Making the transition to college life

By Jake Miller

A USA Today analysis of 620 deaths of four-year college and university students since Jan. 1, 2000 found that freshmen are uniquely vulnerable. They account for more than one-third of undergraduate deaths in the study, although they comprise just 24 percent of undergraduates at those institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Some may not know that NIU provides a First-Year Connections program for freshmen students, along with other resources, to guide young Huskies through a time that can both overwhelm and overstress.

Pressure pushing down on me

“They have to become somewhat of an adult and be responsible,” said Cassandra Downs, counselor at the Counseling and Student Development Center. “Sometimes they haven’t been successful in developing relationships in the past and relied on their families for comfort.”

For first-year college students, living away from home is something new and exciting, yet at the same time, a learning experience.

“Their adolescent tendency not to think ahead can get them into trouble. For instance, not thinking about the future bill of a credit card and getting into debt,” said Peter Gutierrez, associate professor of psychology. “For some kids, that freedom gets overwhelming.”

Fortunately, NIU has not had a tragic event take place on campus in quite some time, said University Police Lt. Matt Kiederlen. However, freshmen are more apt than other students to get into problematic situations.

“Freshmen have more issues than upperclassmen, even with police involvement,” Kiederlen said. “It’s their first time away from home and often their decision-making skills might not be completely developed, and they might make a wrong choice now and then.”

To help prevent such tragedies and to ease the transition into university life, freshmen are presented with a large amount of information when they attend orientation before their first semester at NIU, said Denise Rode, director of orientation.

However, no one anticipates having future problems when they’re at orientation, Rode said.

Bring it into the classroom

The First-Year Connections program offers UNIV 101 and 201 classes and Student-Faculty Links Program that aim to help incoming freshmen adapt to the university.

UNIV 101 remains an optional class. Last semester, 1,700 freshmen decided to participate.

The class covers many topics, including where students can go to talk about any problems that they might have in their first semester. Health and wellness is strongly covered in the classroom along with alcohol and substance abuse. Instructors have the freedom to teach about different topics, but alcohol often comes up because it’s something that many students want to talk about, said Scott Peska, a First-Year Connections coordinator.

“One main thrust of the program is to connect students with each other and with a faculty member as well. On average, each classroom has 20 to 21 students which results in faster interaction between students and a faculty member,” Peska said.

Often times, the faculty member also is able to recognize if a student is struggling.

“Every year I have had at least one student that is at risk,” Rode said. “Any time I notice something of this nature I try and refer the student to the Counseling and Student Development Center.”

Bridges over troubled water

Student-Faculty Links, which offers a mentor program to help ease a student into university life, also is offered to incoming freshmen. Last semester, the program had 70 participating students. Rode feels the program provides guidance for new NIU students.

At orientation, the CSDC provides a presentation and talks to parents about their students’ transition from home to college.

“They remind the parents to talk with their student about peer pressure and to reinforce the idea that it is OK to be different,” Downs said.