First-year college students often fail as 'life intervenes'

READY OR NOT: Third of a series

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Laura Zalewski recalled the exhilaration she felt when she stepped onto the Robert Morris University campus in Moon as a first-year student last fall.

"And then my parents left, and I was petrified."

The first year of college is an opportunity to stretch one's wings, make new friends and stride the path to adulthood.

But it's also a minefield that many students struggle to navigate.

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Students are living on their own for the first time, susceptible to the lures of illegal drinking and excessive partying while facing course work likely to be more rigorous than they've seen before.

There's no one to tell them to eat properly, to study, to go to bed at a decent hour or to get up in the morning in time for class. They must find out for themselves -- and quickly -- how to balance competing demands on their time.

"I do think many people kind of underestimate how difficult the transition will be," said Keith Anderson, chairman of the Mental Health Best Practices Task Force at the American College Health Association in Baltimore and a staff psychologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

Nearly 33 percent of 20,500 students surveyed last year reported that stress negatively affected their academic performance, and 15.1 percent said excessive use of computer games did so, according to the college health association's National College Health Assessment.

Depression, relationship issues, sleeping difficulties, colds, flu and concern for troubled friends or family members also were top-cited reasons for academic difficulties, according to the report.

First-generation students, immigrants and nontraditional students have special challenges, said Kay M. McClenney, director of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement. They may not have older siblings to tell them what college is like, she said, or they may not be sure they belong in college.

Students come to college committed to graduating, but "one of the first things anybody will tell you is that life intervenes," Dr. McClenney said.

The survey at 22 community colleges provided a look at some of the distractions and challenges students faced: 47 percent reported working 20 hours or more per week, 10 percent were married, 25 percent had children living with them, and 25 percent said they were not native English speakers.

Many factors, from time-management skills to physical and emotional health, can affect a college student's freshman year. Here are some tips for getting off on the right foot:

• Attend orientation activities designed to break the ice and help students familiarize themselves with campus.

• Get connected to campus by joining a student organization and attending athletic and cultural events.

• Make friends. A strong support network is important.

• Attend all classes.

• Devise a study schedule and stick to it. Leave the dorm, if necessary, to avoid distractions.

• Be prepared to learn new study skills. High school skills likely won't be adequate for college-level work.

• Write out a multi-year academic road map. It can help you keep your bearings when work or other life challenges intrude.

• Get a flu shot, exercise regularly, eat nutritious meals and keep a regular sleeping schedule.

• Don't be afraid to ask college counselors, advisers or professors for help.

Source: Post-Gazette interviews with educators and advocates

M. Lee Upcraft and other researchers have suggested that a college student's chance of succeeding during the first year is a calculus of 150 pre-college factors, including gender, race and high school grades, and environmental factors, including relationships and alcohol use.

Success means more than good grades, Dr. Upcraft, a retired professor and administrator at Penn State University, said in a 2002 report on, part of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

"It is making progress on educational, interpersonal, career, identity, health and spiritual development, and taking advantage of the collegiate environment by growing and developing to one's maximum potential."

A 2002 study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that students' emotional health declined during the first year of college.

A sense of feeling overwhelmed, conflicts with roommates, credit card debt and academic difficulties were among the factors contributing to students' depression and loneliness, researchers said.

Some colleges require freshmen to take special courses designed to acclimate them to their new environments.

Ms. Zalewski, a sophomore from Baden, said Robert Morris' course helped her make friends, find a study group and get her bearings. This year, she's helping the student affairs staff run the program.

The first several weeks of college life are considered critical to a student's success. But many students get off on the wrong foot, experts said.

"I think time-management is probably one of the biggest issues for a lot of kids," said Richard Hanzelka, former president of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a membership organization of teachers, professors and other educators.

Allysen Todd, Community College of Allegheny County's dean of academic affairs, said some students are "totally unfamiliar" with the amount of work college requires -- roughly two hours of solo study for each hour of class.

Dr. Todd said students have become accustomed to accessing information with the click of a mouse. They're frustrated when forced to synthesize information, she said, and stunned at the amount of writing required -- especially in courses like accounting where they consider it unnecessary.

First-year classes can be large, the instructors imposing and students largely left to fend for themselves.

"There isn't a lot of daily guidance, so to speak," Dr. Anderson said. "When you get behind, catching up is very difficult."

As they try to adjust to new surroundings, first-years' immune systems are at risk. They're living in close proximity to other students and keeping odd hours, while often failing to exercise or eat right, said Dr. Alan Glass, vice president of the College Health Association, director of student health services at Washington University in St. Louis and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the university's School of Medicine.

"Eating healthy is not going to come naturally. It has to be a conscious effort," he said, calling alcohol "useless calories."

As pitfalls go, alcohol is in a league by itself.

"The college years are the time many youths first experiment with alcohol, while others move from experimentation to frequent use," according to a March report from the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention. "In fact, escalated drinking during the transition to college is so common that the phenomenon has been given a name: the 'college effect.'"

The report cited one study that found that the more students drank in a week, the lower their grades.

"The pressure is there" for students to party, said Robert Yon, a University of Pittsburgh sophomore from McCandless who's majoring in history and political science and serving as a mentor for this year's freshmen. "It becomes your thing if you can't find anywhere else in college to, like, plug in," he said, noting Pitt has dozens of organizations for students to join.

But parties aren't the only social distraction. Mr Yon said he had a friend last school year who liked to party on the weekend and hang out in the residence hall during the week, watching television and passing time with the guys, leaving little time for study.

Mr. Yon also encountered nightly distractions in the dorm. So he said he made a habit of studying between classes in the library or other quiet places.

"I was able to fit time in during the day," he said.

Some students founder because of homesickeness or "friendsickness," which some researchers have identified as a temporary inability to make new friends because of loyalty to those left behind.

"It's been difficult for a lot of students to make the break between their life at home and their life at school," said Jonathan Ogurchak, a pharmacy student at Duquesne University who's been active in peer orientation and mentoring services. Better, he said, for students to remain on campus during the first couple of weeks to more quickly adapt to college.

Joe Smydo can be reached at or 412-263-1548.


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