Every year, I tell my first-year college students that higher education is not the same as high school. It truly is a different world. For some of them, they take heed to the advice. They think about their daily habits and if those habits are helping them to progress or if those habits are stunting their growth. I speak with students about the differences because I am well aware of the shock they experience entering college. In terms of expectations, course load, expectations (yes, I am aware I mentioned that word twice) and quality of work, college requires a new way of thinking and prioritizing.
It took my entire first year to figure that out. It was not just a matter of adjusting to new academic requirements, but also weaving life skills, like self-management, budgeting and locating additional resources, into the picture. Since time traveling is not possible, teenage me had to learn to live with my choices, but that does not mean adult me cannot reflect on those choices and be of some assistance to incoming first-year students. To aide in the adjustment period they will inevitably face, here are four habits they can adopt to ease the transition into higher education.
Become familiar with the campus culture
In my community service course, one topic I love to explore is culture shock. Not just from the standpoint of a person coming to a new country, but even a person traveling to a new state, region, and in some cases, another city or county within a state the person already lives in. It can be a major shift. Students are already trying to manage their newfound independence, so when they enter college, even if they have decided to commute, there is a certain level of shock they experience.
Occasionally the shock comes from a shift in demographics. Sometimes, the student body is homogenous and at other times, it may be very diverse. When exploring colleges, it is important to get a feel for their culture. How do students feel about the environment? What do they think about their safety? Is there a lack of diversity? It even expands to how colleges respond to students’ concerns. Is it quick? Is it one-sided? Is it handled in house or does the institution reach out to off-campus resources?
Researching a college is a form of investigation. Theoretically, students will be investing the next four years of their lives into a school. Therefore, the school should be reflective of their values, beliefs, mission and goals. A great resource, that is sometimes available on the institution’s website, is the school catalog. It may seem like a bore, but reading up on class attendance policies, the grading system, on-campus resources, and opportunities for grants / scholarships, programs of study, clubs, academic probation / suspension / expulsion, and even policies outlining the tools for communicating on campus can help students familiarize themselves with the college's expectations.
Build an on-campus support system
It is easy to feel lost in college with all of the adjustments that come along. Varying class schedules, campus activities, balancing work (if employed) and the course load alone is enough to rattle the brain. While it is important for students to maintain their support systems which include family and possibly childhood friends, it is also important that students are building an on-campus support system. Depending on the student, on-campus support will look different. Most often, I encourage students to:
· Meet with their advisor. Advisors are not just here to help students create a schedule. They are also there to provide clarity, guidance and sometimes a place to cry. Advisors, to me, are students’ first lines of defense. They have a familiarity with the campus that allows them to provide and/ or connect students to resources both on and off campus. Regardless of the campus size, students need to make sure their advisors know who they are, and by KNOW, I mean their names, their likes, their strengths and definitely their weaknesses. Those ingredients create a genuine versus generic relationship.
· Meet with instructors. Not every instructor is going to reach out to students when they have missed a class, performed poorly on an exam, or is turning in work that lacks quality. Students regularly spot that common difference once they are in college. Unlike in high school, where teachers may seek students out, that is not always the case in college. The responsibility falls on the student to reach out to the instructor to schedule a meeting or to ask for clarification. Just like it is important for advisors to know students, it is also important for instructors to know their students.
· Visit the counseling center. One thing I try to keep in mind, especially in regards to traditional undergraduates, is that they sometimes fall into two categories. Either they have not developed healthy coping mechanisms, or the coping skills they currently have do not work the same in college as they did in high school. Although people attach stigmas to seeking mental health services, it is more important that students are putting their needs ahead of other’s opinions. While I have suggested to students to visit the counseling center, there have been times when I have taken that walk with students so they know they are not alone in trying to figure out their place in a new environment.
Set realistic expectations
I cannot count how many times I have seen and heard students stress about the possibility of getting a “B” or worst a “C.” I think about the tremendous amount of pressure they place on themselves to achieve perfection. I love the advice our previous Dean would give students entering our program. “Don’t strive for A’s. Strive for subject-matter understanding. When you dedicate yourself to understanding the material you are learning, the A’s will naturally come.” I like to believe it is a good reminder to students to, instead of chasing perfection, to chase after understanding; so much so that that material does not flee students’ minds after a test, but remains well after they have graduated.
It is common for students to blame their instructor or the environment for their shortcomings. From what I have witnessed, it is just easier, sometimes, to blame someone, or something else, than to accept responsibility. When I meet with students, I like to ask them a few key questions.
When did you meet with your professor?
What times are tutoring services available?
Who, in your class, have you asked for help?
If students say they have not done any of these, then my next question is to ask, “Who had control over taking these steps?” They cannot control their instructors, they cannot control their classmates, and they cannot always control their environment. However, they can control themselves- their actions, behaviors, attitude and interactions. At some point, students have to point their finger in another direction. Preferably towards themselves.
About the author: Latanya Muhammad is an advisor, group facilitator and freelance writer. Her writing has appeared on Her View From Home, Blunt Moms and Reality Moms. When she is not writing, she is wrangling her two children and husband. To read more of her work, or to connect, visit www.shetanagain.com and Shetanagain Writes on Facebook and Instagram.