The Making of You: Bill Livingston’s Advice

livingstonUT senior vice president and former acting president Bill Livingston, who died Aug. 15 at age 93, retired in 2007 after 58 years at the University. In an Alcalde story (“Goodbye and Good Luck“), Livingston shared some his best advice for UT students, alumni, professors, and other members of the Longhorn universe. We’re received so many requests for back issues of this story over the years that we’ve decided to republish an excerpt of it here.

As told to Avrel Seale.

My advice to an incoming freshman…

Get your physical and personal affairs in order before school starts. Settle questions of where you’re going to live, furnish your apartment, bring your stuff to the campus, one hopes, several days before school starts. Find out where you can have lunch and where to get your laundry done and so forth, so that those things are settled before you start school.

Second, when you start attending classes, find out what you can about the teachers. There’s information available on the web, at the department. Talk to the department secretary and ask whom you might get information about them from.

The third thing is in a different mode: You are going to be expected to write and write well. In high school you may have had to write a few essays or reports of some kind, but you’re going to find yourself required to do many more of them at the University. That will begin right now in your freshman year. If you do not have the habit of writing, get in the habit quickly. Be assured that whatever you now do and write will be judged and become a part of your record, your persona, your past and future. This is important, and indeed a heavily significant change in the course of your life, and you’re going to be making a permanent record. The essays you write, the exams you take, the reading you do will be judged, and the record will become a permanent part of your University record, and that record becomes a permanent part of your life.

If you see this as another enjoyable enterprise in the course of a life that began in high school, where you had a lot of fun there and didn’t worry much about courses, believe me, your life is changing. You must understand that you are now an adult, you are now in a new adventure, but that adventure is a permanent part of your existence.

The one thing I have found is you typically don’t know how to write properly. You can write better than you do. There’s no way you can just jot it down or toss it off and turn it in. You must think about it; you must work it over, you’ve got to read it and see what errors you made and correct them; you’ve got to make the style readable and pleasant to the ear. You must study hard to make your writing conform to the expectations of your professor. If it’s a report on a book, that’s one thing. If it’s an essay on some subject, that’s quite another thing. You probably have not yet written an essay, although some of the things you’ve turned in you may have called essays. An essay is an attempt—that’s what the word means. If you essay something, you are trying to say something about something. If you have an essay on Congress or ballerinas or some topic, you’ve got to have something to say about them. You’ve got to make an opinion. That’s what an essay is.

And you have to make it clear. You can’t just say, “Oh, well, I talked about it, so what I have to say is obvious.” It isn’t obvious. When you turn an essay in at the University, you are saying to a professor, “This is absolutely the best work of which I am capable.” And he will judge you on that basis. He will not say, “Oh well, this was just a freshman essay, and it doesn’t count for much of anything; he’ll learn.” Well, “he’ll learn” is over. You’re learning now or you are not learning now. It’s up to you to accept the fact that you’re an adult, you’re making your career, you’re building your future, and your future is going to be a reflection of what you’ve done from now on.

The other thing is, for God’s sake, if you drink a lot, quit. Don’t drink. More kids have gotten in trouble from drinking, and drugs for that matter, than any other reason. The University is going to take a very hard line with anybody who gets into trouble because of alcohol. Don’t let yourself do that. And the best way to avoid getting trapped by alcohol is don’t touch it. That is easier for some than for others, for social reasons as well as just personal reasons. But be careful, be careful, be careful. That’s part of the making of you.

My advice to a new alumnus…

Maintain your affiliation with the University. The best way to do that is to become a member of the Texas Exes, and I hope you will do that. The Exes have a very elaborate, very active program. They publish a splendid journal called the Alcalde, which as I remember means “the old boss,” and the Alcalde has a very elegant editor. (He’s listening to this.)

There are all sorts of ways to keep in touch. The Exes is the most obvious one, and they will continue to suggest ways to you to improve your relations with the University. But you all have departmental affiliations. You all have some kind of affiliation with individual faculty members. Let me tell you that the faculty member who receives a letter from a student a couple of years after he’s graduated, the student saying, typically, how much he appreciated the course—he’s giggly delighted to have something like that. It warms him and therefore the University toward you.

Your life at the University looks toward your life after the University, and whatever you did while you were here has helped lead you into whatever you’re doing now. Some of you are technical specialists because you studied that specialty while you were here. Others simply went through the University wondering what you were going to do when you got out, and that’s particularly true in the liberal arts, which is my home. Don’t feel you’ve been left out because you studied something in the liberal arts. That made you a better person, a bigger person, and better able to command activities that you’re now engaged in. See what the relation is between your University life and your new life, and you’ll find that there’s more than meets the eye.


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