Love your new home away from home

by Ashleigh Viveiros


Like the first robin of spring or the first snowfall of winter, the end of summer has its own "first" - namely, the first back-to-school sale advertisement. It's the one that abruptly pops your blissful summer vacation bubble, reminding you that, in a matter of weeks, you'll be back in the hallowed halls of learning for another year (and also that you can get several packages of notepaper for just $2.99!!).

Once reminded of the impending school year, you might find yourself beginning to dwell on all those potential back-to-school worries - especially if this is your first year on a post-secondary campus. So, to help you ease into the new school year, here are a few back-to-school tips:

Making friends
Heading off to university or college can be overwhelming at the best of times, but it's even more daunting if you find yourself attending a school where you don't know anyone.

One of the best ways to get to know people right off the bat is to attend your school's orientation week (or day) events. The place will be crawling with fellow first-year students, many of whom are in the same boat as you are. Take some time to attend the various fun events and chat with the people participating alongside you - you just might find yourself a whole new social network.

If you find large groups of people overwhelming, then consider simply approaching someone else who looks like they're all by themselves during orientation week. Some of the best friendships can be started with something as small as inviting another shy person to join you for lunch in the cafeteria.

Of course, making friends doesn't end with orientation week. Once you start classes, keep an eye out for students who are in more than one of the same courses as you - you obviously already have at least that in common. Also, try to strike up conversations with the people sitting around you. There's not usually a seating plan in university or college classes, but people are generally creatures of habit, which means you'll probably be sitting with the same group of people for the next several months - make an effort to get to know them. At the very least, you'll have someone to borrow notes from if you miss a class.

Outside of class, the best way to get to know people is to get involved with the school clubs or groups you identify with. Join the photography club, stop by to chat with the environmentalist group, write for the school newspaper - whatever your interest is, you're sure to find likeminded people somewhere at your school.

Making the grade
Now that you're in college, you're actually paying for your education, and it's up to you to make sure you're getting the most for your money.

Although the freedom that comes from not having mandatory attendance or parents bugging you to get your homework done can be intoxicating for a first-year student, it's important that you start the school year off on the right foot.

First off, be sure to attend all your classes on a regular basis. Once you get into the habit of sleeping through that early-morning sociology class you signed up for, it can be incredibly hard to break it. It's better to just get used to your schedule from the start, and stick to it as often as you can.

You'll also want to get into the habit of coming to class fully prepared (i.e.: having done as much of the required reading as possible), and of taking good notes during class. It may seem like a pain now, but these good study habits will ultimately be a godsend when midterms or finals roll around. You definitely do not want to be spending the night before the exam reading 600 pages in your textbook for the first time or trying desperately to get something out of a scant five pages worth of term-long class notes.

If you find yourself struggling in a course despite your best efforts, don't be afraid to get help. Talk to your professor or make use of your school's tutoring programs as soon as you start to realize there's a problem. As embarrassing as it may be to admit you need help, you're not doing yourself any favors by waiting. After all, the longer you wait, the harder it'll be to dig yourself out of the academic hole you'll find yourself in.

If, however, you just aren't able to handle a specific course, be sure you're aware of your school's course withdrawal deadlines. If you wait too long to drop a course, you might get stuck with an academic penalty on your record (an incomplete, if you stop attending classes, or an F, if you fail). So if you're thinking of dropping something, try to do it before the withdrawal deadline to keep your record clean. Similarly, some schools may refund a portion of the tuition fees for a course - but only if you drop out early enough in the term.

Making sure your money stays in your wallet
With all the expenses a student incurs over the course of an average school year, one of the ones they potentially have the most control over is how much they spend on textbooks.

Now, some students head straight to their school's book store at the start of the year, entire book list in hand, and proceed to pay ridiculous amounts of money for stacks of shiny new textbooks. But if money is an issue for you, there are thriftier ways to go about it.

First of all, don't buy all the textbooks on your book list right away - you might not need every single one. Instead, when a course has several books on the reading list, hold off buying them all until after you've gone to your first class and have had the chance to hear from your professor which books you'll absolutely need to succeed in the course versus those you may only need to use once or twice during the term (if your prof doesn't address this, take a look at the course's reading outline and figure it out for yourself).

In some cases, even a so-called "required" text may only be used every once in a while, and you might be able to get away with borrowing it from the library, or maybe splitting the cost and sharing one with a fellow classmate. Similarly, your professor might also tell you at the start of a course if an older (read: cheaper) edition of a textbook will do in the place of the newest edition.

When it comes to the actual purchasing of textbooks themselves, the smartest way to save money is to try to buy as many of your textbooks used as possible. While some school bookstores sell used books alongside the new ones, most schools also have a separate used bookstore somewhere on campus - find out where it is and make that the first stop when looking for your books. Also be sure to check out your school's bulletin boards, since lots of students try to sell their old textbooks on their own.

You might also want to do some comparison-shopping between your school bookstore and online bookstores (which may have both new and used copies), or even your local public bookstore (which just might be having a back-to-school sale) for non-specialized texts.

Making your home away from home feel like…well, home
Homesickness can be a pretty common thing for students attending school away from home for the first time. But, aside from staying in regular touch with your family and friends back home or traveling home to visit every once in a while (both of which can be very important to your emotional well-being), the only real remedy for homesickness is to come to see your adopted city as a home in and of itself.

You can do that by getting involved in various clubs, events, or volunteer organizations both at your school and beyond. In addition to helping you make new friends, this will also help you to feel more connected to the community and give you something to focus on in your life aside from just schoolwork. It's especially helpful if you can find things to do that were similar to the things you were involved in back home - if you loved biking the trails in your hometown, join a local cyclist club; if you acted in all your high school plays, join a theatre group. Don't stop doing the things you love just because you're in a new environment.

You should also try to get out there and explore your new city. Try different restaurants, check out the tourist sights, go to the parks - don't just spend all your time either at school or in your apartment. If you get out there and live a little, eventually you will come to love certain aspects of your new home away from home.

Modified on April 23, 2009