This article originally appeared in the winter 2017 issue of Harker Magazine.
We asked Harker grads now in their second year of college a few questions about their freshman year to give our 2017 alumni – and those who will follow – some perspective on that first year away. Read on!
How tough were the academic requirements the first year of college compared with your senior year at Harker?
Comments ranged from “pretty hard” and “slightly more difficult” to “insanely easy; I couldn’t believe it.” Others responded in more detail: “I thought that the academic rigor was as much as my senior year load at Harker. Granted, I took five AP classes, but I truly felt overprepared for managing my time and making sure I finished all my assignments, successfully completed projects and adequately studied for midterms.”
“The structure of the material and assignments were different, but the difficulty and challenges were very similar; the transition was easy, and I felt I had the confidence to tackle my courses head-on.” “College is definitely significantly harder than any year at Harker. You have to be a lot more self-sufficient, and the material is much harder.” “Harder. Mainly because much more personal motivation was required.” “A little less. Less homework and assignments, but a lot of difficult exams.”
What was easier to figure out or adjust to than you expected?
Answers included such things as “moving” and “my schedule.” Some respondents elaborated: “Living an independent lifestyle and scheduling … for the most part.” “Living without parents seemed like it would be tough, but it can also be a lot of fun!” “I was very worried about adjusting to college life and balancing everything, but I didn’t even have to think how to adjust to academics. Harker prepares you perfectly.”
“Adjusting to the academic lifestyle of college was much easier than for some of my peers. Pacing my work and setting priorities was a breeze. And knowing to use stress productively for finals and midterms made those periods much easier.” “Living away from my parents was not as bad as I thought it would be.”
What was the best piece of advice your parents gave you about college that turned out to be helpful?
Answers ranged from the frank, “I honestly can’t recall,” to “Time is incredibly valuable; don’t waste it.” Other responses included “join clubs” and “stay on top of your work. Honestly, it feels so good to be ahead of your homework schedule.” “Have fun and don’t forget to focus on your studies. Although not entirely helpful, it was incredibly reassuring to know that my parents were encouraging of my college life. When I began to slack off, I would remind myself why I came in the first place.”
“They told me that it was essential to reach out to others (professors, fellow students) to get the most out of the college experience. Usually, people would be more than happy to help or have a conversation, and everyone benefits from it.” “Take it one step at a time. It’s not a race, it’s a marathon – only take on what you are passionate about and can handle.” “Work hard, but relax sometimes and try not to stress out too much or overwork yourself.”
Some cited very practical advice, including “always demand money from your friends” – presumably when on group outings and money is being spent! Also, “Don’t leave your laundry in the machines overnight (clothes get wrinkly, thrown outside because someone else wants to use the machine, or stolen).”
Did anything really catch you by surprise?
We were happy to see this response! “The ease of the classes I took, but that won’t stand true for everyone. However, Harker does prepare you for the workload, which helps.” Others shared similar sentiments: “It’s not as hard as people make it out to be,” said one, while another said, “College is much more relaxed and less stressful.”
We received plenty of practical feedback, too! “How easy it was to stay alone in my room. Honestly, go out and meet people. You don’t realize how valuable friendships can be when it comes to college. The people you meet will carry you through everything (academically and socially). It’s great.” “The academics. The social environment. The fact that I could slack off and have no repercussions … except, you know, the fact that I’d have to eventually catch up.”
What was the hardest thing about dorm life?
Getting used to sharing space was tough for some. “The most annoying thing for me was showering in communal showers” or, as another said, “Living with other people! They are all on different schedules, have different priorities and are not use to the academic rigor from their high school that you are used to.”
“Meeting people you like or setting ground rules that people actually follow. Also, there are a lot of people who don’t know how to live by themselves. If they stress you out, take the time to teach them. Most importantly, though, I can’t stress how important it is to be empathetic to the fact that everyone comes from a different background. If you take the time to appreciate the differences between you guys, then you’ll have an awesome time at college.”
In plain and simple language: “Your roommate will either be a hit or miss. If you have a great roommate, dorm life is a breeze. If not, you will most likely be miserable.”And, finally, there is the unfortunate: “I hated my roommate and had to live with him. Also communal bathrooms were kinda annoying. My room was next to the common room, and we could NOT sleep, ever.”
What did you like best about dorm life?
In short, most graduates like the freedom and independence of living away from home! One respondent was frank: “The freedom to plan out and live my life as I please instead of at the behest of others (cough, parents).” Added another, “It’s your own place. Your dorm is your home away from home, and you can keep it however you would like. You can choose when to socialize versus when to study, you can leave to the library or classroom building whenever you like.”
Others enjoy the social side of dorms: “Roommates.” “I got to meet a lot of bright and interesting students around my age, and made many close friends.” “Finding friends. I loved all the friends I made. The people on my floor became my closest friends, and they still are. We had a really tight community.”
And finally, the right to stay up all night: “Being able to game all night long, without anyone judging me.”
What was your routine for managing homework and extracurricular activities while maintaining a social life?
There are those who handle the dichotomy of academics and socializing with aplomb: “Eh, just play it by ear and things will work out. Don’t take a ridiculously hard schedule.” Others, meanwhile, set up a system that gives them structure: “I made a schedule for the week, prioritized what I had to complete by a certain day and made sure I took one day off from work per week.”
One alumni summed it up nicely: “Setting priorities, but being flexible enough to push one out for the other; college is about experiences, not accomplishment.” Finally, “You can’t have the best of both worlds, unless you love being sleep deprived and stressed all the time.”
Did you have a surprisingly good or surprisingly bad class? If bad, how did you cope?
The good news: “I had some surprisingly good classes but not really any surprisingly bad ones.” Added another, “My freshman writing seminar was a surprisingly wonderful class, and I’m friends with everyone from that class even today.” The practical advice: “I coped by forming study groups, getting to know other students, etc. The best friendships are made through mutual suffering.”
“There will always be that one class per semester that ends up being incredibly painful to sit though. Make at least one good friend in that class to help you through it. You can rant and study together if you have a friend.” “My econ class second semester was surprisingly horrible. I could not get through one session without wanting to fall asleep from the professor’s droning. But I coped by reading the textbook, going to mentor sessions for help on the problem sets and approaching the professor directly during office hours to ask for clarifications on topics I couldn’t understand (or tuned out) during class.”
The wonderful: “Many of my freshman fall classes, while difficult, were really good! In particular, one of the statistics classes I took was amazing. It was very different from AP stat and it opened my eyes to the realm of possibilities within stats.”
Do you have any good advice for socializing in your first few months at college?
Some solid opinions on this question! “You have to reach out and make an effort!! You can’t just expect new friends to walk up and knock on your door because they’ve heard about how great you are. Get out there and be social and interesting!”
Great practical advice: “Be free to get out of your comfort zone a little; talk to people about your interests and hopefully it will work out. That being said, don’t let people peer pressure you into doing things you know you don’t want to do.”
Less easy to endorse: “Do something crazy! Others will admire you for it, and you’ll have some great inside jokes for the rest of the year.”
Is the climate significantly different at your university than in the Bay Area? If so, what is your most memorable experience with the new climate?
Most respondents are in temperate zones, but we did hear from a couple of alumni on the East Coast: “Yep! Ithaca, N.Y., is one of the coldest places ever. California is one of the warmest places ever. I am the only person from California in my friend group, yet I bonded with my best friends through knowing nothing about the snow. We took a walk around campus on the first snow, we went sledding down the ‘slope’ when we had a snow day – and these were some of the most fun moments in my freshman year.”
“Blizzards were fantastic, but hurricanes were awful. Seventy mile per hour winds and we still had class. Also it got down to 10 below zero and that was darn freaking cold, but we still had class.”
How long did it take to adjust to being away from home?
Apparently, practice makes perfect (see World Wise, page 50) and Harker grads adapt pretty quickly to being away: “Not very long. I had taken week-long camps where I was away from home for the past five years, so I knew how to adjust.”
“It honestly took until mid-October at least. Even when I went back for Thanksgiving break, it took a while to adjust going back to school for finals. It will take however long you need it to, and you honestly bond with people at college about being away from home as well! If you are going through it, odds are someone else is too.”
“Not long. I had attended debate camps throughout high school, so the experience was very similar. A month or less.” “Not long. I missed my family the first couple of days, but soon orientation and then classes quickly picked up, so I was preoccupied with a lot of things and didn’t have time to think about home.”
Is the culture where you now live significantly different than in Northern California? If so, how, and how would you recommend new freshmen approach the differences?
Ah, the voyage of discovery: “People wear a lot less (even in the winter) and practically everyone is a liberal. I find it borders on a kind of tribalism, ironically, but most people still work to be accepting of everything.” Another added this bit of practical advice: “The Silicon Valley and the West Coast are way different than everywhere else. Don’t take offense when a New Englander doesn’t want to be friends. It’s not you personally, it’s just the culture. Know that you probably won’t be able to find Indian food outside of a big city.”
This respondent offered some wise words: “You will meet people who come from vastly different socioeconomic, cultural and family backgrounds from you. Everyone should take the time to reflect on their privilege in coming from a school like Harker and take the time to genuinely listen and understand other people’s stories. Make the point of meeting people who aren’t the same as you because those people are the ones who will push you to grow the most.”
“As you are making friends in your first year, choose people who are positive and supportive. Also be conscious of the kind of friend you are – constantly repeating how tired and/or stressed you are doesn’t help anyone’s mood. Don’t be afraid to open up and be vulnerable because that’s how casual friendships grow deeper. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Know the counseling and psychological services available to you, and never hesitate to use them when you need it. Don’t let stigma or pride or fear keep you from getting support that everyone needs at some point in their lives.”
Did you take advantage of office hours? If so, did going help?
Both sides weigh in: “Nope. Probably went like once,” said one respondent, but another countered, “Yes! They do [help]. I didn’t for the first semester, but second semester I did and they truly help 100 percent.”
And the ambiguous: “Yes and no. I didn’t go to most office hours but that was mostly because I was lazy. I did go whenever I had questions or just wanted to go over the material, which helped most of the time. Definitely go if you’re struggling to keep up.” Less ambiguously: “Yes!! Please, please take advantage of office hours. Especially for liberal arts colleges, professors are there for you, and they want to help. They won’t think you’re dumb if you don’t understand something; most professors will try earnestly to explain things in different ways so you can understand. Professors are not out to get you, they want you to do well!”
Food for thought: “Yes, but most classes had TAs during office hours and not the professors themselves.” “My professors had useless office hours and were never there so, no, not really.”
What are some tips for meeting and getting along with your roommate and/or the people on your hall?
One respondent just said, “Hang out in common areas,” but others were more forthcoming: “Get out there and be weirdly social,” said one, while another advised, “Disclose all your weird stuff up front – then there are no surprises.”
Solid advice: “Just introduce yourself and talk normally. No need to feel awkward. Everyone is nervous; it’s their first time living away from home. I introduced myself to one of my neighbors, and asked a question. We ended up spending 30 minutes figuring out the answer … and now she’s my best friend and we’re living together this year. You never know when you’ll meet someone who will be in your life for a very long time!”
“Setting ground rules is a must. Especially when it comes to personal space and cleanliness. Make sure to clean up after yourself and your friends who visit!” “Getting along with your roommate; make accommodations. Don’t be that person who refuses to turn off the main light in your room if your roommate wants to sleep. Living with a roommate means that you have to cooperate and compromise, and if you don’t learn to do that, problems will inevitably arise. You’d be surprised at the little amount it takes for people to start laughing and having fun in college. We were all eating snacks in the hall one time, and one of my friends starts stuffing as many grapes as she could in her mouth. It soon turned into a weird game of Chubby Bunny, but the laughter from that night remains one of the most memorable moments in my hall from freshman year.”
Many thanks to those in the Class of 2016 who responded to our survey! Those who included their names: Eesha Chona, Zarek Drozda, Cynthia Hao, Alex Henshall, Philip Krause, Chandler Nelson, Rajiv Sancheti, Ameek Singh, MC Smitherman, Alice Wu, Tong Wu, Richard Yi and Michael Zhao.