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?