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Camille Pomerlo

Shauna Pomerantz and Dawn Zinga are professors in the department of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University.

Thousands of students from across Canada are about to begin university. They’ll tangle with residence, the insanity of frosh week, the euphoria of meeting new friends and the tasks of doing their own laundry, making their own doctor’s appointments and keeping themselves fed. They will also face fast-talking professors in massive lecture halls where students may be watching movies with one earbud tucked under their hair. And, of course, they’ll encounter all the usual excitements that university offers: parties, sex, drugs, alcohol, staying up all night. It’s a heady, privileged and awesome existence.

For years, we’ve taught these amazing freshmen in a survey-style course. You know the kind: 700-plus students, PowerPoints peppered with images, YouTube clips and music; a microphone to reach the very back rows (where the sleepers, movie-watchers and Snapchatters dwell); squeaky plastic chairs attached to wooden flip-up desks; an army of dedicated TAs; and gymnasium exams (where sweat and stress combine to make a palpable aroma). Over the years, we have discussed our love for this sometimes-beleaguered population. They are like no other in university. Young (mostly 18 years old), scared, impressionable, enthusiastic (well, many are) and wide-eyed. The world is their oyster – anything is still possible.

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We have watched students thrive, even if they had to deal with a 32 per cent on their first midterm. But we have also watched students barely hang on until the end of exams in April – bushwhacked by the massive amounts of reading required in their courses, an intoxicating social life filled with hangovers, nightmarish roommates and bad breakups/hookups, and the gruelling burden of high expectations (theirs, their parents', their professors'). They encounter personal problems that percolate all year long, including mental-health crises (highly prevalent among the first-year population), sexual assault, racist and homophobic encounters, family emergencies such as illnesses and deaths, loneliness and homesickness (whether they’re from from Ghana or Toronto). This is just a smattering of what we discovered after we embarked on a three-year research project to study The First Year Experience. We wanted to learn more about this misunderstood population. And what we discovered was no simple Animal House stereotype; instead, we found thoughtful, deep and sometimes heart-wrenching stories that resonated across the academic, the social and the personal, culminating in an emotional roller-coaster for most of our participants – whether they were thriving or surviving.

University is a life-altering experience. First year is hard precisely because it is presumed that students are ready for this transition. But who among us could handle so much change?

The key for parents is to talk honestly with your children not just about possible academic struggles, but social ones, too. Advise them to put themselves out there, to look for interesting people to sit beside in class, to deal directly with challenging relationships. The teary phone calls may make you want to pick your child up at midnight with their suitcases packed, but remember that university is an opportunity for growth. Soothe your child, yes, but also challenge them to rise to the occasion. Ask them to be bold. Explain that homesickness is normal, but the way to combat it is to be as present as possible – to soak up all that university has to offer. Most importantly, tell them that things will change quickly over the first few weeks and months. Some students in our study loved university right away, but the majority said it took them a long time to get into a groove. Encourage your child to be patient and diligent. It will come, but not without effort.

The key for professors is to try to empathize with the challenging shift from cozy high-school classroom to anonymous lecture hall. We learned from our participants that professors are intimidating, no matter how amusing and stylish they are. Professors need to set up non-threatening ways to help students find their academic stride: drop-in help clinics run by friendly TAs, at least two office hours a week (but also an invitation to pop in if your door is open) and assignments that connect to students’ lives (not just generic retreads). The No. 1 suggestion our participants had for professors was to be passionate about the material. Students told us their favourite professors were the ones clearly smitten with what they were teaching – not those just going through the motions in a monotone drone.

And the key for students is to not beat yourselves up over any perceived failures. Anticipate some struggle. Find friends who do the things you like to do. Get involved (clubs, sports teams, the gym, frosh week, pasta night with roomies). Talk to professors (we really aren’t that bad). The students who liked first year the most were the ones who didn’t just make friends, but who also got to know their profs and TAs by asking questions and getting help with assignments. Sit in the front (to avoid distraction and ensure the professor knows your face). Do the readings as they come up, not the night before the exam. Don’t “multitask” in class (a.k.a. text or surf social media). And chill with friends more than you party. It’s no surprise to learn that sex, drugs and alcohol are available 24-7, but it was surprising to learn that many students chose hanging out over going out.

In the end, the most significant lesson we learned from our participants was that balance is everything. Party, sure, but don’t lose sight of the point – to discover amazing and interesting things about yourself academically, socially and personally. University is an experience and we learned that students do best when they embrace that experience by staying open, allowing possibilities to percolate, and seeing themselves not just for who they are, but for who they might be. After all, second year is right around the corner. And they’ll be amazed when they think back on their first year self and recognize how far they’ve come.

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