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Students at computers (Jupiterimages/Getty Images/Comstock Images)
Students at computers (Jupiterimages/Getty Images/Comstock Images)

Freshman year is one big support group Add to ...

When Ashley Margeson graduated from high school, she was nervous about leaving her family home for her new life as an undergraduate at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

She didn’t know how to live on her own, manage a household or stick to a budget. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she says. However, within weeks of moving into residence, Margeson’s fears had largely abated. She found that she was part of a community of 100 other students, which included residence advisers who could help her deal with any difficult issue. “Residence was definitely the place I wanted to be,” she recalls. “It felt like a home, not just a place to sleep.”

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This May, almost three years after she first arrived at Acadia, the fourth-year nutrition-science student moved into an apartment off-campus. Margeson’s experience living in residence—she eventually became a residence advisor—taught her to be aware of how her actions affect others, how to resolve conflicts, and, most importantly, the value of knowing her neighbours. “I don’t think I could be pulling this off without first living in residence,” she says, adding that “everyone should live at least one year in residence. You learn so much about yourself.” Her sentiment can be applied to undergraduate life in general. With so many support services, opportunities and mentors, university is a safe place to make the transition from high school to adulthood.

For example, students can access co-operative education programs, which provide an intermediate step between the academic world and full-time employment. Daniel Finnis, a third-year engineering student at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia has participated in co-ops at three different companies. He worked at B.C.-based Surrey Fluid Power (a manufacturer of hydraulic parts). He then programmed a computer system to control vehicle headlights for Mercedes in Stuttgart, Germany. And, most recently, he was a software tester at LMI Systems in Delta, British Columbia. “Co-op is a chance to test-drive potential careers,” Finnis says. “I learned about what I enjoy doing, and the jobs I don’t want.” While in Stuttgart, Finnis learned how to work with workers who spoke a different language than he did and realized the value of being flexible. He also learned how to deal with different management styles and, more importantly, recognize employers that don’t suit him. Co-op is about more than acquiring soft skills, of course. Finnis gained valuable contacts and experience that will help him find employment when he graduates.

The key to these type of programs is that universities provide the infrastructure and support for students to try something new or apply their education in a relatively low-risk environment. “As soon as students enter postsecondary education, they take on a lot of responsibility,” says James Sanford, senior director of student services at Acadia University. “It starts in the classroom with higher academic expectations and then stretches into everything from extracurricular activities to personal health.”

University students navigating these new challenges are never alone. Counselling and academic services are there to help them as they learn to manage schedules, deal with stress and academic pressures, organize busy social lives and more. Support systems are not designed to bail students out but they do make universities more forgiving. “We want to help students learn to identify what they’re feeling, how they’re doing, so they know when and how to access what they need,” says Sanford. “When they move on, they will take those skills with them. University should instill a sense of confidence and comfort.”

For Margeson, taking advantage of everything university has to offer has accomplished just that. “Getting involved is what helped me survive first year,” she says, her voice self-assured. As a student at Acadia—a relatively small, undergraduate-focused school—she found that it was almost impossible to be anonymous and that made her feel like she was part of a supportive community. In a student club, she rediscovered her love of dance and now teaches beginner ballet and serves on the club’s executive. She also volunteers along with 250 other Acadia students to mentor children with disabilities. She was also elected to student government. The benefits of all these experiences are hard to measure but Margeson feels that her experiences have prepared her for life outside of university. “I now feel like I can get over any bump in the road because university has thrown so much at me in terms of academics, extracurriculars, social life,” Margeson says. “You can’t figure out how to do something differently until you’ve made mistakes, and I’ve been lucky enough to be in a place where I could make mistakes.” She adds, “I tell new students I meet that university isn’t all about books. Push yourself out of your comfort zone because there will always be someone there to catch you.”

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