Sunday, August 17, 2014


Tips for New Students

The goings-on in Ferguson are too disheartening for words, so in the interest of preserving my mental health, I’m focusing closer to home.  Based on years of observation, here are some tips for students who are about to start their first semester at a community college.  If you’re a student about to start at a community college, or if you know someone who is, I hope these are helpful.

- Find out about public transportation options, even if you have a car and plan on driving.  Students who have cars typically have inexpensive ones, by necessity, and sometimes they break down.  If you have a contingency plan for getting to school when your car isn’t an option, you’ll be less likely to lose class time and fall behind.  Many colleges include the cost of a local bus or subway pass in their general student fees.  Knowing that, and having routes at the ready, can spare you weeks of struggle.  (Related: especially in September, if you drive to campus, allow extra time to find a parking space.  Seriously.)

- Attend New Student Orientation.  I know, I know, it seems like just one more thing you have to do.  But some of the information you receive will come in handy later.  When are signups for the following semester?  (Signing up early can get you the best timeslots.) Where can you find your academic advisor?  What’s the last date to drop a class?  Where do you go if you have a question or a complaint?  

- Check any status issues at the door.  Did you have to “settle” for a community college?  Do you think it’s just a way-station until you can get to a “real” college?  If so, get over yourself.  You’ll quickly find that the faculty don’t share your view, and they’ll expect as much from you as anyone else would.  

- Stop by the Career Center ASAP.  Many entering students think of Career Services as something to do at the end, if at all.  It’s something to do from the outset.  The better ones can help you identify your own goals, and then chart paths toward them.  Depending on which career you have in mind, you may need to make plans to transfer after the Associate’s degree.  If that applies to you, find the local Transfer Counselor ASAP and discuss where you want to go.  Different four-year colleges take different combinations of classes in transfer; if you plan strategically from day one, you can select courses that will transfer with you.

- Books.  Yes, they’re expensive.  But doing without is self-sabotage.  Find a way to get what you need.  Many campuses have textbook rental programs, which are cheaper upfront than purchases.  You can often find used books, whether formally or informally.  I have known students to cruise the aisles at the bookstore, writing down ISBN numbers, and then go online to find them cheaper.  (For classes with lots of different sections, you can look for the section with the cheapest books.)  Sometimes you can find texts on reserve at the campus library.  Do what you need to, but don’t try going without.  Dropping out or flunking out won’t leave you any better off than before you started.

- Childcare.  Jobs.  Family issues.   Address these before you start.  The longer you put off dealing with them, the harder they get.  Life will happen, even if you have other plans, but at least having plans will reduce the chances of you being thrown off course.  

- Disabilities.  If you have a learning disability, a physical disability, or a behavioral issue that might interfere with your academic success,  DON’T HIDE IT.  Get to the campus office for disability services ASAP, and work with them to get the documentation you need (and are legally entitled to have).  Too many students try to “tough it out,” only to discover too late that they’ve fallen too far behind to catch up.  There is no shame in getting help.  The only shame is in wasting talent.  Don’t let fear of judgment overshadow your talent.  I’m happy to report that campus attitudes towards accommodations have come a long way just in the last few years.  On my own campus, more than one out of eight students receive services.  You’re not alone.  Working with the disability services office early -- from the first time you arrive -- will give you something closer to a level playing field.  

- Internet and computer access.  Don’t just rely on open campus labs to write papers and do research.  They tend to get full just when you need them most, because most people have similar deadlines.  If you can’t afford your own device, make contingency plans for what to do when the campus labs aren’t an option.  If you can afford a device but not a monthly internet access charge, find local spots with free wifi.  A used chromebook can be had for less than two hundred dollars, and it works fine on the wifi at McDonald’s.  In some settings, rentals are also an option.  Many campus-based classes have online components now, so it’s no longer possible to shrug this off if you don’t take online classes.  Better to plan ahead.

- Find a way to make it easy to read the emails you get from the college.  Most colleges allow students to forward their campus emails to a personal account; if you only ever bother checking one account, forward it there.  I know it can seem like spam, but reminders about registration deadlines can save you late fees, closed classes, and all manner of frustration.

- Tutoring.  Most campuses have free tutoring centers, and many offer free online tutoring, as well.  Even if you don’t think you’ll need it, find out where to get it.  Sometimes a quick drop-in can clarify that one nagging bit of confusion that’s holding you back.

Many colleges have their own local quirks, but these strike me as pretty universal.  

Wise and worldly readers -- including current students -- what would you add?

Visit the campus and identify all of the places that look like good places to park. Ignore them, because they will be full unless you have an 8:00 class. Look for a lot that looks like it is hard to get to or just hard to find.

Find out if you can study in or near the tutoring center. This can be an ideal place for a study group to meet between classes. You did schedule an hour between classes so you can do some homework there, right?
Here's one from a college roommate (though I admit I never mastered it myself). If you use a calculator in some of your classes, try to learn how to use it quickly and accurately with your non-writing hand. Then you can compute and write without having to go back and forth.
Don't try to charm your teacher when you haven't done a due assignment. It may have worked in high school to get extra time or make up work, but it won't in college.

Join some student club which interests you. You will meet many other students in a social setting. This is especially important if you went to school with the same kids for 6 or more years. The new students you meet in college will give you a chance to practice your social skills without the expectations or what you are like of your former classmates.
Nice Lennon reference there under childcare.
HSLP of Dean Dad reminds me that they should do enough homework to be able to use their calculator quickly and accurately, period. You would be surprised how slow they are on a calculator compared to their Fb app.

Anonymous reminds me of something I put in a blog many years ago about the difference between HS and college: In HS you were required to attend but your teachers were required to find some way to pass you. In college, you are NOT required to attend and your professors are NOT (at most places) required to pass you.

That popular freshman instructor who gives lots of extra credit is just setting you up for failure.
Studying: Explore campus and find a place where you can get some good studying in. Find it before you need to study. I.e. Do you like quiet spaces? Busy spaces? Bit of both? Do you like cubicles/study desks?

Student Clubs: Already said (@Anonymous). Find something other than classes to occupy your time. It is important to meet other students outside of class who are facing the same challenges as you. Sports, hobbies, games clubs, whatever it is. The solidarity boosts morale! My universities had "club fairs" the first week of classes where all the clubs recruited new members.

Entertainment: If you're from out of town, find some local places to unwind. Stress ratchets up very quickly. I did a lot of studying at school and at home, so sometimes I needed to get away from both places to keep my mental health from disintegrating. Granted, I was a single teenager at the time, so this might look very different to a student with family.

Offices: When you get your syllabi, make sure you know where your prof/TA's office is. If you don't know, find it in person. When your assignment is due and you had a power failure and a printer failure (has happened to me), you don't want to be looking for an office.

E-mail: If you know you're not going to check your campus e-mail, set up an IMAP or mail-forwarding right away. Some in-house systems can be finicky, so get it done right, and before you find out you've been missing e-mails.
When you walk into class or lab for the first time, find the oldest person there and make friends with them. They are probably returning to school with a purpose. They have been out in the real world and are in school because they want to be.
Don't fail quietly. Fail loudly, and with great fanfare. Sometimes, this will mean people can help keep you from failing, or help you fail less disastrously.

By this I mean, don't just sit there and quietly panic and/or give up when you don't understand something or can't figure out how to get yourself out of whatever mess you've found yourself in. Ask your classmates. Ask the tutoring center. Ask your professor during office hours. Reach out for help from the office of disabilities, office of diversity/minority students, and the office of any other helpful-looking thing you may find. (I went to a school that had a Dean of the Chapel. He was a pretty helpful guy who'd been there forever, knew how to navigate the campus bureaucracy, and was perfectly willing to help out students figure things out even if it wasn't a religious issue or a student of his particular religion having the issue.) Sure, you might lose that look of cool competence you've been trying to cultivate, but it's probably better to look stupid but pass calculus than fail calculus but convince the other freshmen you totally have your act together.
Safety - find out from older students where the places not to go are - bad lighting, paths where people can't be observed; which fraternities/groups to avoid because they just invite trouble; which profs/adjuncts/TAs have dodgy reps; any unwritten rules about what could make a person a target e.g. being at a fraternity after a certain time. Find out what campus security offers e.g. will they walk you to your car after dark if you are feeling unsafe etc.
I love Anon 3:18's "Don't fail quietly" comment. This is great advice. People want to help someone who's asking for help. You'll never know how many people unless you ask!
I know it's been said, but it's so important that I'm going to repeat it: talk to someone at the first sign of difficulty. You don't even have to be failing - if you thought you aced the exam and get it back with a B, go talk to your professor. Heck, if you got an A but missed all the questions on topic X, go see the professor. Office hours are there for your benefit. Email them, if you can't make office hours - perhaps they can solve your problem over email, or with skype. Go see the tutoring center. Visit the dean of students if you're having trouble with anything, inside or outside of school - they often have resources to help you, or at least they'll know where to send you (food bank? discount bus passes? child care exchange network?). There are many people on campus who want you to succeed, but you have to go ask them first.

If you are not sure what you want to do, start with the hardest thing and work your way to the easiest.

If you can take art classes at the JC, do it. They will be hard to get into at many transfer schools.

If you really want to major in the sciences, take all the freshman and sophomore level courses before you transfer. Minimize GE and take chem and calculus as soon as possible.

12 units is enough for your first semester.

Talk to the transfer counselor at the school you want to go to AFTER the CC (your destination school) and ask them how to plan your courses. Find out about transfer agreements early and plan for them.

When you go for advising, arrive with a plan that you have created using the school catalog and only have the advisor check it. Do not let them make the plan for you.

Get internships and work in a field that interests you.

Form study groups and make friends so you don't get isolated.
Printers. Most of our students have access to some form of computer but either they do not have a printer, or they have such a cheap printer it has the life span of a fruit fly and is always out of ink.

Make sure you know the places to access printers on campus and how much they cost. Think about crowds and lines and bringing enough change (or loading it on your printing card) if you plan to print an assignment right before turning it in at class. Also check your supply of paper and ink if you have a printer at home.
Keep copies of any work you submit in Dropbox or something similar. That's especially important if you submit papers to a mailbox or under an office door--these things go astray, and you need to be able to re-submit if necessary.
Go to class every day and get there early. If you know you are going to miss a class, politely email the professor to let them know and be apologetic.

Please don't assume that because the professor doesn't say anything to students who walk in 5 minutes late every class that he or she does not notice and will not hold it against those students.
I'd like to put a plug in for NOT having email forwarded to a personal account. In my experience (not at a CC, but I can't imagine it's much different) something often goes wrong and some messages don't get forwarded or don't get forwarded fast enough. I'd say stick with the school email and check it once a day.
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