I’ve been talking to a new student and her family about some of the pitfalls that she may encounter as she enters her first year of undergraduate study. In thinking about her case, I considered the large number of students of color who are entering their first year of college right now and the dilemmas they are encountering. These dilemmas happen to be common for students of color and end up being pitfalls, leading to a good percentage of us dropping out of school in that first year. So the following are the ways pitfalls that you may encounter as you enter college this year and how to make sure they don’t lead to you completing that withdrawal form.
And remember, I still speak in college athlete language so my brain works in creating routines and using your muscle memory.
1) Live on campus. Most universities will require that students live on campus that first year, regardless of how close you already live to campus. This is for a very good reason: students are learning to access resources, possibly at all hours of the day and night. Living on or near campus allows you to get into a routine–library, class, nap, library, class, home. I remember my first year of college looked very much like that, including making use of the massive library, only two blocks away, at all hours of the night.
So you aren’t living on campus. Establish a schedule that includes at least three hours per day at the library, even if you don’t have a midterm or paper due. During those first few weeks of school, and possibly the summer, use that time to just wander the library: Where is the reserve desk? Where do you have access to the comfy chairs? Where are students more serious about their studies? Where are the group study rooms? How are the books grouped (i.e. Humanities, Life Sciences, Social Sciences)? Who are the librarians in charge of certain collections and when can you access them? Aim to be a library pro by mid-September (especially if you aren’t living on the campus).
2) Go to office hours. First, let me say, as a TA and GSI, I hated when students would come to office hours without anything to say and take up my entire hour just stalling. So when I say to go to office hours, create a list of relevant questions first, then go to office hours. I actually believe creating that list of questions is way more important than the actual office hours, and here’s why.
Another reason we don’t always do so well in college that first year, is that when we need help (and we’ll need help), we don’t access the available resources on campus. When we get that paper assigned to us in that Political Science class, we say, “I’m supposed to write a paper outside of my English class?” rather than “How do I write a paper for Political Science?” And then we’re stuck trying to figure out how to make an analytical essay a persuasive one: “That paper on Moby Dick that I wrote in the 10th grade got an A; how can that translate into a paper on voting behavior?” It can’t! So go figure out how to write it! So when I say “go to office hours,” I am also talking about using all of the resources on campus that are designed to help you, including the writing center, advising office, all of that!
I often times think about the athletes on campus, and if you are going to a Division 1 school, you’ll definitely know the athletes. Most times, the athletes come in with the worst grades, worst test scores, but will graduate at rates higher or equal to the general population (depending on the sport) with GPAs comparable to the general population. But look at the amount of resources thrown at them. For regular folks, you can access similar resources but you have to learn how to ask for help. You can start training that muscle in your brain by first going to office hours with prepared questions.
3) Publish your schedule. As students of color, we have a good number of family obligations that may interrupt our study time. While some family members may not “get” exactly what you are doing all day or why you are doing it, the important piece for them to understand is that you are doing something. Regardless of if you are living at home or with roommates, after you create your schedule, email it to your people, create a google calendar for your people, and even create a huge magic marker version for your roommates and folks at home to put on the refrigerator. And be clear: “Library” doesn’t mean free time to help mom out at work or to be the wing-person for your roommate’s online hookup.
Just because Ms. Johnson isn’t going to call you when your grades start dropping, doesn’t mean you are without school responsibilities. It’s just all on you now, so be responsible!
4) Create a budget. Some of those familial obligations include financial ones. You may be on a tight budget due to work study, loans, or scholarships anyway. And those credit card companies love taking advantage of college students because financial literacy for young people is a completely foreign idea. You will need money for books and supplies. You will need money for food and clothing. Depending on your situation, you may need money for rent. But with book-renting and used books, you don’t have to drop the max on a textbook for a general ed course you have little interest in pursuing further. You need to eat and wear clothes but you don’t need to be flossy and maybe you don’t get the cheese on the Whopper. The point is that your college education is a long-term investment that doesn’t need to be messed up by your short-sightedness. I was really good for cashing my scholarship checks and heading to Bloomies then working 40 hours a week at Old Navy to afford my books and then saying, snap, I have a paper due tomorrow!–don’t be that person.
5) Learn to compartmentalize. I am always conflicted about this one and it may make you feel a bit uncomfortable too. But it’s pretty critical to adjust and label portions of your life, including people, so that each serves its purpose. The homie you grew up with who is hella funny and not the most serious person on the planet? Not the best study partner. Auntie who needs help moving around her house and needs you help her pick out walkers? Not the best use of your limited down-time. While it may hurt some people’s feelings to say “I can’t do that today,” you’ll quickly learn who your support network is and who you can rely on. But when you say “I can’t do that today,” provide alternatives: “I can’t do a rager today but how about next Saturday when midterms are finished?” Remind people of the ultimate goal and that they are still important to you.