I’m not a fan of clichés, but I can’t believe how fast my first year has flown by. I can now say I have three quarters of college experience under my belt, and will embark on the second year of my college journey in about a month. My first year has been amazing: full of engaging classes, loyal friends, and fulfilling extracurriculars.
For any nervous first years (or as I’m told other schools term them, freshmen) who might be wondering what college will be like, I’ll say right now that I can’t possibly tell you. My experience is unique to my circumstances, personality, interests, and location, just as yours will be. However, I can provide some tips on what I feel went well for me, and what I wish I would have known at this time last year.
What Went Well
1. Keeping organized: This might sound a bit trite, not to mention evocative of a stern high school teacher, but I was very thankful I kept a planner for my assignments and a calendar for events. Granted, scheduling was extra important to me because I needed to keep track of personal care assistants, but even without that, it was immensely helpful to see when assignments were due or what other events were coming up. Planners don’t work for everyone, but I found keeping organized lowered my overall anxiety level and helped me to transition more easily between tasks. In my experience, professors tend to mention assignments once (usually while reviewing a syllabus) and rarely mention them again, so even if you’re not the type to use a planner, having a space to write down assignments that you check frequently would likely help.
- Getting involved: Truth be told, I went in with the expectation that I would be involved with one activity at most, similar to my high school experience. I knew that academics in college would be more demanding, not to mention the time involved in managing my disabilities and finding time to relax. In this particular aspect, I underestimated myself. I found that while I wasn’t swimming in free time, there were plenty of opportunities to get involved that didn’t require physical activity or huge time commitments. One of the upsides of joining two disability advocacy groups on campus (and co-founding a third) is that people there are very understanding if I need to skip a meeting due to fatigue or pain. Activities I could do remotely, on my own schedule were also great opportunities for involvement without too much pressure.
- Making friends: I didn’t expect to have much time for making friends, especially since my energy levels are so variable from day to day. To my surprise and relief, I met some wonderful and understanding people through extracurriculars, classes, and other interests. I never felt pressured to do anything outside my social comfort zone. For many people, it can take some time to find the right person or group but I’m sure that almost every college enrolls students with diverse enough interests that you will find some kindred spirits.
Things I Wish I Knew
1. You can customize your own first year experience: This might seem obvious, but
for the first few weeks, I felt the pressure to attend every workshop, outing, and extracurricular information session that I could cram in my schedule, just because I thought that’s what a first year “should” do. After all, many adults I talked to stressed that you only experience freshman year once. After enough time feeling too overloaded and spread thin, I finally realized that the so-called “typical” first year experience of near-constant activity wasn’t for me, and that was okay. While some people may thrive on being very social and involved from the start (and that’s totally valid), I preferred digging deep into a select few activities and taking it slow. Trying to force myself into experiences made me feel more tired and stressed and was counterproductive to my happiness.
2. Homesickness doesn’t affect everyone the same way, and there’s no right way to deal with it. From all the pre-college articles I read, I braced myself for the frequent crying, general sadness, and longing that I thought would herald the arrival of homesickness. What I experienced instead was frustration at having to learn a new routine, generally feeling not connected to my body and needs, and more of a longing to eat my mom’s food than to hear her voice. This absolutely isn’t to say that I didn’t miss my family; I very much did. The ways in which that missing manifested itself were just different than the stereotypes I had heard. Some of this is probably due to my differences in processing sensory and emotional input, but I wish I knew that my experience of homesickness was just as valid as anyone’s.
3. The workload will likely take a while to get used to, and struggling with it is not a reflection on your character or ability. This was one of the hardest lessons for me to learn. While I had read plenty of material on the differences between college and high school academics, it didn’t really hit me until my first math midterm came back with a D+, something I never experienced in high school. Luckily, I felt comfortable enough to seek help from tutors right away, and I was more determined than panicked, but receiving a barely-passing test grade was still a shock.. I had other struggles with procrastination too, and for a while I blamed myself on “not being tough enough” for UChicago. As I talked to my classmates, I found that many, if not most, of them were experiencing similar setbacks, and it had more to do with a new environment than a character flaw. I would advise reaching out to classmates, tutors, counselors etc. if you experience similar hardships. I can guarantee that you’re not alone, and just because you’re struggling doesn’t mean you’re weak.