New Students, New Year

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This week I had the opportunity to participate in New Student Welcome Day at my college. Beyond helping them to learn the ins and outs of the campus, the students were introduced to the college’s Pathways program and had the opportunity to eat lunch with a faculty member who teaches within their chosen academic path. 


Participation in such a program by faculty is always voluntary at my community college. For me, New Student Days are an important way to help forge a personal connection to the physical space of the college while also being introduced to the intellectual shift that needs to take place as they become college students. While the idea behind the lunch was to provide students an opportunity to talk about possible career paths available to them with specific majors, the best part of the experience for me was listening to the general concerns that the student expressed. 


I participated in this week’s event as a “history professor” but in reality what the students needed was a safe space in which to ask what they deemed “stupid questions.” This realization occurred about five minutes into my lunch group’s discussion when a student interrupted my talk about academic majors to ask what the difference is between calling an instructor “Professor” versus “Mr. or Mrs.” What followed was a series of “This is a dumb question but ….” 


I was reminded during that one-hour discussion that many of my students are first-generation college attendees. Unlike myself, they did not grow up hearing their parents tell stories about college experiences. They likely do not keep one of their father’s college textbooks on their bookshelves like I do – a relic of my father’s life as a young man but also evidence of my family’s history of higher education. I don’t remember ever wondering why college-level teachers are called “professors” … but I do have memories of my father describing a particularly difficult professor at the institution we both attended. 


As much as I tried to talk about career paths, what the students wanted was to discuss the basics: schedule, calendar, textbooks, bookstore, and general interaction with faculty. In other words, they could not yet envision career paths because they need to get over this first hurdle of experiencing the environment of college.


As we prepare for the first days of the new semester, let's try to hold some extra space and empathy in our hearts for those young people who are very likely to soar academically, but only after they stumble the first few weeks in an environment that is entirely foreign to them. Recognize that what feels so natural to those of us who teach, may feel cumbersome and riddled with anxiety to a person who has no previous connection to higher education. In other words, while our expertise may lie in an academic area, many young people need us more simply to be their bridge to that space that is unknown and uncomfortable. Best wishes for the new academic year! 

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.