for help.” Peterson certainly believes that his work is bigger than himself. Part of his motivation for completing the Ph.D. program is to inspire other African American youth to seek the same level of education. He ended the evening by emphasizing how lucky Hamilton students are to be in such a supportive community and the high expectations he has for all college grads; “I want you to change your life,” he said, “I want you to change someone else’s life.”
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