Student survival guide: how to thrive on B.C.'s postsecondary campuses
UBC engineering student Mike Hsiao breaks into a big smile as he recalls the “terror” of making the transition last year from high school to university. In an interview with the Georgia Straight in a downtown CBC studio, the former Moscrop secondary student chuckles as he explains how his parents magnified those fears by highlighting the difficulty of postsecondary schooling.
“I thought, ‘Holy crap.’ It was like going into the abyss because there was so much information I didn’t know about university—from the courses to the huge amount of money you have to pay,” he says. “Everything was really astounding and really scary for me at the beginning.”
Hsiao managed to succeed, getting accepted into electrical engineering for his second year. And this September, thousands of first-year students across the region will find themselves in a similar situation. They’ll juggle school assignments with the temptation to go to the campus pub. Along the way, they may encounter ornery roommates, long commutes, and, no doubt, many mood swings, especially if they’re not eating well.
Hsiao admits that he was taken aback by the first-year university workload, which he describes as “very condensed and very fast-paced”. He recommends that first-year students focus on managing their time effectively and avoid partying too much. Hsiao also advocates finding “study buddies”.
“It’s really important to be outgoing at university and get to know as many people as possible,” he adds.
UBC’s manager of student services, policy, and scheduling, Jonathan McCauley, tells the Straight by phone that it’s easy for first-year students to run into financial trouble when they’re managing living expenses for the first time. That’s why he advises them to stick to a monthly budget. “It’s wise to know where the money is going,” he says.
This year, UBC is pioneering a new approach in how it deals with first-year students, creating a one-stop shop for financial aid, course registration, and general information about campus life. McCauley explains that every student will have a newly designated enrollment-service professional, who will help them prepare a budget, access financial aid and scholarships, and connect with clubs, mental-health services, disability assistance, housing information, and LGBT resources on campus.
“They’ve been trained in all areas of the university,” he states.
Each enrollment-service professional will be a primary contact person for anywhere from 300 to 450 students throughout their time at UBC, McCauley adds. By January 2013, there will be enrollment-services professionals assigned to all students in second and third years.
“I know we have a lot of schools watching to see how this turns out,” McCauley says. “It is a major shift in how universities are doing student service.”
UBC counsellor Renée Robert tells the Straight by phone that the university’s “Live Well, Learn Well” website provides a great deal of information about student health services. (In fact, all the public colleges, universities, and institutes provide this on their sites.) The counselling is free for admitted and registered students at UBC, and is available at Brock Hall.
Robert has aboriginal ancestry and is a former counselling director at the Native Education Centre. She points out that aboriginal students can receive help at the First Nations House of Learning. “We understand, support, and respect traditional ways of healing,” she says.
Over at SFU, the associate director of new student enrollment and transition, Bing Lee, says in a phone interview that programs for new students begin a couple of months before the semester. SFU operates on a trimester system, which means students start new courses in September, January, or May.
Registration for September takes place in July. In August, there are student orientations, with different sessions for those living in residence on campus, international students, and domestic students. Lee says these show-and-tell sessions take place at the downtown and Surrey campuses, as well as on Burnaby Mountain. They involve a tour and an introduction to various services, including the library, which helps new students learn research techniques.
“What students need to know, regardless of where they’re going—whether it be UBC, SFU, or any of the colleges—is that there are a lot of support services available,” Lee says. “We’re all here to make their student experience the best they can get. Anytime they have questions, they just need to go ask. The onus is placed on the student to seek the service.”
The colleges, institutes, and regional universities also offer comprehensive orientation programs for new students. Michael Boronowski, manager of student recruitment and client services at the B.C. Institute of Technology, tells the Straight over the phone that the student-services department works with the student association to greet new students. In addition to registering students and making sure they have their identification cards and transit U-Pass, orientation also offers insights into student clubs and services through the student association.
“The most important thing I see right now for incoming students is getting them connected with student financial aid and awards,” Boronowski says. “Based on the data we gather, it seems to be most important for students. After that, it’s really recreation and the student-life material that’s outside of the classroom.”
Meanwhile, Langara College’s dean of student services, Clayton Munro, tells the Straight by phone that it’s “imperative” to get information out as early as possible about the type of support that’s available on campus. This year, the college is holding four orientation sessions, including a “Welcome to Langara Day” on September 13.
He also points out that there is a campus student work-assistance program, which provides jobs for those attending full-time. “Various departments all over the campus hire students,” Munro says. “That’s one of those things you want all students to be aware of.”
Langara students can apply for these positions through the human-resources department. Munro notes that there’s also a volunteer program, which he created with two students, one of whom just completed a stint helping people in Africa. “Once they’ve met the criteria of the program, they get formal recognition and a statement of completion,” he says. “And it actually goes on their transcripts.”
Kwantlen Polytechnic University relies heavily on student leaders in its orientation sessions, according to the school’s coordinator of student leadership and development, Kurt Penner. Over the phone, he tells the Straight that 1,500 to 1,600 students are expected to show up for this before the fall term.
UBC engineering student Mike Hsiao says first year is “very fast-paced”.
“We’re trying to help them understand—before the workload gets thrown at them—some of the expectations that they might want to think about,” Penner says. “We’re trying to get them socially connected at the start because we know that usually has something to do with predicting their likelihood of sticking around and completing later.”
That’s where peer leaders enter the picture. One of them, fourth-year English and history student Kristin Lehal, mentions to the Straight by phone that she was “very nervous” when she arrived at Kwantlen for her first year’s studies. She recalls how her student leader helped alleviate those concerns. Later this month, she’ll conduct a 45-minute session in a classroom for the first-year students to share her experiences.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Lehal says. “Kwantlen has so many resources—from librarians to advisors to our own professors. They’re just waiting for you to come to their office hours and ask for help. That’s what they’re there for.”
Kwantlen also offers separate orientation sessions for parents and for mature students.
Some student-survival skills aren’t always covered in an orientation session. For example, there are many ways to save money on textbooks, provided people do their research. For the past two years, the UBC Bookstore has offered students the option of renting, which can save them up to 55 percent. It’s also possible to buy used books and ebooks.
The UBC Bookstore has a competitor called Discount Textbooks, making it possible to comparison-shop. It’s a good idea for students to check the websites of bookstores at their institutions to discover what deals are available. And last month, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a ruling giving instructors greater latitude to photocopy material from textbooks for students.
It’s also possible to research postsecondary instructors through ratemyprofessors.com/. Keep in mind that some comments are made by students with an axe to grind. But when there are lots of ratings, it can provide a revealing snapshot of what the class will be like.
Universities, institutes, and colleges are full of rules regarding such things as withdrawing from classes. Here, students can get into serious trouble if they don’t keep abreast of the policies.
At Kwantlen, for instance, it’s possible for students to obtain a “compassionate withdrawal” from a class after the deadline for pulling out if there are “long-term medical or emotional problems or other serious issues in their lives that make it impossible for them to complete their studies”. This can help protect the student’s grade-point average. There’s a separate process for obtaining a refund on tuition.
Academic cheating is another tricky area. Rutgers University business professor Donald McCabe has been surveying North American students on this topic for two decades. In a phone interview from the university, he tells the Straight that about 19 percent admit to cheating on tests and 15 percent have confessed to cheating on written work, including plagiarism or submitting work that someone else wrote.
“I find students at the very top and students at the very bottom cheat more than students in the middle,” McCabe says. “Those at the very bottom are cheating to survive. Those at the very top, in my opinion, are cheating to thrive.”
He adds that the problem appears to be worse in “quantitative subjects”, such as math and the sciences, as well as in commerce. “Business majors, as a group, tend to cheat among the highest of any major,” McCabe says.
He would like students to police themselves by signing honour codes pledging not to cheat and to turn in wrongdoers. But he doesn’t have a great deal of optimism that this will occur because students don’t want to be perceived as rats or tattletales. However, McCabe notes that students are more willing to report cheaters if they’re being marked on a bell curve.
B.C. universities have tough policies on cheating. Under the University Act, presidents can deal summarily with student discipline, and cheating can get a student suspended or expelled. At SFU and UBC, students found guilty of cheating will have this noted on their transcripts. “Canadian schools have done a better job than U.S. schools in developing policies,” McCabe says.
However, he suggests that enforcement is spotty at many North American institutions because administrators don’t want the bad public relations that comes from cheating scandals—though he credits SFU for coming clean on this issue in the past.
There are many lighter things to consider about campus life, such as not having sex in stairwells because the presence of mirrors ensures there’s no privacy from security. Another survival technique is if you need an extension on a paper, persuade the entire class to ask the instructor for some leeway. That way, no one will be singled out for scrutiny.
And when it comes to writing essays, try to find a copy of The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear. Written by Ralph Keyes, it helps students get over the anxiety of writing a term paper.
What’s most delightful about The Courage to Write is its explanation for why many people’s written English deteriorates the longer they spend in college or university. Students who read it will never look at their professors in quite the same way again.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.