By Caitlin Kelly
Few moments are as exciting, and intimidating, as your first few weeks of college or university. Some students have flown thousands of miles, leaving far behind family, friends, pets and everyone they’ve known, now lost in a sea of new faces and new expectations.
I attended the University of Toronto, traveling a quick, direct 30 minutes from my parents’ home by city bus to campus. The adjustment was mostly intellectual, not physical.
But most of my pals, headed to different schools? And those three super-encouraging high school English teachers who insisted I become a writer?
Instead, I had an English lit professor who wore a bowtie and a cape and who tossed off quotations in multiple languages. Terrifying!
I did like that he addressed us as Miss Kelly or Mr. Smith. It gave our class a gravitas that signaled clearly we had entered a new world. It was time to grow up.
When I taught freshman last year at an expensive private school in Brooklyn last year, it was obvious that some students had no idea what it meant to adjust to a more adult style of behavior: wandering into my class 30 minutes late without apology, blowing off clearly stated deadlines, sitting silent in a class of only six people.
A few tips:
If you think college life = getting drunk or high every day, (as, sadly, it does for some), stay home and save yourself, or your poor parents, a ton of wasted money. There’s no way you’ll be able to pay close attention in class, participate effectively or do decent work if the room is spinning or you’re bowing, once more, to the porcelain god.
If you find yourself in this pattern, head to the college counseling service for help.
Get enough sleep
A minimum of seven hours.
Eat healthy food
Protein, vegetables, fruit. Drink plenty of water. Carbs are quick, cheap and portable, (e.g. pizza, cookies, chips), but they don’t qualify as a smart steady diet.
Get to know a few of your professors beyond the classroom
Some profs are in a rush to flee after class; many of them are adjuncts, poorly-paid, with no office space and juggling multiple jobs on multiple campuses. Nonetheless, try to find a few whose classes you really enjoy and, if you’ve got time and interest, ask for their class-related advice and insights. Genuine interest in and enthusiasm for a teacher’s intellectual passion is something we enjoy and love to see.
High school, and its expectations, is another universe — don’t expect professors to cut you slack now
The greatest culture shock I saw in some of my students was their disregard for the serious business of higher education. If you’re paying $20,000 to $60,000, (yes, really), for a year of schooling, show up! Do the work on time. No professor wants to hear endless excuses why you can’t.
Meet your deadlines
Yes, you’ll get sick. Yes, someone in your family might die. Other than those reasons, get your work done and submitted on time. College is proxy for real life, the world in which your boss(es), every single day, will expect competence.
Develop good habits now and the adjustment won’t come as such a shock after you graduate.
Professors are human
They may seem scary, or weird, or both. But they/we are human beings, juggling many responsibilities, and your urgent email at 2 a.m. is not going to get read or responded to. We’re asleep! (Or wish we were.)
Remember that your professors are people, too. Smile. Say good morning or good afternoon. If you actually enjoyed a class or lecture or presentation, tell us. Like everyone else, we like to hear good news.
Politeness will go a long way to ease your transition
It’s hard to imagine for some people, but saying please and thank you, arriving to class more than 30 seconds before it starts, never arriving late, (or apologizing sincerely if you do), will make a real difference in how staff, administrators and teachers see and think of you. You’re not just the sum of your GPA.
Say please and thank you to everyone — from department secretaries to the janitors keeping the classrooms and cafeteria clean to dishwashers, groundskeepers, security staff. You never know when you might need their help. And their skill and energy are just as essential to your safe, clean, enjoyable college experience as your teachers or coaches.
Take advantage of every student group that can build your social and technical skills
Every school offers a wide range of opportunities to learn new and cool out-of-classroom skills, meet a more diverse group than those sharing your classes and, for those who want it, to develop your leadership abilities. The best experiences I had at school were working on the weekly campus newspaper, (which quickly gave me clips of published work which led to national magazine assignments while I was still an undergrad), and leading an exchange program between U of Toronto and UNC/Chapel Hill, a week spent on each campus. I still recall to this day some of what I saw and heard there, long after I’ve forgotten much class content.
Be sexually smart
Whoever you decide to have sexual relations with, protect your health. Know where and how to readily access affordable birth control and the morning-after pill or, worst case, abortion facilities. Don’t confuse the heady thrill of feeling attractive with thinking someone loves, or even likes, you. Do not drink or drug yourself past the point of informed mutual consent.
If you have been sexually assaulted, please report it, quickly, to campus and city/town police.
Treasure new friends
My best friend from freshman English class, decades later, traveled across the continent for my first wedding (and my second!) We met when we eye-rolled at one another in class. My life has been immeasurably richer for knowing her, and for our long, strong friendship.
Ask for help
You’ll hit roadblocks — emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical. But you’re also surrounded now by hundreds of people with wisdom, connections, contacts, experience and compassion. Whatever issue you’re struggling with, let someone know and don’t give up if you don’t get the response you need. Tell someone else.
Find someone to help you.
One of my students had a very difficult time and I was honored that she trusted me enough to share that with me so I knew what was going on and tried to do what little I could to help. Even after she dropped out of the program, she later let me know that my concern for her had made a difference.
Here are even more great tips from current American college students, published in The New York Times; I like all of them except for one — do not, do not, show up to class wearing pajamas. Seriously.
Have a great year!