Courses uncharted

College students share their wisdom on how to navigate campus, classes and friendships

“Before starting college, I wish I knew that it would all turn out OK,” said Alex B., as she began her freshman year at Utah State University (USU).

She realized it is OK, though: “Each day at college gets better and better.”

It can be scary to move away from the comforts of high school and home to the world of higher education. my529 spoke with a few students at the beginning of fall semester in 2022 for tips on navigating the college experience.

Utilize campus resources; consult advisors

Colleges and universities provide numerous resources—everything from advisors to tutors to health and wellness facilities. Making time to meet with advisors can set students up for success.

“If I were to do anything differently, I would have paid closer attention in beginning advising sessions,” said Kenra, a junior at the University of Denver. “Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself (and) be kind to the people you’re asking.”

Hallie, a junior at USU, wishes she had engaged earlier with her advisor.

“It’s taken me three years to figure out I can talk with an academic advisor to find a schedule that will challenge me and keep me on track to graduate—while also allowing time for sleep, work, friends, meals and exercise,” she said.  

Hallie, an Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Sciences major at Utah State University, is
pictured with her ‘classmate,’ a cow named Mariah. Photo courtesy Hallie D.
Hallie, an Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Sciences major at Utah State University, is pictured with her ‘classmate’ Mariah. Photo courtesy Hallie D.

Take care of yourself

Southern Utah University (SUU) sophomore Alex M. said that “keeping some type of routine is very helpful,” and that going to the gym provides “a very nice escape from the school work when it (gets) stressful.”

Creating a schedule to complete assignments on time while adding in time off has helped Kenra avoid procrastination and burnout.

Make use of faculty office hours

“Meet and make connections with your professors. They are humans and want to help you succeed, but they teach a ton of other students,” said Luke, a freshman at Utah Tech University.

Be prepared for unexpected expenses. And don’t forget the toilet paper

Now that you are paying for parking, books, lab fees, and all of the household supplies you once took for granted, you’ll notice how quickly things add up.

Alex B. planned to stock her apartment by buying “everything I thought I would ever need in a semester’s time,” but then decided on a more moderate approach, and that roommates would pitch in. “The apartment doesn’t need six vacuums or toasters.”

While her apartment had appliances covered, she forgot something important: “I didn’t think about the household expenses such as toilet paper and soap.”

Alex B. sets up her freshman dorm room at the beginning of fall semester 2022. Photo courtesy Alex B.

When unexpected expenses come up—and they will—it’s helpful to be prepared.

“Have some sort of emergency fund to be ahead of problems when they arise,” suggested Luke, whose car started acting up after he arrived on campus.

Attendance matters

Much of today’s course content is available online, but attending class is essential. Besides, it’s often part of your grade.

“Skipping a class can be detrimental,” said Luke, who knew of several students who failed courses due to poor attendance. “You really have to be on top of your work and be committed.”  

Strangers become friends

In a sea of new faces, it can be intimidating to meet people, but kindness and authenticity (and perhaps a little courage) are key. “The trick to making friends is to say, ‘yes,’” said Lauren, a senior at Brigham Young University, with the caveat that this trick does not include saying yes to anything unsafe. She recommended saying yes to school events like opening socials, bingo nights or concerts.

“As you become friends with your immediate circles (roommates, classmates), eventually your circles will branch out to include more people than you thought possible.”

Don’t forget that a smile or a friendly wave can go a long way. Kenra found a group of friends in a freshman seminar course who became a support system for the coming years—and it all began when she asked the nice person sitting next to her to join her for lunch.

“We sat together, our group grew, and a small community was formed,” said Kenra. Although the group moved on, they remain friends, and one even became a future roommate.  

Keep yourself open to new experiences

Studying abroad in Europe was “such a confidence builder,” Lauren said. The program offered advertising students a chance to network with industry professionals and attend a prestigious conference, alongside a backdrop of history and culture.

“I noticed a lot of personal development,” she said of her time abroad. “Traveling really does give you confidence. I could navigate London (and Paris) by myself. Even keeping myself alive and having good experiences on my own without a professor or chaperone, I had to be an active participant.”

Where are they now?

A senior at USU this fall, Hallie trained as a veterinary technician this summer and has added a minor in social work.

In Colorado, Kenra is preparing for her senior year at the University of Denver, majoring in clarinet performance and English with a concentration in creative writing.She will graduate in 2024.

Alex M. finished his studies at SUU and spent his summer in an EMT program at Mountainland Technical College in Lehi, Utah. He will transfer this fall as a junior to Utah Valley University (UVU) to pursue a bachelor’s degree in emergency services, a program not offered at SUU.

Luke will return to Utah Tech as a sophomore majoring in criminology. His car has been a problem all year.

Lauren graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications, with an emphasis in advertising. She has accepted a copywriting residency at a San Francisco-based advertising agency.

Recognizing when you need to go somewhere else

What if your dream school isn’t quite the right fit? You can always choose another.  

In Alex B.’s case, a love for her classes, social life and involvement in school activities could not offset a desire to have family nearby. She also hoped to leave for greener pastures—literally.

“I think Utah State is a great school. After a year, I reevaluated and found that I really wasn’t happy with where I was at,” Alex said, noting that a transfer to UVU will place her closer to family, a move she feels will support her learning. Plus, she added, “I don’t thrive well in such a cold environment.”

All told, the experience was beneficial.

“I learned a lot about myself, which I think comes with the territory of being a first-year college student,” Alex said, adding that her time at USU will always hold space in her heart. “I think moving will be a good choice for me in the long run.”

“Meet and make connections
with your professors.”

-Luke, freshman at Utah Tech University

“As you become friends with your
immediate circles (roommates,
classmates), eventually your
circles will branch out to include more
people than you thought possible.”

-Lauren, senior at Brigham Young University