The First Year Experience – Ben Rowsome

At the beginning of First Year, college is a new place with new people, new sounds, new smells, new surroundings, a new way of learning – in short, it’s a new way of living, and it can often be hard for students to adjust. Navigating your way around – everything from your timetable and where your lecture halls are, to where you should go to eat in the afternoon – can take a while to adjust to, and can be very disorientating in the beginning. As a person with autism, it can be particularly disorientating, and I felt it was important to have a plan in place going into the new academic year. 

To help with the First-Year Experience, and make it less stressful for students coming in, I have provided some useful tips under the following three categories:

  1. Freshers’ Week
  2. The First Semester
  3. College Exams

I will also provide perspective on other aspects of college life, such as travel, self-esteem, what to do in the event of change, etc. 

i. Freshers’ Week

This might only be one week in the academic year, but it’s the very first week of the year, and there’s a lot of very important stuff happening. What with the various orientations you have to attend, all the stands for the plethora of societies within the college, and lots of other generic events going on – all of this can be especially hard to navigate, considering that it’s all happening in the one week. But it can also be a very exciting week of the year too, and a lot can certainly be taken away from it.   

If there’s any advice I can give you during this week, it’s that you should definitely plan your Freshers’ Week. What does that mean? Well, let’s take as an example the orientations you’ll have to attend, of which there are guaranteed to be a good few. It will be very helpful to highlight only the orientations that are relevant to you on the timetable that you’ll be provided, and also to find out exactly where and when they’ll be happening before Freshers’ Week begins. This will certainly alleviate a lot of the initial stress first-year students will no doubt be feeling in the run-up to Freshers’ Week, and so that they won’t be scrambling to find out where they’re supposed to be at any given time during the week itself. Say for me who is studying Physics, I had a Physical Sciences orientation, a Mathematics orientation, a General Science orientation and a General 1st year orientation, as well as other bits and bobs here and there, so you can imagine planning one’s Freshers’ Week would serve someone very well here. 

When you get to the society stands at front square, there are a lot of stands (obviously), but also a lot of people and a lot of noise, so there’s never any harm in having a plan here too. You’re going to have fliers thrust into your hand, and students begging you to sign up for whatever society they’re trying to promote. In theory, you can sign up to as many societies as you like, and you’ll always be encouraged by the college to try something new … but if you know deep in your heart that you’re not going to be taking up knitting anytime soon, then pay no heed to that stand when you’re passing it, and keep looking for whatever societies concern your true interests. In my case, I kept a sharp lookout for the Chess Society, in which I would become heavily involved during the First Semester. But again, have a plan here, so that you can use your time amongst the stands productively because they’ll all be gone from front square once the first week of lectures begins. 

It’s worth noting that Freshers’ Week serves another extremely useful purpose – this is an opportunity for first-year students to become as familiar with the college campus as possible before the first week of lectures begins. Use that time.  Find out where all your lecture halls are situated, know some of the routes you can take from one building to another, locate some of the libraries and course offices to may need to avail of throughout the year, suss out some of the good places to eat (I always enjoyed the Buttery as an example), especially those near your lecture halls in the event that you have only a limited amount of time to eat before your next lecture … all these things should be considered, just so one is not too flustered going into the first week. A little bit of anxiety is inevitable of course, but that’s simply because you’re starting a new phase in your own life.

So then, lectures start …

ii. The First Semester

Of course, the first few weeks can be quite difficult. As a student who suffers from a lot of anxiety, I certainly found those first few weeks incredibly challenging. But as I said before, it’s a new way of living, and there will be a lot of stuff still left to encounter throughout the first semester that some may find disorientating or stressful; meeting your lecturers for the first time, handing in assignments, understanding the different ways in which your lecturers approach their respective fields, knowing when each piece of work is due, getting used to Blackboard and other platforms … there’s a lot to take in, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It’s a gradual process, that can be assisted by the plan you create for yourself so that you make the most of your time in college.

The first thing that should be addressed is the fact that everybody is either now living away from home or now have a significant distance to travel from their homes (since most people don’t live smack bang in the middle of town). This can be stressful in and of itself, so it can be very helpful to plan your commute in advance. So, in other words, if you know that the DART gets you to the college in better time than say the bus or the LUAS (or that one mode of transport is simply more accessible than the other), then stick to that, and don’t go making unnecessary stress by trying another unfamiliar commute. This will always stand to people who like routine, like me – half-hour walk down to Bray DART Station, a 40-minute DART journey to Pearse Station, and then at the end of the day, a 90-minute bus journey from Nassau St. to my front door practically. To know that that was my plan every day was simply one less thing to worry about, which did indeed stand to me throughout the 1st semester. 

Once you’re going about your day in college, going from lecture to lecture, you may find that one day you have a lecture at say 9 a.m., and then not have another lecture until 5 p.m. Not knowing what to do during that big gap can also be another cause for stress, so it’s often no harm having a timetable of sorts here too. For instance, I might study in one of the libraries that morning, and then go to the Buttery at 12.30 for lunch, then go down for another session of study before meeting a friend say at 3.30. Of course, this is a particularly large gap, but it’s more to emphasise how useful it can be to plan your whole day, as opposed to just when you have lectures or labs (in the case of a science degree).  

You’re going to learn very quickly that Blackboard is your best friend – this is where most of your lecture notes will be and where some of your assignments will show up for you to complete. It will be a formidable tool for you to use throughout your college years, not just first year, and it’s encouraged that you make good use of it. In the event that you miss a lecture, chances are that this is where your notes will be. If it happens that you forget when a particular assignment is due, or how an assignment is supposed to be submitted, Blackboard is usually a good first place to check. It can also be very useful as a way to communicate with other students and your lecturers, so suffice it to say that Blackboard is an arena for higher learning in itself!

It’s not unusual that a lecture will be moved to a different hall or a different time at the last minute. This can always be disconcerting, especially if it hasn’t been made clear what the new location or time is. And for a person with autism like me, it can be an utter nightmare! But these kinds of situations can always be dealt with – there are always people available to consult in the event of change. You can ask someone within the course, or consult the Science Course Office (say if you’re doing a Science course). I myself found the Disability Services particularly helpful in situations like this, who have their drop-in office in the Arts Building. Of course, if you’re completely confused as to what to do or where to go, the chances are that a lot of other people will be too. And it’s not the end of the world if you miss a lecture as a result of this. There will always be another way to get the notes, whether it be through Blackboard, or through a helpful student. Change might be inevitable, but remember there’s always a way around the situation

Getting used to your lecturers is another big step for any college student, as they’ll all be very different in their approach to their subject, and certainly very different from any of your secondary school teachers. This takes adjusting to just like anything else. So by all means, take the time to understand your lecturer; the way in which they present work, their terminology, what’s he/she expects of you throughout the lecture, what platforms they prefer for notes and assignments (although chances are it’ll be Blackboard), etc. This way, you’ll be able to get the most out of each lecture, and it’ll make it easier to study for exams … which brings us to our last topic. 

iii. College Exams

Exams – the no. 1 stress generator of our time. That’s why it’s especially important to have a plan when it comes to exams. As an academic, this will always stand to you, regardless of what you’re studying, or what stage of your education you’re at. First and foremost, once you’ve gotten your timetable, suss out where each exam is due to take place, when the exam will happen, the duration of the exam, the necessary requirements, etc. Again, only highlight the stuff that’s relevant to you, so that’s it’s not all one big stream of words that are only causing you unnecessary stress leading up to the exams themselves.

Have a study plan!!! Now, this obviously sounds intuitive to any academic, but it should be never underestimated, and there are often potholes that people can fall into when making a study plan – some of which I have even fallen into during my own studies, which is why I feel it’s worth addressing. For instance, when you’re planning a particular day, never bombard a day with studying. Schedule regular breaks and know when you’re going to study a particular topic – which raises another valid point. Perhaps don’t schedule all the easy topics first just for a confidence boost or as a way to convince yourself that you knew everything all along. But this, of course, will depend on the way each person studies and in this respect should only be taken with a pinch of salt.

Make sure all your assignments are complete before the end of the First Semester. As a student in Science, I had a lot of assignments due at this time, and all in various places, including Physics, Mathematics and Geology, so it can certainly somewhat of a labyrinth to track every assignment down and ensure that it’s done. But it’s still a very important task to undertake since it would be an awful shame to have lost some of the marks before going into the exams simply because you had misread the deadline or you forgot about the assignment altogether. So, double-check that you have everything complete before exam time, as this will alleviate a lot of stress during the study week.  As someone who stresses about exams, in any case, I felt empowered knowing I had banked a good few of the marks before-hand.

Believe in yourself. It sounds so simple, but it’s what will stand to you the most throughout your time in college, not just in the first year. There will be days when the work is hard – or the day will have just been tough in itself – and you’ll try and convince yourself that you just can’t do it. But you can. There’s a reason you’re in Trinity, to begin with, and that can’t be taken away from you. 

During the summer of 2019, I had unfortunately suffered quite a tragic bereavement, to the point where a lot of the confidence I had, had been knocked out of me come the new academic year. And I have to be honest when I say that I was tempted many times to throw in the towel at various points throughout the first semester especially … but every time I reminded myself I was a Junior Freshman, studying Physics at Trinity College Dublin no less, something was restored. Something reminding me that this was my place and that I truly deserve to be here, I deserve to embrace everything that’s great about Trinity – the camaraderie, the societies, the events, the sigh of relief you can take after a long night of study in the library … You deserve to be here, and you can battle the first-year experience. 

Ben’s First Year Experience in Conversation with Niamh.

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