Every other week, the My First Year blog will be sharing stories of faculty so that our freshman students can get to know their professors a bit better and hear some of their advice for new students.
Samantha Stobert, Director of First Year Experience
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it was thirty years ago that I shouldered my backpack and headed out for my very first day at the University of Vermont. When I look back on that overwhelming day, I smile to think that I am now the director of First Year Experience, helping freshmen successfully transition into their own first year of college! On the first day of each new year here at the Mount, I relive how nervous – even terrified! – I felt heading through the throng of other students to my first college class ever. Don’t get me wrong – it was fun, too. Starting college was cause for celebration, just like it is here at the Mount, and all kinds of people were rallying to make me feel comfortable and happy about being there. But in a way, this made me feel guilty for not being as happy as it seemed I should be. In my case, coming from a small, rural town with a tiny high school to a large university made me feel like I was disappearing into a crowd. Everyone seemed so much more sophisticated and sure of themselves than me. To add to my anxiety, I was a nerd who put a lot of pressure on myself to do well in school, and when I got a look at my first syllabus, I could just tell that the game was going to be different at college.
That’s why I want to start this blog by telling you, first and foremost, that it’s okay to NOT feel totally happy and on top of it all when you arrive at college. It’s okay to be terrified, like I was, on that walk through the maze of halls. It’s okay to feel sad, anxious, homesick, and like you don’t fit in. These are all perfectly natural given the huge change you are going through, and chances are, so many other newcomers to college are feeling exactly the same way!
Of all the things that helped me come out of my shell and feel better about being in college, I would have to say that my learning community played a starring role. I was in a program called the Integrated Humanities; we all lived in a suite together and attended the same set of three classes in literature, religion, and history. This community helped me to meet other nerds like myself, who liked reading, writing, discussing philosophy, and, well, you get the nerdy picture. Connecting with people who shared my interests made me feel less lost in the crowd. Coming back from class to the smell of my suitemates making popcorn during our weekly Simpsons episode felt like coming back to a second ‘home.’ We helped each other with our homework, discussed our teachers long into the night, and figured out the laundry machines together.
So, my advice to you is to find your ‘pack,’ that group of students you feel you can be yourself around. They are here! We have learning community pairings at the Mount to help you get started finding your new friends, but there are many ways to do it. Whether you join a club, jump on a field trip, or attend a workshop that interests you on campus, make it your mission to find that pack. As any college grad will tell you, some of them will be friends for life!
To make friends, you have to muster up the energy to get out of your room sometimes, so let me talk about this a little more. In my case, I only had to go as far as my suite living room to benefit from human interaction. I wish, in retrospect, that I had gotten even further out of my room more often. I was a serious student who pressured myself to get high grades, but now I regret not having diversified my experience by going to more events on campus. I wish, rather than just scurrying past the posters in the halls all around me, I had gone to hear a talk, or gone to see a play by our theater group, or volunteered for a service day. I still talk about the night I reluctantly joined my friends to go see a concert on campus – but I had a quiz to study for! – only to find out that the band was Phish! (If you don’t know who Phish is, google them!) This is the kind of stuff that only happens at college, so don’t miss out.
I’m not saying that being serious about studying isn’t a great thing, but I am urging you to dip into the whole college experience, along with your homework. Not every event you attend will blow your mind, for sure, but if you give them a chance, sooner or later you just might go to one that totally inspires you, or suggests your future career to you, or helps you make a lifelong friend. These are the college experiences you take away for life, long after you can’t remember what was on that scary exam you were dreading.
The last point I would like to make brings me back to my first point, which is essentially to try to roll with the punches, because college will doll out a few of those. When college’s challenges are coming at you at top speed, it’s tough to see that many of the events you view as “failures” may actually be positive turning points in your life. Failing, whether it comes as not getting the GPA you aimed for, or finding yourself floundering in a major you thought was just what you wanted, is painful for sure, but it is also an opportunity to recalibrate. Maybe you want to study something else and only now realize it. Maybe failing a class and having to change course will introduce you to the best teacher you’ll ever have. This is the beauty of college – when one opportunity shuts down here, three more open up in its place. This is especially true here at the Mount, where I can promise you that an incredible team of teachers, coaches, counselors, and staff in all divisions want to help you seize your challenges and get the most out of them. I know this isn’t easy, but when the college-going gets tough, keep putting one foot in front of the other and trust that this may in fact be life working out just as it should.
What would I say to my Overwhelmed Freshman Self as she heads to her first college class thirty years ago? The same thing that I would say to any freshman here, in the hopes that it eases your transition: I would tell her that it’s perfectly natural to feel anxious and lonely. Just take it in one day at a time, because this is all ultimately going to be okay. Friends who are going to be at your wedding years from now are already at the dorm, hanging up posters and testing out the microwave. Activities are on the calendar just waiting to be explored (Pfish is warming up!). “Failures” are going to send you down new and better paths. In fact, Overwhelmed Freshman Self, it’s going to be better than okay. Thirty years from now, you will be on campus again, sharing with this year’s freshmen the excitement and adventure of their first year of college!