As August draws near, excitement grows among the most recent Leaving Certificate class... results... points ...college and university offers. It is a potentially thrilling time! The prospect of living away from home... school uniform days over... new people to meet... places to go... a taste of independence... freedom ...and the beginning of a journey to qualification and a career. Life can be great!
However, as the dream becomes reality, the reality for some students is not quite as they expected. A substantial percentage of first year students will leave their course and students at third level report a greater incidence of mental health issues than their counterparts who do not attend. For the concerned student and parent then some fundamental questions arise:
What is that makes this time such a challenging one?
What helps best at this time of transition?
What are the first year challenges?
Students at 17/18 /19 years of age are at a developmentally challenging stage of life. They are on their way to adulthood but still adolescent. They want independence but need support. They seek to make their own life choices but are financially dependent. They are faced with lifestyle choices that can differ to those of their family and/or friends. Thus they experience periods of uncertainty and indecision, lacking confidence and self-belief.
At this bridging time, then, between adolescence and adulthood, increasing numbers of older adolescents begin a third level course. It may not be their first choice and may take them away from home and security of the known. They are challenged to adapt to new academic, social and living environments.
Third level students need to develop an independent style of learning; attend lectures, listen and take notes, revise and research without a homework schedule or deadline, and to achieve a considerable level of competence. This calls for self- discipline and commitment of a kind not previously required.
Added to this students have financial concerns. How much of their expenses will be covered by their grant, family, work or a student loan? What are the implications of their financial arrangements? Do they travel home to work? Do they work near college? How do they cope with work and study demands?
In addition, all first years face the test of meeting new people, being accepted into a group, making and keeping friends. All the while coping and surviving without the familiar faces of family and friends.
Besides these predictable events, some students also experience unexpected personal illness, bereavement, relationship or family breakdown, trauma and accidents.
Stress occurs when environmental demands are greater than our resources to deal with them.
It is little wonder then that college life has been referred to as "a culturally sanctioned stressful event" and a "naturally occurring strange situation".
Students' first year experience can be influenced by the decision- making strategy used in selecting a course and college to begin with. It is crucial to carefully consider options, as early as possible. In addition to the Leaving Cert. Points- personal preference, aptitude and suitability for a course and ensuing career are important.
Consider potential job opportunities too, but markets do change. For example, a few years ago who would have forecast the upsurge of positions in the medical/social care sectors?
Another consideration is the actual college experience and career paths of former graduates. If possible talk to students who have been or are at the college of interest already. Are they familiar with your preferred course? What do they know about it?
When filling in the CAO, don't just choose a title. Get to know yourself and the courses on offer. Every college has a prospectus and will be pleased to send you one. On that point, it's good to show initiative and find out information for yourself. Don't wait for parents or teachers to do it for you. Be pro-active!
Many students who drop out of college do so because they just never really wanted to do a particular course in the first place. A lot of pain and distress could be spared by full and lengthy consideration of personal preference, ability and course options. Start early and be thorough!
A source of considerable stress is finance. It is crucial to be aware of and to take control of finances from the outset. Before departing for college, work out a provisional budget for the first few weeks. Include accommodation, food/lunches/snacks, travel, socialising, books, equipment, phone costs, deposits that might be required, extra clothes that need to be bought etc. Consider where the money will come from...parents, savings, part-time work, grant, and/or a student loan. Be aware of the limits that your finances place on you and try to work within them.
After a few weeks review spending. Are cut-backs required or do you genuinely need to access more money? What are your choices now- work, family, grant, loan? How will each of these impact on you. What is best for you overall?
Working has become an accepted element of student life. A recent report found that almost 50% of students work part-time. However, it can be a source of stress and strain. Late nights working in a bar or restaurant lead to tiredness. Consequently, attending early morning classes becomes difficult. Concentration and motivation can also be affected. Thus evolves the risky scenario of missed classes and assignments where students fall behind. It has been found that students who undertake more than 12 hours part-time work and attend less than 75% of classes are at risk. A student who must work to support him/herself through college is advised to:
Be clear about your budget. Know how much you need, what you need it for. Aim to be disciplined in your spending and reasonable in your expectations.
If you must work, try to work at the weekends and leave the weekdays free for classes and study.
Try to work at something that relates to your course of study. That way you may in addition to earning also learn on the job and gain valuable experience.
The thought of sharing a house with fellow students is very attractive. For first years, however, digs are recommended. Thus the burden of cooking, caring for a house and the temptation to over-socialise are relieved. The cost is also set, so that from a budgeting point of view you know your expenses, right from the start. Living in digs also provides an opportunity to get to know other first years and to live in a family -type setting. Accommodation officers are available to deal with queries and any difficulties that may arise.
It may seem obvious but attending class is an essential ingredient in settling into college life. In addition to the obvious academic benefit, it also provides an opportunity to meet with classmates and gives structure to your day.
The study skills required at third level are quite different to those required at second level. Some colleges run optional classes to address the difficulties which students may encounter. So look out for workshops on Study Skills, Note-taking, Getting the Most out of a Lecture, Exam. Preparation etc. and if you feel the need avail of them!
Awareness of Support Structures
In addition to academic staff, Third level Institutions also have Student Services personnel. The range of personnel varies between Institutions and may include some of the following:
Student Counselling, Graduate Placement, Careers Office, Access Office, Disability Office, Dyslexia Support, Chaplain, Nurse, Doctor, Sports Office, Societies Office Learning Support, Accommodation, Admissions, Examination Office. There will also be a Students' Union with, among others, equality, welfare, social and sports officers. Each individual class will also have a students' union representative. All of these people are there for you. They are interested in doing what they can to help students whatever their concerns and at all stages of their academic career. If you need information or support seek out those who are there for you.
We are familiar with the old saying "All work and no play..." It is crucial to keep this to the forefront at third level. A great challenge is the balancing of academic, work, and social life. The value of extra-curricular activities cannot be emphasised enough. In addition to essential exercise or rest and relaxation, they also provide opportunity to meet other people. And it is often the quality of personal relationships that influence the decision to continue at third level. It has also been noted that successful, healthy people have a range of interests.
All colleges and universities have Sports and Societies Offices. They offer the opportunity to get involved in a range of activities from aerobics to rugby, and drama to photography. Sports and Societies present a chance to become involved in the life of the college, to get to know other students, to form a network of support and to combat stress by taking time out, exercising and remaining healthy.
For mature students, the challenges of third level are similar to those of their younger counterparts. They differ in that mature students have the benefit of experience but additional family and financial responsibilities and may have concerns about "fitting in" with younger students.
Students with Disabilities
Increasing numbers of students with disabilities are taking their rightful place at third level. Many institutions have staff with particular responsibility for ensuring that students needs are met. Make contact with Disability Officers, Access Officers and Dyslexia and Learning Support Tutors.
For parents this is also a stressful time. They are anxious and concerned about their young son or daughter and want what is best for them. The challenge is to let the son or daughter go, to let them make their own way, while at the same time being interested, open and available to support them. This process of letting go or gradual independence should preferably begin in the early teens so that by the time the college years come round the groundwork has been laid and the transition is not as great. Maintenance of a good relationship is also crucial. Communication which includes listening and talking, acceptance, encouragement and patience will go a long way to supporting first year students.
College life is a challenging one - academically, financially, socially and personally. To their advantage students have youth, energy and eternal optimism. College challenges them to be strong and resilient. It helps if they are reasonable in their expectations of themselves, alert to potential difficulties, aware of the available supports and willing to access them. However, they also need the on-going care, support, interest, patience, time and encouragement of the significant adults in their lives.
Anne Marie Kealy is a Counsellor who has experience of working with third level students.