Going to college: The first-year experience

Schools have programs to help students feel more at home in a new surroundings

It’s move-in day on college campuses all over the country. Campus safety officers direct anxious parents to designated unloading areas. Waves of volunteer students and staff carry books, bedding, and mini refrigerators up three flights of stairs. Orientation team leaders have organized barbecues, Frisbee matches, and gatherings with academic deans and faculty. The college president addresses auditoriums packed with parents, usually followed by a more formal ceremony led by faculty in colorful regalia. With a tearful goodbye from the family and a promise to text daily, you are looking at the next four years of your life, adrift in a vast academic sea, uncertain of your major, wishing you had spent more time on Facebook getting to know your roommate, and not even sure where the nearest ATM is. Right? Not exactly!

College administrators have known for some time that a student’s experience during that all-critical first year has a significant impact on whether they stick it out to graduation, transfer to another college looking for a better experience, or abandon their dreams of a college degree entirely. For that reason, colleges have developed carefully planned first-year programs designed to make students feel at home in their new surroundings and immerse them in an educational experience that is both challenging and rewarding. When looking for a college that seems like the “right fit,” you and your parents may want to consider the institution’s first-year program in addition to the academic offerings, distance from home and cost to attend.

“My experience of what first-year students respond to is anything that says to them, ‘We know you,’” states Anne Miller, Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs at Keene State College. Her 40-year career in higher education includes designing orientation programs at Keene State for the past 11 years and co-chairing the Enrollment Management Student Success Committee.

“When your goal as an institution is to give as many first-year students as possible an individual experience, you need a deep and full understanding of who they are and who they want to become. They want that from us.” Miller points out that parents approach first-year programming in terms of what makes their student successful, while students tend to consider the program from the perspective of whether they will enjoy it and feel that it’s worth their time.

While most researchers have collected sufficient data to tell them what factors are an indication of first-year success at their particular institution, Miller is quick to add that there is more to be learned. “Student success doesn’t just mean you stay at the school you start at and graduate, it means students feel motivated and discover capacities they didn’t even know they had.”

One of the keys to degree-completion that can be locked in during the first year is committing to a plan of study. Miller also qualifies this concept indicating that the plan of study must be in alignment with both a student’s abilities and their interests or passions. That includes those of you who are still torn between majors in chemistry and graphic design.

Most first-year students will also encounter a variety of opportunities that can come in the form of service learning, hands-on experience, study away, and ultimately, internships. Miller advises, “As much as they think about their majors, students must also be thinking about theirout-of-classroom experience.” And in her experience, study away is high on the list of high-impact experiences. “Study away gives students a unique experience in relation to their majors,” she said. “Most say it has been their number one experience. It allows them to say, ‘I am a different person – this has changed my life.’”

The first-year experience can be a winner for more than just first-year students. In her own experience with orientation teams, Miller sees first-hand how the program changes Orientation leaders and even the college itself.

“In the best programs, orientation leaders push themselves to make a difference in the lives of the new students and this in turn, creates a difference in their own lives.  An orientation program that involves all the faculty and staff, not just the orientation leaders, creates a campus wide commitment to these new students. Every student has a better chance for success when the whole campus is supporting them and I want everybody to have that kind of experience.”

Kathleen Williams is director of marketing and communications for Keene State College.

Categories: Advice