On Campus

When the frosh freedom is too much

First-year students struggle with balancing school

For students living away from home for the first time, an over-active social life may mean studying finds its way to the bottom of the “to-do” list.

Taryn Nicol, 23, found that her first year at Durham College in Oshawa, Ont., was one of her best years ever; frosh freedom was fabulous. Her choice of college was based partly on the advertising program the school offered but also on the location. “I wanted the experience of living away from home,” said Nicol, whose hometown of Brampton, Ont., was at least a two-hour commute, making living in residence a better option.

She had a great roommate, made new friends, met lots of guys who helped fine-tune her snowboarding skills. She kept homesickness in remission with almost daily calls to her mom. “When you’re up in the middle of the night and everybody else is in bed … it does get a little sad,” said Nicol, remembering her late nights in residence a few years back. “But there is always somebody around and there is usually somebody up. So even if it is three in the morning, you can always hop on MSN and there’s usually somebody to talk to.”

But the fun times meant that, like many first-year students, her marks suffered. At the end of Nicol’s first year she was faced with a difficult choice: come up with money to repeat the courses she flunked or drop the program. Nicol, together with her mom, decided she had to work in order to make some money and then head back to school with a better plan and a stronger study ethic.

Dr. Mark Berber, a lecturer in the psychiatry department at the University of Toronto who specializes in anxiety disorders and depression, said he has seen many first-year students experience the same hurdles that Nicol encountered. Many parents worry their university or college bound kids will spend time missing their high-school pals, their hometown sweetheart and the comforts of home. But Berber said loneliness is not the most common ailment in the first year away from home. The number 1 pitfall is underestimating the amount of study that is required, Berber said.

“A lot of students think that they can get by with less and that is sometimes a mistaken belief based on the fact they were able to get by on less while they were in high school, where the amount of material was less and more easily managed,” said Berber. “When they go to university, they are in the major leagues … sometimes the students don’t realize that getting a university degree will not be obtained by being a slacker.”

His advice to first year students is to have fun but don’t get distracted from the ultimate goal. He suggested studying during the week and then taking advantage of the fun aspects of university life on the weekends.

Barbara Williams, co-ordinator of counselling services at the University of Lethbridge, said unlike all the school years beforehand, the first year of higher education is a choice young adults make. With this choice comes the bonus of new friends and activities and not being under the parental roof. These things add up to students having to be much more accountable, said Williams. “That’s part of what university and post secondary is all about. It’s growing up,” she said.

The counselling office at the University of Lethbridge and similar centres across Canada give a pie chart to students, asking them to fill in how much time they devote to studies, social life, family, physical fitness, eating habits, finances and so on. Williams said this helps students visualize how they’re spending their time.

“When we get them to fill in the wheel like that, it’s really visual. They really see ‘Oh, you know what, that is out of kilter.’ I need to spend some more time in this particular area.” Once a student understands this, it is easier to improve the situation. Williams said most students don’t realize the need for more balance until midterms hit.

While part of the first year away from home involves trying to balance new activities, Chris McGale, an exercise physiologist, fears that one thing often gets left behind in high school: exercise. McGale visits several universities in southern Ontario every September to make sure equipment and staff are able to handle the onslaught of new users, but he fears many forget about physical activity. They might not even walk as much because students living in residence don’t have to go far to get to class.

“There are three reasons for working out. Of course there’s the physiological benefit, you know you are basically reducing your risk factor for something later on like heart disease and cancer. You also have a nice psychological benefit, in terms of stress release clearing your mind so you can study better and of course there is the social aspect: you get to see your friends.” He stresses the importance of acquiring the habit of physical exercise. It will help students to cope with the new demands of college or university life and it will also be something they can take with them beyond graduation.

This month, Nicol is hitting the books again.

She worked, saved money and is taking her more polished organizational skills into her first year of early childhood education at Sheridan College, west of Toronto. This time she’s living at home and commuting in order to avoid socializing at all hours and to concentrate more on working toward a future.

Her hard-learned lesson is one she is happy to pass on to anyone looking for advice on how to succeed in first year while living away from home. “It is easy to get caught up in the social aspect of it and the having fun and it is easy to forget about your work,” she said.
“Make sure that you do have time for yourself… you might need the alone time to study.”

-with a report from CP 

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