First-year Confidental

In a competitive market, universities are trying to smooth the transition for newcomers

Brian Bergman November 15 1999

First-year Confidental

In a competitive market, universities are trying to smooth the transition for newcomers

Brian Bergman November 15 1999

First-year Confidental


In a competitive market, universities are trying to smooth the transition for newcomers

Brian Bergman

Karli Moncrief was at her home in Alameda, a small town in southern Saskatchewan, when she got the call from University of Alberta chancellor Lois Hole. Along with 17 others, Moncrief had just been awarded a Chancellor’s Citation scholarship, granted for academic excellence and worth $15,000 over four years. While thrilled at the honour, the soft-spoken 18-year-old expressed her concerns about attending such a large university so far from friends and family. One of her chief fears, she told Hole, was that she would feel adrift in a sea of nearly 30,000 students. The Moncrief family accepted the chancellor’s invitation to visit Edmonton and talk to her directly. “She was very reassuring,” recalls Moncrief. “She even gave me her number and told me to call if there was anything I needed. ” A tour of the campus and a parent orientation session cemented the family decision to send Moncrief on her way—and now there is no looking back. “To my surprise,” says Moncrief, weeks into her brand new life as a first-year arts student, “I haven’t been homesick at all.”

Not every student enjoys such a personal touch when making the leap to higher education. But in this era of scholastic sparring—when recruiting and retaining the best students is a key benchmark of a university’s success—campus administrations across Canada are making unprecedented efforts to ease what is often a very awkward transition. Longer and more intense student orientation sessions, credit courses that essentially teach how to make the best use of a university’s resources and beefed-up support

services are all part of the mix. But the overriding objective reads like a page from Retailing 101: keep the customer satisfied. Says Beth Oakley, transition coordinator at the University of Windsor: “If the students are not successful, then we are not servicing them properly” Peggy Patterson, chief academic officer and associate vice-president of student affairs at the University of Calgary, also reaches for a consumer metaphor when explaining the proliferation of programs aimed at enhancing the first-year experience. “Students are very focused on what they want to do,” observes Patterson. “They are also paying a lot of

money. In many ways, we look at these new programs as the keys to the cars they’ve just purchased.’’

The growing emphasis on keeping first-year students happy reflects some hard economic realities—for universities and students alike. Between 1993 and 1998, governments across Canada slashed $800 million out of higher education. Students are being asked to pick up much of the slack: during that same time, the average cost of tuition skyrocketed by nearly 50 per cent. For universities, the recruitment ol new students is an expensive and time-consuming proposition, which means that retaining students

becomes an even greater priority. Students, slipping ever further into debt to finance their educations, have a similar incentive to get it right the first time around.

The shift that universities are now focusing on is, for many students, a seismic one—from the familiar corridors of high school to a sprawling, anonymous campus; from the confines of adolescence to the first heady burst of adult freedom. The contrasts are most striking for students who are far from home. “I went to the same high school from grades eight through 12,” says Aaron Keobke, a native of Whitehorse who is now a first-year science student at the University of Alberta, living in Lister Hall, a co-ed residence housing about 1,100 students. “I knew every teacher, just about every student—school was a very big part of my social life.” Heather Clitheroe, a fourth-year English major at the University of Calgary, recalls her first few days on campus as a period of profound dislocation. Clitheroe, who moved to Calgary from Toronto in 1996, says that “one of the giant problems I had was that everyone here had gone to high school together. At lunchtime, you don’t even know who to sit down and chat with. For the first few weeks, I was ready to get on a plane.”

Fitting in was also a challenge for Geoff Matthews, a first-year engineering student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. Matthews, who comes from a middle-class home in Mississauga, Ont., initially felt intimidated by his overachieving classmates, many of whom came from privileged backgrounds. “Everyone

here was so smart and knew what to do socially,” he says. “I felt like everything I said and did was stupid."

Ironically, the way some students make the social adjustment can lead to other problems. Matthews admits that he spent most of his frosh week drunk—although he says he has since learned to cut back on the partying. Others take longer to sober up. “Everybody has a bad story about a party situation from first year,” says Ali Jahed, a fourth-year life sciences student at Queen’s. “Drinking the night before exams. Or what we call the walk of shame—getting really drunk, going home with someone and then having to walk home from

their house the next morning with everyone looking on.” Over-imbibing and sexual misadventures are distractions—welcome or otherwise—for many first-year university students. But for most, the biggest hurdles are far more prosaic. Unlike grade school, where teachers monitored their progress and parents egged them on, students need to muster the self-discipline to study independently—and to pace themselves to handle the course demands. And it’s often the students who breezed through high school who face the steepest learning curve. Mike

Laurentian offers returning students a tuition discount for each new recruit—as long as they act as on-demand mentors

Mallory, a second-year engineering student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, is currently taking several first-year courses that he flunked the first time around. “I had an 85per-cent average in high school, but I didn’t have to work for it,” says Mallory. “You can get good marks in high school while still coasting. But if you don’t have good study habits here, you’re sunk.”

For many students, their academic Rubicon comes when they receive their first-semester midterm exam results. Often, grades are significantly lower than those in high school. “Midterms are the wake-up call for everybody,” says Tajesh Adhihetty, a fourth-year political science student and vicepresident (academic) with the University of Alberta student union. “They either pull it together or they don’t. I think back

to my first year and a lot of the people I knew are not here now. They dropped out.”

In some disciplines, the scramble for good grades can be brutal. Even the very best students feel the pressure. At 16, Jennifer Gelinas is the youngest student at the University of Alberta— and probably one of the brightest. After maintaining a 99-percent grade average in high school, she received the university’s prestigious President’s Citation, worth $25,000 over four years. But Gelinas, a first-year science student with her eye on medical school, takes nothing for granted. “I recently went to

a seminar about admissions to medical school with about 500 other students,” she says. “The admissions person said that this is about half of the people who will apply for medical school and, of that, maybe 200 will get in. Looking around you, it’s very intimidating to see how motivated people are.”

Others, such as James Stainton, a blind first-year University of Alberta arts student, face challenges that the average freshman can scarcely imagine. Staintons first priority this September was to scout out the routes through campus with Otis, his guide dog. For the first time, he had to function in a classroom without the benefit of a special teaching assistant. Taking study notes and writing exams in braille is a time-consuming process: a typical three-hour test takes Stainton twice as long. But the articulate 19-year-old is un-

daunted. “It is definitely different here,” says Stainton, who is contemplating moving from his parents home into residence in the next couple of years. “But that’s what I’ve been looking forward to—more independence.”

Making it on your own was the order of the day for an earlier generation of students. Anne Marie Decore, who attended the University of Alberta three decades ago, recalls her first-year performance: “I did dismally, absolutely dismally. I was bad at managing my time and my study habits were not much better.” The 59-year-old Decore, who is now the university’s associate vice-president (academic), was given a “dean’s holiday”—an enforced year off school.

That was the old way: sink or swim, and don’t expect anyone to throw you a life preserver. But in recent years, universities have become far less cavalier about the fate of their freshest recruits. One of the most obvious changes is in the way annual student orientation sessions are structured. Once little more than an invitation to party, a typical orientation is now a multi-day affair that includes workshops and seminars on such matters as study habits, time management and financial and career planning; several campuses also offer separate orientation sessions for parents. Incoming students typically meet in groups of 25 or 30, frequently led by older students who continue to act as informal advisers and mentors during the course of the year. The advice they give is often simple, but eminently useful. “One of the best tips that I ever got was to ‘be here now,’ ” says Kenna Graham, a fourthyear University of Alberta business student who currently acts as an orientation leader. “If you are out partying, learn to relax and enjoy it; and if you’re in the library, focus on your studies. Don’t always wish you were where you are not.”

In addition to orientation programs, several universities offer accredited courses that try to reinforce basic learning skills such as note-taking and library research, as well as helping students adjust to the university culture by giving them at least one class where enrolment is strictly limited. A pioneer in this field is the University of Prince Edward Island, which began to offer one such optional course, dubbed University 100, as early as 1986. Campus administrators were concerned about the poor retention rate of first-year students, then hovering around 65 per cent. They have since found that up to 80 per cent of students who take University 100 go on to complete their degrees.

Other institutions are taking innovative steps to dispel the first-year blues. The University of Guelph, which established a separate office of first-year studies in 1994, tries to link students both socially and academically. In a program known as University College Connection, groups of students enrolled in the same program are clustered in residences, making it easier to form study groups and develop a sense of community. Each cluster of students is also assigned a “peer helper”—a remming student who can help newcomers adjust to university life.

The University of Manitoba is attacking another common first-year conundrum. Many students initially have no clear

career path—or quickly discover that the one they are on is not to their liking. Switching streams, they often lose graduation credit for their courses. In a program known as University 1, launched last year, first-year students avoid that pitfall by choosing courses from different faculties that may be credited towards their specialty when they do finally choose it. “When you are 18 or 19, it’s very hard to know what you want to do with the rest of your life,” says U1 director Beverly Cameron. “This allows some breathing room.” Cameron adds that the program may be serving as a recruitment tool: enrolment at the University of Manitoba was up more than six per cent during U Is inaugural year.

Most universities readily acknowledge their healthy selfinterest in smoothing the first-year transition. But few have been as bold about making that link as Sudbury’s Laurentian University. This fall, returning students were offered a 10-per-cent discount on tuition for every new student they convinced to attend Laurentian—as long as they agreed to show the newcomers around the campus and act as on-demand mentors for the rest of the year. The experiment appears to be working: Laurentian officials believe the recruitment rebate partly explains why the university is enjoying an 18-per-cent increase in first-year enrolment this fall. A handful of returning students, including Chantal Mayer, are paying no tuition at all, thanks to the number of newcomers they recruited. “I thought it was a great idea to help first-year students,” explains Mayer, a fourth-year arts student. “And obviously, it’s nice to get the free tuition.” Sometimes, the personal touch pays unexpected dividends.

Susan McClelland

John DeMont