Freedom meets Responsibility
I think that one of, if not the greatest challenge that first-year students face when entering college is balancing their new found freedoms with their new responsibilities. For many of them college is the first time where they are completely free do go to class, study, sleep, eat, exercise, and socialize whenever they want to and they have no one regularly checking up to make sure all or any of these things are being done.
Another key transitional issue, time management, if often a challenge as a result of these new found freedoms. Students often find it difficult to look at course syllabus and determine how to manage their time in order to complete term long projects and study for only a couple of big tests without the help of daily or weekly reading assignments and reviews. At the same time that they are dealing with a much different academic standard from high school, they are being overwhelmed with massive amounts of extra-curricular activities. Student clubs and organizations, work study jobs, Greek life, club sports, etc. all start recruiting the moment students arrive on campus and many students end up signing up before they even have a clear understanding of the amount of time and effort go into college classes. Add to this the fact that society at large and student affairs programs push involvement and socialization as vital to student success and enjoyment of college and it is easy to see how incoming students get overwhelmed quickly.
In addition to having the freedom to choose the classes they take, the activities they participate in, and how they spend their spare time, they are also responsible for how these decisions impact their lives and others. If they choose not to set their alarm and go to class, they are the ones responsible for doing poorly in the course and they are the ones who have to deal with the consequences. If they choose to get involved in too many activities or socialize too much they are responsible for re-balancing their efforts towards academics or dealing with the consequences of a poor first term GPA. If they choose to engage in behavior that violates the student conduct code or housing policy they are responsible for repairing damages, rebuilding relationships, completing the sanctions required of them.
Having spent a great deal of time working with students to address the later choice and also experienced the first-year transition through my U-Engage students, I can honestly say that I have yet to find a fail safe way to help students through this transition. I feel like this is largely due to the fact that a student’s upbringing, K-12 education, educational and social development all play a large role in how much of a challenge these new freedoms and responsibilities are. With this said, I believe that universities can do several things to help this transition be smoother for new students.
Campus visit programs and orientation programs in coordination with academic success centers can provide students with a greater understanding of the average amount of time that students should expect to study, attend class, work, etc. Simply seeing how college class schedules are arranged and how current students go about breaking up their day may be helpful to many students. In addition, incoming students should have a thorough understanding of the academic services available to them including professors’ office hours, residence hall and campus tutoring programs, and academic success coaching. Having representatives of these programs at orientations could be quite helpful. Giving students planners (and showing them the best practices for using them) can also introduce them to good time management early on. Orientation sessions are also great venues for explaining to students and family members the expectations an institution has of its students and the consequences of not meeting those expectations. Many students will never deal with university sanctioned consequences, some will be reminded to make smart decisions when they enter college and others will at least be aware of the university expectations they choose to break and that they may face consequences accordingly.
First-year seminar classes can help in addressing the challenges students face as a result of their new freedoms and also provide an open forum for students to help and support one another through the changes they face. Given the nature of these seminars, I think that creating a term long assignment that is broken down into smaller pieces with periodic due dates can provide a helpful example to students for how to break their long-term projects and tests down into smaller, more realistic parts. In addition to first-year seminars, summer bridge programs can be quite helpful to student in helping students with this transition.
Lastly I think that it is important for student affairs professionals to recognize the immense amount of challenge associated with gaining so much freedom and responsibility all at one time. When it comes to planning and recruiting for campus involvement activities (student government, residence hall councils, Greek life, club sports, etc.) there must be multiple chances for students to enter throughout the year. Some student may need a few terms to get their academic success under their belts and they should not be left out of involvement opportunities accordingly. People involved in academics must recognize the steep learning curve from high school to college and expect/allow for the natural growing pains associated with that. Providing thorough introductions to a syllabus, class room expectations, office hours, etc. can help immensely. Anyone interacting with first-year students must be open to discussing the challenges they face with their new found freedom and actively engage students in individualized problem solving to help them deal with balancing these often competing concepts.