It's Freshman Orientation Day at George Mason University, and new student Erica Rountree is lost.
"Where are we supposed to go?" the graduate of Greenbelt's Eleanor Roosevelt High School asks a passer-by seemingly on his way to the next activity. He grins, shrugs his shoulders and hurries off down the stairs, no better off than she is.[pMiss Rountree's mother, TiaJuana, appears, calmly opens the orientation folder and shows her daughter where to go outside and to the next building to sign a "Spirit Wall" for the Class of 2004. Miss Rountree runs off, lost and found for the second time of the day.
Once school starts, Miss Rountree knows, there will be no orientation packet to follow, no mother to guide her and that's what scares her the most.
"I'm not really nervous about the work. I can handle that, I think," says Miss Rountree, 18, of Mitchellville. Recruited to play on the track and field team, she plans to major in graphic design. "I'm more nervous about getting lost, about just being a freshman."
The beginning of college is always a little scary. Thoughts of moving away from home, making new friends and taking new classes strike fear into the hearts of many freshmen. High tuition and uncertain futures do it for their parents.
It's not just a new school grade it's the start of a whole new life. But if students listen to the advice of their peers and mentors and follow some simple guidelines the college years can be the best of their lives.
Packing up and leaving the nest can be the most traumatic for some fledglings, even if they're not going very far.
Yemi Kurian, a graduate of Parkdale High School in Riverdale, will start Howard University's prestigious six-year medical program in the fall. A rigorous schedule demands that she live on campus, although her parents, grandmother and younger brother don't want her to leave their Greenbelt home.
"When I saw the schedule, I realized there's no way but to live on campus," says Miss Kurian, 17. "That means I have to put away my old routine and learn a whole new one."
The academic challenge won't be new to her: She graduated as valedictorian of her class and completed the International Baccalaureate Program, an arduous diploma program that is accepted worldwide. The challenge of being dropped headfirst into a strange and scary world is new, though.
"Freshman year [of high school], I was really scared, but then I finally made friends and got into the environment," says Miss Kurian, who wants to be a physician. "I feel like I'm starting the whole thing over."
The difference is, she's starting over in a class with 10 times as many students. It would be easy to feel lost, but she hopes living in a dormitory will alleviate that concern.
Dorm life is a world unto itself, with hundreds of nervous students learning to cope with their newfound freedom. It means hundreds of potential new friends or potential distractions from valuable study time.
It also means sharing a room, sometimes with a total stranger.
Being new to the school quickens the pulse of many first-year students, but needlessly, says Aaron Polkey, a rising junior and new-student orientation coordinator at Georgetown University.
He should know. The Charleston, S.C., native moved from a small school where he "literally knew everyone and their mothers' names" to Georgetown, where he was lost among 1,400 other freshmen.
"I thought I wasn't going to meet friends," says Mr. Polkey, 19. "I found I just had to relax and be myself, and within a couple of weeks, I started meeting people on my floor and in my classes."
He says the key is to stop panicking, take a step back and let things happen naturally.
"Everyone should realize that their peers are experiencing the same things they are, are feeling just as lost and insecure," he says. "The fact that these others exist can bring a lot of comfort."
Of course, leaving old friends isn't what it used to be, with e-mail and the Internet revolution. One click of the mouse can bring a blow-by-blow account of a best friend's first day of school thousands of miles away.
Finally, there's the reason people go through all this in the first place: education.
College often is more academically challenging than high school, but the class schedule may be less time-intensive, says Rick Mondloch, director of guidance at Chantilly High School in Chantilly. Time-management skills are a must.
"What students don't realize is that they are going from spending 30 hours per week in high school to 15 or 16 hours in college, and they can decide what to do with the extra time," he says. "They can spend it studying or spend it partying, and they are pretty much on their own."
High schools offer outlets for developing time-management skills through sports, internships and work-study programs, but when faced with sudden, unlimited freedom, students may find that budgeting those extra hours is tricky, but crucial.
Mr. Mondloch recommends creating a routine by designating certain times for studying each week. To avoid distraction, students should choose a time when their new friends are in class or should study at a quiet place on campus rather than in the dormitory.
Busy schedules require study breaks, especially after more difficult classes, Mr. Mondloch says. That way, students can do homework while the material is fresh in their minds.
The best advice for succeeding in college is, quite simply: Don't do it alone. Students need to find someone a teacher, adviser or mentor to impart his or her wisdom and help them through, says Alice Watts, academic coordinator at George Mason's Institute of the Arts.
"I tell students there's always someone to help them, with degree requirements, schedules, avoiding pitfalls and achieving their goals," she says. "They need to feel they have someone to turn to so they don't get lost in the shuffle."
The voice of experience
Here's a quick checklist of things to remember when approaching that fateful first day of college, as recommended by Aaron Polkey, new-student orientation coordinator at Georgetown University.
Calm down. It's not that bad.
Tell your parents to calm down. Answer any questions they may have, and be understanding. They are nervous, too.
It's a new environment, and not just for you. Remember that your peers feel as lost and insecure as you do.
Use common sense, from safety to classes. You're not at home anymore, and no one is checking up on you.
Professors won't force you to turn in vocabulary lists each week, so you're on your own. Stay alert for due dates. Professors may not say anything about an assignment until the day it's due.
Relax, be yourself and be open-minded. You will make friends it just takes time.
Don't get so involved in campus life that you forget about the surrounding city. Go out and experience as much as possible in your new town.
Get involved, work hard and do your best.
Have fun. Four years go by fast.
"Starting Out Suburban: A Frosh Year Survival Guide," by Linda Pollard Puner, New Forge Press, 1996. This handy book has lots of information for first-time college students and includes chapters on such topics as friends, laundry, homesickness, the Greek system and money.
"College 101: A First-Year Reader," by John D. Lawry, McGraw Hill College Division, 1998. This college reader contains short stories and poems that shed light on the freshman experience.
"College 101: The Book Your College Does Not Want You to Read," by Guy Stevens and Frank Halub, Mass Market Paperback, 1998. This book offers a humorous view of the joys and pains of college life.
"The Real Freshman Handbook: An Irreverent and Totally Honest Guide to Life on Campus," by Jennifer Hanson, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996. This guidebook to college and dorm life answers the questions you don't want to ask and serves as a quick reference to take with you.
"The Freshman Year Experience: Helping Students Survive and Succeed in College (Jossey-Bass Higher Education Series)," by M. Lee Upcraft and John N. Gardner, Jossey-Bass, 1989. This book touches on topics including choosing a major, mastering time management, fitting in and making friends.
"100 Things Every College Freshman Ought to Know (Abridged)," by William Disbro, Cambridge Stratford Ltd., 1996. A handy paperback, this book is an orientation catalog of definitions, customs, procedures and more on college life.
College Bound magazine from Ramholtz Publishing Inc. is full of advice on academic, social and other aspects of the transition to college life.
The College Bound Network's site (www.collegebound.net) has information on money, sports, social life, studying and everything pertinent to the college freshman, as well as free e-mail, college videos and links to other sites.
Inside Edge is a free on-line newsletter (www.collegebound.net/inside-edge) for college-bound students and their parents.
The Go Girl Web site (www.Go-Girl.com) is a college advice site for young women, with sections on studying, playing, beauty, fitness and fashion.
The Student Center is an all-inclusive student Web site (www.studentcenter.org/collegeprep.php) with special sections on entering college, dorm life and time management; freshman discussion groups; and links to related sites.
The College Xpress Web site (www.collegexpress.com) by Carnegie Communications Inc. offers information on such issues as finding a college, admissions, financial aid, campus life, sports and parents.
College Guidance Services has information on and links to financial aid, school searches, scholarships, essays and resumes on its Web site (www.ultimate.org/2569/ fresh.html).
The All About College site (www.allaboutcollege.com) is just that.
The CollegePrep 101 Web site (https://home.okstate.edu/homepages.nsf) has an on-line course on college preparedness.
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