Freshman year is maybe the hardest year of all!

There is no question that the first semester of the freshman year of college is the most critical.

Many studies show that freshman year is the time when students most likely drop out of college, if not permanently, then temporarily. Freshman year is when many consider transferring (though most don’t). There are various factors at play.

Remember that college is meant to be a transitional point from being the responsibility of others—guiding you, directing you, really—to being responsible for yourself.

Parents, teachers, coaches, someone always told you what to do and when to do it. While there are rules in college, suddenly you are expected to figure things out for yourself. No one makes you do your homework during freshman year.

Assignments are rarely daily during freshman year, and it’s unusual to be quizzed on the previous night’s reading. You’re obliged to find help if you need it. There are no curfews or bed checks. No more babysitters! So, one of three things happens.

You breathe a sigh of relief and take charge of your life in a mature way, getting rest when you need it, making friends who are good for you, getting assignments done on time, partying in moderation.

Or you go crazy with the freedom, partying every night, making friends with persons who would petrify your parents, putting off assignments until the night before they’re due.

Or, during freshman year you become overwhelmed by the many options and crawl under the covers, hoping no one notices and feeling that you alone are unable to navigate this new path.

I have seen many students become intimidated by their classmates during their freshman year. Just remember, you were all accepted to your school because you met certain standards within a reasonable range.

Each of you brings different skills and experiences to freshman year. All of you are insecure. But some act with bravado, as if they know it all. Perhaps the majority of students just become quiet, figuring that if you don’t ask questions, no one knows how much you don’t know.

This doesn’t work because you won’t find the answers if you don’t ask the questions—and there are so many in this new environment. That will be most of you, unfortunately. You all sit in class or participate in other activities, collectively clueless and likely to remain so because no one has the guts to ’fess up to needing to ask questions.

Freshman year you need to learn your way around so you can focus your talents in the best places. You all are among the best from your secondary schools, and now you’re just one of many. And that is all right. Colleges want you to become the best of who you are now.

You may be returning to school after creating a work life or working and starting a family, so you may be older than most of your classmates. That may feel uncomfortable especially freshman year.

You may be closer in age to your faculty and feel that you’ve lost time, or you may have lost a job and need to build a new set of skills. You are not alone. My and other administrators’ experience is that you may be a better focused and determined student.

You are motivated to do what’s necessary, and you have less time to play, so you use your time wisely and well.

Freshman Year Connections

Among your new experiences is separation from the familiar. Freshman year you have to make new friends, learn new spaces, live or hang out with different people, perhaps eat unfamiliar foods, learn new ways of learning, and be guided by new rules.

That is a lot of new at one time. It helps at first, if you’re on a residential campus, to bring some of your favorite things with you—a stuffed animal, music, a favorite bedspread or poster, photos.

Today, technology makes staying connected to the familiar a lot easier via your iPod or Facebook. At first it’s tempting to stay connected to your old friends. But especially if your friends are at different campuses or living different kinds of lives, then you may have less and less to talk about as a college freshman.

So, you should begin to make new friends during your freshman year. One or two is just fine to start. She may be a roommate or he may be someone you meet at orientation. You need to have someone to talk, eat, and see a movie with. Your circle will expand over time as you get more involved in your courses and extracurricular activities during the course of your freshman year.

You may be encountering a far more diverse population in ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, and economic status than you have known before while in your freshman year.

Many high schools are fairly homogeneous, as are the communities they serve. On many, if not most campuses, some official is responsible for dealing with diversity issues. There are offices offering chaplains, rabbis, or other religious leaders.

Clubs and programs may serve your particular ethnic group or nationality or faith. These can be a great comfort during freshman year and you should not shy from engaging with them if they help you ease into campus life more smoothly during your freshman year.

They are not stigmatizing and, in fact, may allow you to celebrate your identity with pride and solidarity and share it with the larger campus community. Such groups are also a great way to make friends whose experiences may more closely mirror your own.

Settling In Freshman Year

In the freshman year, you will have orientations of various sorts—they are of the utmost importance. They may range from a day to a week and may be on or off campus. In some cases you can register for classes on a priority basis during orientation.

A vast amount of information is presented, usually along with a Freshman year handbook or Web site tips. You won’t remember everything you hear, so it’s wise to identify someone whom you feel you might go to when you need to talk. The person could be your adviser or your RA, an upper-classperson, a peer adviser, a dean, or a chaplain.

Freshman year you are taking the fundamental courses on which all your other learning will build. The required writing course, while seeming bothersome, especially if you consider yourself a good writer, teaches you to write differently.

In high school you fed back what the teacher gave you. In college you are expected to find your own voice, put forth your own theories, and back up your thinking with solid evidence.

The freshman year may be the only time professors help with grammar and structure.

Plagiarism is discussed during the first year. If you fall afoul of those rules, officials may cut you some slack, but not after that. A freshman year experience course of some sort may also be offered, which is designed to assure that you understand how college works both academically and in terms of key resources, such as library use.

The math or biology principles you need to understand are taught usually in freshman year courses. If you don’t get them then, you’ll struggle greatly later on in related classes that may be part of your major such as Chemistry or Economics.

This is the important time, during freshman year, to be sure you’re placed on the right class level, that you’re seeking tutoring or support, and that you’re sharing with an adviser any struggles you’re having with these entry-level courses You are not the only one your freshman year who may be seeking help. It is essential to do so if you need it.

In your freshman year you are taking first steps toward establishing mature responsibility for yourself in college, and you are accomplishing this in a safe space. The consequences of making a hash of it now are far less risky than if you were in a job or other major responsibility.

That is not to say that you can get away with serious offenses (violence, an F average, serious substance abuse), which do and should have appropriately severe consequences. But there is more forgiveness in the first freshman year than you will ever have later in life. And there is more support for getting it right in your freshman year than you will ever have either.

freshman year Dr. Marcia Cantarella is the author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide and a consultant on higher education, access and success. You may reach her at mycantarella@icanfinishcollege.com

freshman yearInformation on finding the right college fit at any age can be found in Chapter 1 of I CAN Finish College, as well as many tips on the freshman year.

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