Scholars Speak: Guest Blog by Forman Scholar Thomas Poliski

This week, Thomas Poliski kicks off our Scholars Speak student blog series. Thomas graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in mechanical engineering and recently started working at his first full-time job in his field in Atlanta.

The Scholars Speak section of our website is dedicated to sharing upperclassmen students’ and recent graduates' advice, experiences and perspectives to current and younger students. Read on to hear about Thomas’ experience in college, what he wishes his younger self knew and more helpful stories for students. 

What does pursuing a college degree mean to you?  

I’m sure pursuing a college degree has many different meanings depending on who you speak with, but I think a common theme among these meanings is opportunity. Some individuals just want to get their degree. Others want to actually learn more about something they are passionate about. Regardless, I would not be where I am today without my college degree and the experiences I had in pursuing it.

I know this is rare, but I actually rely upon what I learned in college to accomplish the day-to-day responsibilities of my current job. Even if that’s not the case in your future career, you will still rely upon the problem-solving and time-management skills that the college experience will instill in you, no matter what career path you choose. Ultimately, a college degree is validation that you set your mind to something, worked hard for it and eventually succeeded.  

What’s something you didn’t know during your first year in college that you wish you knew?  

Looking back, there are a few things I wish I would’ve known.

Number one, time management skills are essential to success in college. I recommend students schedule all of their assignments on a master calendar at the beginning of the semester and then organize them week-by-week on do-to lists.

Number two, never be afraid to reach out to your professor and/or teaching assistant. Their job is to teach and make sure students understand the material, so don’t feel overwhelmed talking to them. Emails are a non-confrontational way to yield a quick response to any question, comment or concern.

Number three, have fun. It always bothered me when my friends would cancel plans on me because they forgot they had an exam coming up and they needed to study. In college, plan accordingly. If you know you have an exam coming up, start studying as early as possible. That way, you’ll feel better about taking the exam and have more time for fun stuff.

Number four, make friends with your professor. I know this sounds a lot like number two, but if you’re interested in conducting research, get to know your professors and build those relationships as early as possible. You may not be qualified to do research as a freshman, but by putting yourself out there, you will get noticed and demonstrate your eagerness to know more about your chosen field. Hey, you never know when you may need a letter of recommendation down the road. 

What is your most memorable academic moment from your time in college? 

 I’ll never forget the time I presented my capstone research to the company I was working with. My group was given creative liberty to design our presentation however we wanted. The company was very impressed with what we delivered, and I felt extremely validated, as if all of my years in school beforehand were finally paying off.  

Tell us a time when you overcame a challenge. 

One time, my professor and I disagreed over a test question that was marked wrong. I knew I had selected the correct answer, and we debated back and forth for 15 minutes. Even though my professor didn’t initially agree with me, he finally came around to my point of view and gave me the points back. Lesson: when you believe in something, always stand your ground. 

For people who may not know about the Foundation, what role has the Foundation played in your educational journey?  

From a financial standpoint, the Foundation played a major role in allowing me to afford the expense of attending college. But the Foundation helped in other ways as well. The financial literacy courses I took taught me the importance of setting financial goals and being smart with my money. In addition, I always enjoyed when Rick flew down to Atlanta to visit me. That personal touch served as a reminder that the Foundation continued to care about my education – even when I was hundreds of miles away. The care packages were also amazing, especially when I found myself struggling in my studies. Overall, the Foundation treated me like family. They were a phenomenal resource and always pointed me in the right direction. They were there to help me succeed.  

As someone who grew up in either Salem or the Salem area, how has your community shaped your upbringing, and what do you think is needed to ensure the best future for Salem? 

I think the most important thing about Salem is its diversity. In general, the greater Salem area is very rural and white, and before high school I was never exposed to students of different racial and cultural backgrounds. Once I started at Salem High School, I made tons of friends who were Black and Hispanic. This was a defining experience because it forced me to see that not everyone is the same. In fact, it made me appreciate the beauty of different cultures and backgrounds.  

As for the future of Salem, I think younger students need to be exposed to and encouraged to participate in higher education. A lot of my friends’ parents, and even my own family, were blue-collar workers and didn’t always realize the benefits a college degree could provide. Beyond that, students shouldn’t simply focus on earning a degree. They should spend time developing their passions and tailoring their studies to honor those passions. Only then will students have the drive and motivation to accomplish their educational goals.  

If you had to give one piece of advice to a student who is applying for college, what would it be and why?  

Try not to focus on the grandeur of the college’s reputation. There is nothing wrong with wanting to go to a school with high rankings, but be sure to also look into the opportunities a school offers that you may want to take advantage of. You are responsible for making the most out of your college experience, and going to a school solely because it’s the “best” school in your chosen field isn’t enough to get you involved. Chances are the school has great opportunities, but you need to be ready to take advantage of what is offered. When visiting schools, seek out organizations you’d like to get involved with and really get a feel for the school’s culture and vibe. In short, make sure you’re selecting a school for the right reasons. If you are unsure about your choice, that’s okay too. You can look for opportunities once you get to campus, but the sooner the better. You will have feelings of regret in your senior year, wishing you got more involved, if you don’t take the time and effort to find your place early on.