Colleges and universities can seem to be huge and unfriendly places, especially if you went to a small high school or grew up in a small town. To feel comfortable in this new environment, it is important for you to find your comfort zone or niche. It’s not hard to find the place where you belong, but it will take some initiative on your part. Consider your interests and the high school activities you enjoyed most, and choose some activities to explore. You might be interested in joining an intramural team, performing community service, running for a student government office, or getting involved in your residence hall. Or you might prefer joining a more structured campuswide club or organization.
Almost every college has numerous organizations you can join; usually, you can check them out through activity fairs, printed guides, open houses, Web pages, and so on. Even better, consider attending one of the organization’s meetings before you make the decision to join. Find out what the organization is like, what the expectations of time and money are, and whether you feel comfortable with the members. New students who become involved with at least one organization are more likely to survive their first year and remain in college than those who do not become involved.
Be careful not to overextend yourself when it comes to campus activities. Although it is important to get involved, joining too many clubs or organizations will make it difficult to focus on any given activity and will interfere with your studies. Future employers will see a balance in academics and campus involvement as a desirable quality in prospective employees. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that more is better. In campus involvement as in many things, quality is much more important than quantity.
Greek social organizations are not all alike, nor are their members. Fraternities and sororities can be a rich source of friends and support. Some students love them. Other students find them philosophically distasteful, too demanding of time and finances, or too constricting. Members of Greek organizations sometimes associate exclusively with other members, and this exclusivity can cause them to miss opportunities to have a more varied group of friends. Greek rush (member recruitment) on your campus might happen before you have had an opportunity to decide whether you want to go Greek or to determine which fraternity or sorority is right for you. There is nothing wrong with delaying a decision about Greek membership. In fact, we would argue that it’s better to learn your way around campus and meet lots of different friends before committing to a particular organization. Fraternities and sororities are powerful social influences, so you’ll definitely want to take a good look at the upperclass students who are in them. If what you see is what you want to be, consider joining. If not, steer clear.
If Greek life is not for you, consider the many other ways in which you can make close friends. Many campuses have residence halls or special floors for students with common interests or situations, such as first-year students; honors students; students in particular majors; students with strong ethnic or religious affiliations; students who do not use tobacco, alcohol, and drugs; students who are interested in protecting the environment; and so on. Check them out. Often, they provide very satisfying experiences.
One of the best ways to develop relationships with instructors and administrators on your campus is to get an on-campus job. Generally, your on-campus supervisors will be much more flexible than off-campus employers in helping you balance your study demands and your work schedule. You might not make as much money working on campus as you would in an off-campus job, but the relationships that you’ll develop with influential people who really care about your success in college and who will write those all-important reference letters make on-campus employment well worth it. Consider finding a work experience that is related to your intended major. For instance, if you are a premed major, you might be able to find on-campus work in a biology or chemistry lab. That work could help you gain knowledge and experience as well as make connections with faculty experts in these fields.
If an on-campus job is not available or you don’t find one that appeals to you, an off-campus job is also a good way to meet new people in the community. It’s important that you restrict work to a reasonable number of hours per week, however. Although you might feel that you have to work to pay your tuition or living expenses, many college students work too many hours just to support a certain lifestyle. Be careful to maintain a reasonable balance between work and study. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, “I can do it all.” Too many college students have found that doing it all means not doing anything well.
Many institutions have co-op programs in which students spend some terms in regular classes and other terms in temporary paid employment in their field. Although such programs will usually prolong your education somewhat, they have many advantages. For instance, they offer an excellent preview of what work in your chosen field is actually like, thus helping you determine whether you have made the right choice. They also give you valuable experience and contacts that will help you get a job when you finish school; in fact, many firms offer successful co-op students permanent jobs when they graduate.
Alternating work and school terms might be more suitable for you than eight or ten straight terms of classes, and it might help you keep your ultimate goal in mind. Co-op programs can help you pay for school, too; some co-op students, especially in technical fields, make almost as much, or even more, during their co-op terms as their instructors do!
As a first-year student you will spend much of your time on campus either going to class, studying, or hanging out with other students, but you can also get involved in the surrounding community in other ways. Consider volunteering for a community service project such as helping at an animal shelter, serving the homeless at a soup kitchen, or helping build or renovate homes for needy families. Your college might offer service opportunities as part of first-year courses (service learning), or your campus’s division of student affairs might have a volunteer or community service office. You can also check Volunteer Match (http://www.volunteermatch.org) for opportunities in your area. Simply enter your ZIP code and, if you wish, key words to help you find volunteer work in your field of interest.
co-op programs Programs offered at many institutions that allow students to work in their field of study while enrolled in college. They offer valuable experiences and an excellent preview of what work in the chosen field is actually like. Also called cooperative education.