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first person

Illustration by Ashley Wong

This week, First Person explores the challenges of going back to school.

So you’ve graduated high school, and are off to university in the fall? Congratulations! As a mom of two teenagers, I look forward to that day myself. But perhaps you’re apprehensive about your first year in university? There is much to be thinking about: paying for university, making new friends, looking to succeed in a new environment. I’ve been a university professor for more than 25 years. I’ve met a lot of first-year students. If you want a little advice to get ready for university, I have some tips.

University is not a more difficult version of high school

I think a lot of students enter university with the message that they will have to work harder and face more competition. But how many of them realize that university is a place where the work is different, that it goes beyond acquiring knowledge and skills? Universities, and the professors within them, are oriented toward research. That means that we are keenly interested in solving new problems, advancing existing knowledge and seeing the world in new ways. We don’t just want to train you to absorb information – but to prepare you to ask your own, new questions and find an innovative answer. This means having curiosity about the world and wanting to find a better way to do things are real advantages in university. Instead of fearing the university workload, the student can look forward to a chance to acquire new habits and creative ways of doing things.

Take your time

You may be surprised to hear that I would like to encourage students to slow down. The young adults that I meet are very comfortable with finding information quickly and with fulfilling tasks that are given to them. But doing good quality work takes time. Do you know what the biggest problem is that I find when I go to mark exams at the end of the term? It is not the wrong answer – it is the incomplete answer. I give students three hours to write exams, but many leave well before time’s up. When answers stray from the question asked or are too brief to answer the question fully, it makes me wonder whether the student is rushing, and if so – why? I suspect that our fast-paced culture plays a role here – but an exam is a rare occasion when a student can sit in a relatively quiet place with their own thoughts, and take their time. Exams can be nerve-wracking, but it is possible to be comfortable in an exam room. It is not a race. Similarly, when I mark research papers or written assignments, one of the most important things I am looking for is that students have taken the time to read thoroughly, reflect on what they’ve read and taken the time to organize their thoughts in a logical manner.

Trade school taught me more than a skill

We want you to succeed

Movies and television are full of weary, curmudgeonly professors who delight in failing students, but I don’t know anyone like that in real life. It is our job to help you learn and to fulfill your potential. When I walk into a classroom and see those nervous faces for the first time, I do so knowing that soon my own kids and their friends will be in that same situation. I care about the students as people, but it is their work I mark. This is important to know. When I assign the student a mark, it is based on the particular work they have done. It is not a judgment I am passing on that person. If the person gets a lower mark (say a B-minus) than they wanted for a particular assignment, I have not prejudged that student as a B-minus person. Every assignment is a new chance to learn from past experience and to do well. When students find themselves in difficulty at the university, there are places they can turn to for help. And students often seem to be more self-conscious than they need to be. If a student arrives late for class, they don’t need to be embarrassed – I probably won’t even notice. If I do notice, I’ll assume that they’re late because of transportation issues, not because of some character flaw. If a student sends me an e-mail at 3 a.m. they later regret, they can rest assured they are not the first student in the world who has ever done this.

Talk to your prof

Professors typically hold regular office hours where students can drop in, ask questions or just chat. If they miss a class, they can come see me to catch up. If they have something they want to discuss with me one-on-one or they are concerned about their marks, that’s what those office hours are for. Much communication between students and professors occurs by e-mail, but e-mails don’t always communicate exactly what the student wants from the professor, so the prospective student can be encouraged to work on writing crisp, clear e-mails. There is a level of formality here that students would be well advised to prepare for. It’s customary to use the title “Professor” or “Doctor” – not “Miss” or “Ma’am” or “Hey.” We are not on our high horses here – we actually often use these titles when we speak to our colleagues in meetings or conferences. Acknowledging the credentials earned by others is part of a larger culture of respecting education. That said, when I meet first-year students next year, I will be looking forward not to teaching at them, but learning with them.

Professor Andrea Chandler lives in Ottawa, and teaches at Carleton University.

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