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Monday, May 5, 2014

Post-secondary education is hard

When dreaming about leaving home or at least going to college or university, many of us have this unrealistic dream that we will be happy, make friends, be in charge of our life, achieve success, have fun, and overall have a fabulous time.  However, for far too many students, the reality is different.
First of all, many students moving away from home find that two changes at once (change in education setting + change in housing) to be very difficult.  Being from Qu├ębec myself, where students typically try to remain at home, I can see why these two changes done at once can be overwhelming.  University learning is VERY different from high school – there is a lot more freedom – most profs do not notice when you miss a class, or will not ask why you missed one. You will not be personally offered help if your grades seem to go down.  And your mark, even if you believe the contrary, will go down by at least 20 points from those of high school.  The goal in first year university should be to survive first year without flunking too many courses so that you are allowed to continue.  Living on your own (even if in residence) is a huge step that many teenagers are eager to take, but this huge step, combined with the different style of learning, is often too much at once.
Secondly, several students find that university is not what it’s all cracked up to be: not everyone is nice, relationships are frequent but so are breakups, there are one night-stands that break your heart, drunk experiences that make you swear off booze forever, and failed courses that make you rethink your major.
Third, it is easy to lose your identity at university.  In high school, you were THE guy who could do physics and played football, or THE girl who sang like an angel and could draw. But in university, studying what you are talented at, you will be surrounded by others who are just as talented or even more talented at the same thing(s) as you are.  Even if you did not define yourself by your talents, becoming a small fish in a big pond is difficult, very difficult.  It’s like you lose that identity within a few hours as you enter campus.
Finally, there is all this freedom; you can go to bed whenever you want, eat whatever and whenever you want, nobody checks that you are going to class, and unless you ask for help, you will not receive it.  This amount of freedom, all at once, can leave you overwhelmed.  There are also so many options for courses, clubs (athletic and non-athletic), worship houses, and groups to join, it’s dizzying. 
First year university can be very much overwhelming and a bad experience can either be eye-opening (‘ok, I didn’t do well my first year, but now I know how to manage and will handle it’) or devastating (‘University is not for me; I’ll go home and get a job’).  Be CAREFUL and AWARE: know ahead of time that this can be difficult and be aware of the signs that it’s not going well for you so you can ask for help: failed courses; depression; completely out-of-character behaviour; reckless and/or dangerous behaviour; health problems; loss of memory or difficulty concentrating; purging; self-harm; desperation; binging; irrational thoughts; paranoia.
Additionally, do not feel like a failure if moving away and starting college/university is too much for you to do at once.  Many successful college and university graduates did not do well their first year; many chose to stay home for post-secondary education (for various reasons); many started, stopped, came home, and started again later (at home or not).  You may also be ready to move away from home and be ready for post-secondary education but not be a good fit for residence life or on-campus living.
In my opinion, the way students move away to go to university is too much of a leap; learning to live on your own AND attending post-secondary education is too much of a jump to do at once and while it works for many students, many struggle; some stick with it, and some have enough difficulties to leave with a sense of failure.  We don’t ask babies to learn to roller-skate; we let them learn to walk well before we put them on wheels.  The same strategy should prevail here: move away and work OR start higher education, not both at once.  This is not always possible, depending where you live; however, with online courses being more and more available, a year of online courses or at whatever post-secondary institution is local while living at home may be possible; alternatively, moving away and working will teach you about living on your own without the extra stress of performing in classes.
Finally, do not let high school academic performance predict how you will perform in college or university; the structure and delivery of university and college classes is VERY different from that of high school.  As well, if you are a high achiever, the stress of performing well may be too much combined with the stress of managing the rest of your life (room or apartment, food, laundry and such, financial management, etc.). Take your time; school will still exist in 2 or 10 years.  So will your first apartment or residence room.

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