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26 July 2010

Thinking like a freshman. No, really.

When I was a kid, fresh out of high school, I went to the small state satellite college where the parent I was living with said I was going.  I applied there, was accepted, and that was that.  There was no "choice"-- I actually received information from a lot of different schools, and had my short list, but  the list didn't matter.  That school was "good enough".  My Mom didn't go to college.  I remember her being some sort of an administrative assistant at a small company, and later she worked at a bank.

My Dad never went to college either.  I think he was smart enough to be an engineer, and probably would have made a good one.  He was "mechanically inclined", and could fix just about anything that involved a motor of some sort.  He was also had two "green thumbs", meaning he could take a dead plant in a pot that had been in the trash for two weeks and make it grow.  He wanted me to succeed, to go to college, and to have it better than he did, and he encouraged me whenever possible.  Looking back, I sometimes think he didn't always know exactly how, or have the right things to say.  Then again, I had a lot of issues going on that I hadn't addressed.

College-- real college, the kind you see on TV, the schools whose football teams are on ABC and ESPN playing to national audiences, and the kind whose professors are the scientists that are quoted on CNN-- that world was as far away as the moon for me when I had just graduated high school.   I wasn't one of those kids who had an older brother or sister in college.  My parents hadn't gone to college.  The family I was close to, my Mom's side of the family, none of her brothers or sisters had gone to college.  My idea of "college" was what I saw on TV and in the movies, and in the late 1980's, it was movies like Animal House and St. Elmo's Fire, and spring break on MTV.

There is living where you are, and deciding to take some classes at the nearest or most convenient college or university-- it is college, certainly, and there is commitment to learning the material and matriculating towards a degree.  You probably work, maybe you take classes at night, maybe you take some online, maybe you do both (as I did).  Work is still your primary focus, classes are an additional layer of life.  You are a working adult, and you have responsibilities (dammit), and since you are an adult learner you don't involve yourself in college life too much (if at all).  Your physical campus, if there is one, is simply another place you have to go.  While you might go to a major university's flagship campus, you probably go to either a satellite campus or you're in a program that's adapted to adult learners.  You make the commute fit into your life, no matter how long it is.  This approach makes sense, it fits your life, and it gets you your degree.  This approach is how I got my associate's degree.

Then, there is leaving your previous life behind, and actually going to college.  This is the time of year when the migration is set to begin-- it's almost, but not quite, time to pack everything up into Dad's truck or Mom's minivan or the U-Haul, and head to a town that may be a short drive or a long flight away, and go off to college.  In my case, it's try to fit everything into the 14-year old car with the loose clutch and muffler hanging just above the pavement, and haul it (the stuff and the car) across town to a new apartment that's a block from campus.

Going to college is structuring your life-- all of it, not just getting to a couple of classes and setting aside time to do assignments-- around the academics and social life that is college life.  Unfortunately, there is no manual for doing this that's written for 40-something veterans.  There really isn't one written for 20-something veterans, either.  It's common to hear, and to say, "I survived and adapted to a war zone, I can survive this," and it's a true statement.  However-- when you walk onto a large research university campus, you are no longer an adult learner, a veteran, or anything other than a student.  You still carry these things with you, and they are still an important part of who you are, but to the university, you're just like any other freshman who just unpacked the U-Haul and carried your crap upstairs.

Don't get me wrong-- there are a lot of people who do understand that you have specific needs as a veteran, and they will bend over backwards to help you.  The important thing to realize here, and it's something that I missed when I transferred before the start of the last semester, is that you really are just like that freshman who is moving away from home for the first time.  You are in a new environment, one with which you are unfamiliar-- even if you've been to college before, this is new because you're a different person than you were then.  You probably are stronger and more resilient, but during move in week, you're still at square one with everyone else that just got here.

The social rules are different, the chain of command is different, and you're with a much more diverse group of people than you were before.  As always, if you are dealing with PTSD in all this, there's an added layer of challenge-- you want to withdraw and keep to yourself, and it's the wrong thing to do and you'll do it anyway.  I don't want that to happen, and neither do you.

For this next semester, when I'm going to be one of those people lugging my personal possessions up the stairs during move in week, I'm trying to look at my personal transition to campus in the same way as a freshman might, because it's that big a change.  It might help you to start by reading this NY Times blog entry, and the comments.  Okay, so as veterans we're not recent high school graduates and we're probably not 18.  That doesn't mean we can't learn a few things from people who are.

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