Sounding more like parents than peers, the recent graduates advised students at Liberty High to take as many Advanced Placement classes as possible, that partying in college isn't all it's cracked up to be and to study hard now because the work only gets more difficult after high school.
Greeting each other with hugs and smiles in hallways that now seem smaller, about 50 alumni returned to the school in Eldersburg as part of Alumni Visitation Day last week. They had come to answer the question, "If you could do high school over again, what would you do differently or do the same?"
The school's small learning communities facilitator, Patricia A. Keenan, coordinated the event, which focused on the idea that former students are perfect messengers on how to prepare for life after high school.
"Tell them what you're doing now ... but don't lecture," Keenan told the alumni, who nibbled on pastries in the school's media center as they picked up packets that indicated which classrooms they would visit.
Keenan encouraged the alumni to talk to the students about the importance of becoming active in school clubs, adjusting their goals as they move through high school, managing their time and living on a budget.
She also asked the college students to share their experiences adjusting to campus life, including living with roommates.
Before sending the alumni to classrooms throughout the school -- which has 1,126 students -- Keenan told them to be honest about the college party life, including talk of alcohol and drugs, but to avoid glamorizing it.
In one class of ninth-graders, two college sophomores and a freshman told the students to take advantage of AP courses and to use the next few years to take a variety of classes to determine their interests.
"High school is all about finding out who you are," said Tom Maskell, 19, of Eldersburg, who graduated from Liberty in 2003 and is a sophomore studying history at Wesley College in Dover, Del. "When I started high school, I wasn't interested in humanities or literature. But [by taking different classes], you'll become interested in things you thought you wouldn't be."
Brad Dyjak, 19, of Eldersburg, a 2003 Liberty graduate who is a sophomore at York College in York, Pa., encouraged students interested in college to pursue as many AP courses as possible to become acclimated to the more rigorous workload.
"AP classes are essential," said Dyjak, a political science major, who added that he shaved off nearly a semester of college with credits earned through the advanced courses. "It lays the foundation. It's as close to college work as you can possibly get."
While Jessica Thompson, 19, of Eldersburg agreed that taking AP courses is important, she cautioned the ninth-graders against taking too many in one semester. Although she earned 15 college credits by taking AP courses in high school, she said the semester she took three such classes was tough. She encouraged them to start taking AP courses as early as 10th grade to spread out the workload.
"Try to challenge yourself," said Thompson, who graduated from Liberty this year and is a freshman studying psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. "If you can coast through high school, that won't work in college."
The discussion about AP courses resonated with Laura Walker, a 14-year-old high school freshman from Eldersburg, who was intrigued by the prospect of entering college with 15 credits under her belt.
"I was originally thinking of waiting until my senior year to take them," said Walker, who plays junior varsity soccer and softball and is also involved with the art club. "But I'm going to try to take [an AP course] next year. ... I'm going to try to spread them out, that way I'm not piled up with homework."
The three alumni challenged the students to discover as much as possible about their likes and dislikes during high school because, they said, the pressure in college to meet credit requirements doesn't allow as much time to experiment with different career paths. They added that even once in college, there is still opportunity to change plans.
"I didn't quite know what I wanted to do when I went to college," Dyjak said. "It's OK not to know. ... But when it came time to decide, I asked myself, what classes at Liberty High did I enjoy the most."
Because college isn't all books and studying, the ninth-graders peppered the three alumni with questions about parties and whether to join sororities and fraternities.
While Dyjak quickly discounted the value of partying at college, Thompson said she has attended many functions during her first semester at Temple.
"But it really gets old after a while," Thompson said.
Maskell also played down the party scene, adding, "You can feel your brain slipping out of your ear."
They encouraged the students to visit prospective colleges to get a feel for the campus before deciding where to enroll.
Thompson -- who stunned the group with her account of having a gun held to her head by a man who had wandered onto Temple's campus during her second week of college -- said there are good and bad aspects to attending a school in a major metropolitan area.
"The subways are not pleasant, but the campus is nice," she said. "Parts of the city have nice places. ... And once you have a Philly cheesesteak, you'll never want to eat one from anywhere else."
She said she initially considered joining a sorority and acknowledged, "It's a perk to be a sorority girl," but she changed her mind because "I didn't want to pay $300 for friends."
All three encouraged the students to take advantage of opportunities to work in groups with other students by joining school clubs, in part to explore interests in different subjects, but also to make friends.
"Middle school to high school is a big transition. ... I know it's a big transition," Dyjak said. "It's similar [when going from] high school to college."