Every freshman sees it.
Everywhere around campus, returning students are surrounding themselves with friends, activities and social programs. Some walk by in varsity team jackets, others in intramural T-shirts. Still others wear hoodies of a fraternity or sorority.
New students see this and wonder, "How do I fit in?" Add to that nervousness about academics, new professors, theatre-sized lecture halls and heightened expectations. Freshmen may wonder how they will do and where they might go if they need help.
University administrators say initial trepidation is only natural. It's a hurdle students need to overcome, the sooner the better.
"Whether they connect with three people or a club or in some way get involved or engaged with the university, that's so important to their feeling that they belong here," said Leslie Copeland, first-year co-ordinator at Montreal's McGill University. "For some, it's really easy. And for others, it isn't."
Getting acclimatized to McGill, for instance, continues after orientation with student services tailoring e-mails and social-media messages during the year to students' changing needs. Come midterms, the Campus Life and Engagement office reminds students about the tutorial help that's available.
As with other universities, so many services are on offer that it's easy to forget what's out there. So McGill's support services uses returning students to try to telephone all new students to remind them of the help available, if needed.
Some students may find this overkill. Yet administrators say that such elaborate outreach efforts can personalize what for many feels like an imposing institution.
"Many students are a little leery about becoming involved in their first semester at university because they just don't know what it's going to take to be academically successful," Ms. Copeland said.
And living in residences doesn't always soothe feelings of isolation. "Just because you're surrounded by people doesn't necessarily mean you've made that connection. But again, it's working with the senior students who work as floor fellows, trying to make sure that connections are being made," she said.
"Homesickness is something I think that's more of a surprise than not for [new students]. They're anxious and excited about leaving home, but that stability is gone," she added.
At Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., students are advised to talk seriously with their roommates in residence about expectations concerning visitors, even such basics as studying with music on or off.
"University by its very nature is going to be a stressful time. There are a whole host of resources and strategies that you can employ to lessen that stress. You're not going to eliminate it, but lessen and manage it," said Ron Byrne, Mount Allison's vice-president of international and student affairs.
"One of the key elements there is physical health as a gateway to good mental health. So we talk about all those kinds of services, and then we reinforce those throughout the course of the first term and first year," he noted.
At the school's Writing Resource Centre, for example, students can get fundamental help in structuring their papers properly. Dons and mentors help first-year students make the transition into university life and continue to look out for them.
Yet there's much more on offer, almost too much, with about 140 clubs and societies. However, as Mr. Byrne said, "It's the relationships. It's the engagement in leadership development of one kind or another. Hanging out with people of like interests. Being social: All of that is part of the university experience."
SOME NEWCOMERS STRUGGLE WITH MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
"I've seen a lot of different types of students," said Nina Kahlon, who works at the University of Guelph's Centre for New Students and is a graduate student herself. She assists those in need of help.
Some issues, such as anxiety or depression or eating disorders, have carried over from high school, she says. "We also have students who have faced some really traumatic changes in first semester, [such as] a loss of a significant other. And then we also have students who have struggled with taking care of themselves – time management, getting organized, being away from home for the first time."
Barry Townshend, who manages the Centre for New Students,said there is far more awareness and data available now on mental health and the general pressures facing students.
"It could be feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes they describe it as feeling really stressed out. Sleep is one of the things that really stood out in the data, that an amazing number of students are not sleeping well," he said. "What you're talking about is this idea of resiliency, your ability to cope with stress or with difficult or challenging situations."
In large part, anticipating these changes may be the best strategy for easing into university life, taking advantage of all the activities and services on offer and fitting in.
"Anticipating what's going to happen is an important part of navigating that transition, and taking stock of what resources you have available to you," Mr. Townshend said.
Good time management can help students fit in and cope better with university. But as University of Guelph administrator Barry Townshend notes, many go about it the wrong way:
- Don't make the mistake that simply spending more time studying will inevitably produce better results.
- Don't think that just sitting down and reading the textbook cover to cover will yield results.
- Do block studying into manageable chunks of time.