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FHS alumni offer tips to surviving freshman year of college

Photo: Dexter Carpenter

By Kevin O'Donnell, Academic/Administration Editor

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As summer rolls around, hundreds of thousands of juniors and seniors across America are scrambling to get ready for college. As excited as they are, many also are stricken with fear at the thought of it and read articles like this one looking for the secrets to surviving freshman year.

According to the American College Testing Program, nearly one in every four college freshmen leaves or switches schools before finishing sophomore year. They drop like flies trying to handle the new environment’s challenges, including homesickness, intense academic pressure and unstructured living. Students who blossomed in high school with impressive 4.0 GPAs might experience sobering shock when they receive that first C.

Thousands of Fairmont students have made the transition from structured high school life to the freedom of college. Kendra Elam, a freshman at Findlay University majoring in Special Education, says the best part of college is having more freedom and not having to go to school from 8 to 3.

On the other hand, the lack of rigid rules means students have to find their own way to stay afloat amid a sea of rigorous classes and other demands. Most students, professors and counselors cite one crucial requirement: organization, organization and organization. “I wish I would have made a schedule at the beginning of each week,” said Miami University freshman Ben Powers, also a Fairmont grad.

Most classes aren’t in a row, and Ashlynn Kohlberg says remembering what classes fall on what days and times can be a challenge. “I went shopping for a big white board that has a monthly calendar on it to write out my monthly schedule,” said Kohlberg, a freshman at the University of Cincinnati.

But what might work for one person could be useless to another. A personalized strategy for tackling college life is often the best. “The only person I have found that can get me on track is myself,” said Ashley Hale, a psychology major at The Ohio State University.

The rigorous course loads and abundance of homework are leading causes of college attrition, but many students prepare for this by challenging themselves in high school. “Most of my classes seem a lot easier than I thought they would be because of how hard my AP classes were, and I know what standard my work should be at,” said Kohlberg. “Mr. Mitter’s Calculus BC class taught me that not everything is about the grade and sometimes you just have to let things go.”

The transition into dorm and college life can be eased by some simple gestures, such as calling one’s roommate in advance to get to know him or her, as Elam did. Powers was worried about his roommate as well, but he soon found there was no cause for concern. “We quickly found out that we have a lot in common, and now we’re really good friends,” he said.

“Homesick? Me? Nahh.”

Most teens look forward to the day when they no longer have to be told what to do by their parents, but many freshmen soon experience the lonely pang of homesickness. At first, Elam even disliked Findlay because of it. Her remedy: “Keep yourself busy. Go and hang out with friends when you have nothing to do. Just sitting in your room makes it worse,” she said.

There are still plenty of ways to keep in contact with old friends and family. Social networking sites like Facebook can keep you up to date on home life, and on Skype you can video chat for free. Even a short text message or email to Mom or Dad can be comforting for both teens and parents.

Many freshmen return home on the occasional weekend for a dose of familiarity, especially if they’re attending a local college. But advisers discourage frequently leaving campus. “It’s important to get acclimated to campus life, which many commuter students miss out on,” said Cari Wallace, director of New Student Programs at the University of Dayton.

Pay attention to your health

The allure of eating a cornucopia of junk food can be even greater in college, given the scarcity of money and time for a balanced diet. Classes often overlap traditional meal times and while many students won’t rave about the “gourmet” dining-hall food, others can’t get enough of it. The variety and fact that often students can go back for seconds, thirds or fifths contributes to the overeating problem.

A dreaded byproduct of these eating habits is the “Freshman 15” pounds that plague many first-year students. Nonetheless, keeping healthy is essential to surviving college. After all, it’s hard to go to class sick, and it’s much harder to keep up when you miss classes in college than it is in high school.

It almost goes without saying that avoiding drugs and alcohol can keep a person healthier and more alert. With the freedom of college, it’s easy to slip into a pattern of late-night boozing. “If you’re going to get addicted to something, get addicted to exercise,” said Powers, who competes on a martial arts team at his school. “There’s no reason to spend your peak physical years staying up till 3 every morning playing video games … but it’s OK every once in a while.”

Staying financially afloat

The ACT says many college dropouts cite lack of financial stability as their main reason for leaving school. What do college kids do to fight this? Hale works at Family Dollar. Dan Miles, a senior at Miami University, left a campus catering job to start a lawn-care business. According to the American Council on Education, 78 percent of undergraduates have jobs, mostly 30 hours a week.

This does pose problems, as outside work can get in the way of school work. Wallace recommends taking a campus job, but only if one can balance it with scholastic life and social life. “A campus job is the best job because they understand you’re a student,” said Wallace.

Keeping track of funds gets especially hard with credit cards. Most advisers say to avoid these, as expenses can rack up quickly. But the challenge of balancing money is also part of the college experience. “Expect cafeteria food every day. Expect to be broke. Expect Wal-Mart to become your new best friend,” said Heather Hershey, a Fairmont grad attending Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio.

HELP!

It isn’t always easy to ask for help. But in a new environment like college, it can be the difference between sinking and swimming. In most schools, there are plenty of resources and people ready to point you in the right direction. Student Learning Offices provide tutoring, while academic advisers can help with conflicts and finding the right major, activities and classes. And don’t forget about resident assistants who live in the dorms. These upperclassmen are there to introduce students to activities, mediate conflicts and provide one-on-one counseling and support.

Trent Pinto, a Resident Life assistant at UD, says two reasons students don’t make it are because they aren’t prepared or they don’t want to ask for help.  “We’re here to help you, but you have to be willing to ask for it,” said Pinto.

The same goes for professors. Because of the typically larger size of classes in college, it can be harder to get to know a professor, but most set aside office hours for the sole purpose of meeting with students. “If you are struggling in a class, go to a teacher during office hours. If you are really interested in the subject, go talk to the teacher,” said Miles. “People are always willing to point you in the right direction.”

But Miles also reminds freshmen to be wary of upperclassmen giving directions on campus. “If they are smiling really big,” he said, “you might want a second opinion.”

Finding what works for you

Above all else, finding a school that fits the person is the biggest factor in college success and happiness. This takes time and research. Checking out college websites, planning school tours and establishing contacts is a great place to start. Many schools will pair interested high school students with a college student who shows them around and takes them to classes. There are also plenty of surveys available online and through the mail – like MyMajors.com – that can help in choosing a major.

Homework is an inescapable part of college, but Hershey says the school work doesn’t change, you just become more responsible for it. “Have discipline,” said Hershey. “It’s hard to do homework without Mom, Dad, Grandma, etc. looking over your shoulder.” With the abundance of work, it’s a good idea to tackle projects early to get the jump on deadlines. It’s not as easy to pull an all-nighter with three papers after procrastinating for weeks.

As in high school, it can be difficult to balance class work with extracurricular activities and other interests. “Get involved in a way that matches your course level and ability,” said Wallace. Joining clubs, organizations, teams and other groups provides valuable experiences and helps build friendships.

In a place where almost everyone is a stranger at first, making the effort to reach out is the best way to get connected and feel at home in a new school. Andrea Kelsey, a freshman at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio, did just that. “I started talking to my classmates and going to more events on campus, which allowed me to meet new people,” she said.

Above all, college is about you: learning what your interests are, finding out what kind of person you are and preparing for life. For many, it’s a chance to start fresh. These tips can help along the way, but it’s up to you to make your college experience what you want it to be.

1 Comment

One Response to “FHS alumni offer tips to surviving freshman year of college”

  1. Andrea Kelsey on May 18th, 2010 10:21 am

    Great article, but I just wanted to make a correction:
    I go to Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC, not Muskingham.

    [Reply]

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The school newsmagazine of Kettering Fairmont High School.
FHS alumni offer tips to surviving freshman year of college