In Their Own Voices: First Year Student Reflections on Transitioning to College, Part Two

We received such positive feedback on part one of this series and understand that folks are eager for the sequel. Below, we continue to share what we learned from first-year composition students at CSUCI as they interviewed one another about their experiences.

What fears did you have about college that turned out not to be true?

Overwhelmingly, student responses to this question fell into two areas: fears about their professors, and fears about fitting in at college. 

Student after student made clear that the trope of the professor as a severe, unforgiving person in a tweed jacket is alive and well. In the most frequently mentioned response to this question, students revealed that they had expected their instructors to be unwilling to help them, unsympathetic to their needs, and generally, force students to fend for themselves. As one student put it, “My high school teachers told me, you’re [going to be] on your own, every man for himself.”  Instead, though, student after student reported being pleasantly surprised by the availability and guidance that faculty at CI offer. In a common example, one student said, “I thought I would be really intimidated by my professors, but in reality, they’re really there to support you and also, your professors are going to guide you.” Another added, “Professors actually do care; if I have a problem, they’re willing to help me get through it.” These examples show how important having a caring and empathetic faculty is, while simultaneously demonstrating that faculty can maintain rigorous standards while being supportive of students and the challenges they face.

The second biggest fear many interviewees mentioned was that they wouldn’t make friends or be welcomed at college. Many students reported being afraid that they’d be isolated; as one noted, “I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in with my peers and would feel like I didn’t belong here, but it turned out to be the complete opposite.” This fear was a common refrain among interviewees, unsurprisingly, considering how many of our students are first-generation college students. But, the students reported finding a community of people like them. As one put it, 

“I was lucky enough to create a very loving and caring support group for myself, my friends, my family and all the different support services they offer for students who are incoming like us. You’re not alone; thousands of students have done it before you, and they are here to help.”

These sentiments bolstered, for us, the sense that deliberately cultivating a community within the classroom helps students feel a sense of belonging, which contributes to students’ success

What have you learned about yourself this semester that’s surprised you?

The most common refrain was inspiring, as student after student reported pushing themselves in ways they hadn’t known they could. For us, this reinforced the value of having challenging assignments in supportive classrooms. As one student noted, “I learned that it’s okay not to know; there are [resources to] help you figure it out.” Another echoed, “I learned that I’m capable of doing more than I thought.” 

Many students reported discovering that they were surprised to finally find themselves comfortable asking for help, which deepened our commitment to giving students a safe space to learn from failures and to move forward. One student’s proud smile preceded, “I learned I’m not as bad at math as I thought I was.” Another reported, “I’m taking control of my life, and being responsible for myself.” One exclaimed, “Never give up!”

When you look to your future, what would make you the most proud?

While some interviewees reflected that just making it to college felt like an achievement, and others mentioned advanced degrees, by far the most common response to this question was “graduating from college.” As one student said, with two thumbs up,  “Ooooh, just to see that bachelor’s degree [. . .] hanging on the wall to say, ‘Hey, you did it. Good.’” 
While perhaps an unsurprising response, to us, it reiterated the importance of improving our four-year graduation rate. At the beginning of the academic year, we asked our first-year students, “How many of you plan to graduate in four years?”  All but one hand went up. While we support the students whose academic plans change, as well as those who can’t, or choose not to, take a full load each semester, we think it’s important to ensure that those who want to graduate in four years can.

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