Writing: How We Do, Be, & Make in the World

What I Wish I Could Tell My Past (Student) Self When First Attending SLCC

Cassandra Goff

 

Before we dive in, I’d like to take a moment to introduce myself and this piece. In this chapter of my life, I teach English/Writing with the Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) Department of English, Linguistics & Writing Studies.(You may even be one of my students!) I recently graduated with my degree and let go of my “student” identity after being a student on-and-off for the past eight years.

The scary and stressful moments comprising my student experience have yet to leave my memory, so as an instructor, I like to reserve one of the first class sessions every semester to talk shop with my students. I’d like to do the same here. I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned throughout my eight years of being a student, which I wish I would have known when first attending college. Stay with me. I realize how hectic life can be as a student and how valuable your time is, so I don’t want to waste your time here. All of the information listed down below I believe to be beneficial for students to know. I’ll even explain why and how I learned some of these things as a student myself. I think, sometimes, the college could do a better job at being transparent with students about some of this information, so I try to pull back the curtain a bit when appropriate.

animated gif showing Dorothy and her friends pulling back the curtain to reveal the Wizard of Oz at work
A pivotal scene in MGM’s 1939 classic movie THE WIZARD OF OZ
When I was first attending college, I remember feeling lost, confused, and overwhelmed with how much information was being thrown at me. The orientations (mandatory, first-time students, transferring, returning) felt like drinking water from a fire hose, to use a common idiom. And during my first few semesters, I felt like I had missed out on acquiring an inherent knowledge that instructors, advisors, librarians and other campus community members assumed we all shared. After talking with other students, I soon realized that they had gained some of this knowledge from friends or family members. I had to fill in the gaps of my knowledge from separate resources as a first-generation student. It was difficult for me, as someone with little background information about college, to acquire all the relevant discourse, knowledge, and community needed for the success I wanted to achieve academically. As I transferred between and through instructions about five times, I ended up learning a lot about how to navigate higher education.

(I will be situating this information in the context of Salt Lake Community College, but if you plan to attend or are currently attending a different institution, some of these points may still apply.)

 

REGISTRATION

Registration is a daunting and messy process. There are so many variables to take into consideration while working through the catalog and registration portal to create a schedule and enroll in courses (including but not limited to: semester, general education requirement qualifiers, course designation, level, course time and day of the week, course medium, instructor, and fees). Generally speaking, orientations aim to explain many of these things, but if you were anything like me, the value of orientation was never really emphasized so you probably tuned out (or were so preoccupied thinking about how to restructure the budget that month because you had to take the day off work to attend orientation). I’d like to briefly go over a few points of registration that are incredibly important.

I remember one of the first moments in which I felt entirely overwhelmed and frustrated by college. I was sitting on some thick beige almost-shag carpet of a bedroom floor. Some of the printed orientation materials that had been handed to me earlier that day were spread out next to me, but my body was slanted towards the laptop I was attempting to work on. I opened the portal for registration, clicking around a very confusing website trying to find the course catalog. I found the buried link that led me to the catalog where I could search through courses. I was quickly met with different course designations, numbers, dates, times, fees, and a slew of other course variables. I sat there starting at the screen as rushes of panic jolted through me. Eventually, I unfroze myself long enough to turn to my mother and ask, “What do I do?” She sat down and tried to figure out all the different acronyms with me, as we attempted to piece together a schedule, but we ended up failing that night. I remember thinking to myself, “If I can’t even figure out how to get into a class, how am I ever going to make it through college?”

 

COURSE DESIGNATIONS

Courses are generally categorized by subject. For example, I teach ENGL 2010; ENGL stands for English. That one is pretty easy, but some of the course designations don’t necessarily make sense, so I always recommend checking the entire course name. Courses are then categorized by number. For example, in English the general education requirement for all students is to complete ENGL 2010 or higher.

Generally, the number designations correspond to the level of “difficulty,” even though I hesitate to use that term. Usually, courses build on one another and the higher the number, the more background knowledge is needed. (This might be most easily explained through K–12 education. As a student, you probably wouldn’t want to jump from 4th grade math into 7th grade math. There’s a ton of material covered in 5th and 6th grade math that you’ll need to understand in order to work through some formulas introduced in 7th grade math. Same idea. Students should understand material from ENGL 1010 before learning new concepts in ENGL 2010.)

Pay attention to these course designations and numbers. One of the mistakes I made as a student was underestimating the importance of the sequenced number system. After passing ENGL 2010, I enrolled quickly into an ENGL 2900 course. Within the first few class sessions, I realized I was in way over my head: terms and concepts I had never heard of were glossed over quickly in class discussions. I ended up dropping that course and re-enrolling a few semesters later, after I had been through other courses that walked me through the material I needed to understand. The point here is, if you just passed ENGL 2010, it might not be a great idea to jump directly into ENGL 2900. You absolutely could, but it might be scary.

 

LEAVING A COURSE

When enrolling in courses, make sure to be familiar with the add/drop/withdraw/audit terms. Drop/withdraw/audit are all terms related to a student’s level of involvement within a course throughout the semester. (Remember to discuss each of these options with an academic advisor for consideration.) A student is enrolled in a course when that course is added to the student’s schedule. By default, students are added to a course for the full duration of the semester and will receive a letter grade influencing their GPA.

Drop

Students have the option of dropping a course within the first few weeks (depending on the academic calendar) of the semester. There is no official penalty for dropping a course. If a student drops a course, they will be removed from the course and it will not show up as an enrollment on their transcript. The student does not have to pay tuition for that course.

Many students use this option to test out different courses, myself included. For the first week or two of every semester, I would enroll for as many courses as I could and attend the first (or second) class session of each, to view the syllabus for each course and get a feel for the instructor. After the first few sessions, I would drop the courses that I didn’t personally find interesting, seemed like too much of a commitment, or felt like my personality would conflict with the instructor’s.

Withdraw

Withdraw functions similarly to “drop,” where students can withdraw from a course and not have to attend the remainder of the semester. However, with the “withdraw” option, students generally lose their tuition as the college will not issue a refund for a course which a student withdraws from. However, the benefit of withdrawing is that the course will not impact a student’s GPA. A “W” will show on the student’s transcript instead of the letter grade.

Generally, this option is good to consider if you don’t think you will earn the grade you desire by the end of the term, and if you’re worried about your GPA. Withdrawing can be a really strategic and incredibly helpful option for many students, again, including myself. I took advantage of the withdraw option a few times. For example, about halfway through one of my semesters, my job at the time offered me a promotion around the same time we needed some extra labor. I ended up working 40+-hour weeks while also trying to attend three courses. It didn’t work out very well. I realized I realistically could pass only one course that semester so I withdrew from the other two.

Audit

Lastly, audit. Audits are for students who would like to attend classes but not receive credit for the course. Students who are auditing courses attend lectures but do not have to turn in the coursework, generally. If you are in school working towards your degree, do not audit a course.

During one semester when I was still feeling uncomfortable navigation registration, I noticed a checkbox I had the option of clicking. Next to the checkbox, there was the word “audit.” That was a new term to me, and I didn’t fully understand what it meant. So I clicked the box, indicating that I wished to audit the course. That’s not necessarily something you want to do as a student, I found out later that semester from my Communications instructor.

 

BEING A STUDENT

If you’re feeling like being a “student” doesn’t accurately describe you, you’re not alone.

When I was attending courses at Salt Lake Community College, I was considered a student. It was an identity label that was thrust onto me by essence of paying tuition. I resisted that identity for a long time. It wasn’t until I realized that I could leverage my positionality of being a non-traditional student that I began to see myself within that label and accept my role within the college community. I soon found other students like me, who were unsure about how they felt about their non-traditional student label. We were able to connect and form a small sense of community.

 

YOUR POWER

I always encourage students to take ownership over their “student” label and institutional identity. There is power in being a student. The most important and substantial changes that occur on campus and within this community emerge from students. You are important here. If you don’t believe me, and if you haven’t already, take a moment to read over the Student Code. I often find that most of my students either haven’t read over that document and/or didn’t realize it existed. That document is there to protect you as a student, more than anything. We (instructors, advisors, librarians, organizers, and other staff/faculty members) are quite dedicated to our students. We are here to help you with your educational experience as best we can.

 

STUDENT DISCOUNTS

There are so many different student discounts out there. I always recommend to my students that they make a habit of asking any and every place they shop or visit if they provide a student discount. I also try to keep a running list of active student discounts, so please feel free to check out this Google Doc.

I mentioned that I learned how to leverage my institutional identity as a student throughout my eight years of attending college. One of the most frequent ways I did so was with student discounts. Any time I was checking out with a cashier, handing my card over to be swiped, or clicking “continue to checkout” on a website, I’d inquire about a student discount. It’s as simple as asking if there are any available. (I even had employees tell me that they didn’t have a student discount, but because I looked like I needed it (whoa, looking back now I guess that was kind of rude) they gave me a different discount.)

 

TUITION

Part of your tuition goes towards many student services provided here on campus. You’re already paying for many services, so you might as well use them! As a student, you have access to many free or low-cost services. Some of them are definitely worth checking out, even if it’s only to see what’s available to you. All the people staffing these services and offices are extremely happy to interact with students.

As I tried to make a habit to check out the things I was paying for throughout the years of paying tuition, I was frequently met with excitement from humans who wished students would take advantage of their services and offices more. “You already pay for this with your tuition,” a librarian once told me as I was trying to access an article on a database through the library’s website. The article was behind a paywall and I thought I would need to pay for it out of pocket in order to use it for an assignment. After that interaction, I decided to check my tuition bill to see what else I paid for every semester. If you haven’t looked at the itemized break down of your tuition bill, I’d recommend doing so.

 

CANVAS

One of the things your tuition helps pay for is Canvas. Canvas is its own entity. Canvas is a Learning Management Software (LMS) owned and operated by Instructure, not by Salt Lake Community College or any other institution. Sometimes, it seems like Canvas is owned and operated by SLCC (especially because there’s a SLCC Canvas Help Desk). It’s not. (Maybe you already worked with Canvas in high school. If so, it may look a little different as instructors personalize their SLCC courses.)

Many of your instructors are trying to learn and navigate Canvas too. I have questions about Canvas all the time myself, so I can’t always answer student questions about Canvas. Luckily, Canvas does have 24/7 tech support for both students and teachers. There should be a phone number on your Canvas Dashboard to call for help (there’s also a chat option). The tech agents there are happy to help you with any of your problems.

 

PASSING COLLEGE

I know the “show up for classes and turn in all assignments” advice sounds simplistic, and perhaps unrealistic, but that’s the advice I give to all students now. Show up for your classes and listen to your instructors, because oftentimes they’ll tell you exactly what you need to do in order to pass the course. In addition, turn in each and every assignment, ideally meeting the assignment expectations. I tell my students to read assignment descriptions in-depth a few times before submitting an assignment. In other words, if an assignment description asks you to respond to question 2d from the assigned textbook, make sure you’re reading 2d and not 2b. This happens more frequently than you might imagine. In a separate chapter of this textbook, Jerri Harwell mentions something similar.

Someone once told me that all I needed to do to pass college and get my degree was “show up to all the classes and turn in the assignments.” Well, that sounded simple. Throughout my undergraduate education, I was really envious of the students who could show up for only a few class sessions and still pass exams. I felt like I needed to attend every class session and turn in every assignment in order to get the grades I wanted for myself. I didn’t realize until after I started teaching that I was an anomaly.

 

TALKING TO YOUR INSTRUCTOR

Be familiar with your instructors. There are so many reasons to curate good relationships with them, like helping to determine what to call them (professor/instructor or Dr./Mr./Ms./Mrs. or first name/last name or “Teach” ― because yes, there are important differences for all of those (pro-tip: check the syllabi to see how your instructors introduce themselves)). I always recommend that if you have a question about anything in your courses, especially if there is confusion on an assignment description or paper expectation, email your instructor. If you as a student can get clarification on things that might be confusing or unsaid (like what formatting style is expected for a written paper), it will not only help your learning, but your grade as well. The last thing I’ll mention is, depending on your life goals, it might be a good idea to maintain good relationships with your instructors in case you ever need a letter of recommendation or professional reference.

When I was a teenager, I received the advice “introduce yourself to your instructors on the first day of class” (probably from one of my high school teachers). I took that advice quite literally and on the first day of every semester for the first two years of my college education, I waited to be one of the last students in the classroom so I could introduce myself personally to the instructors. Some of my instructors were very surprised by that action, but they always remembered who I was.

 

TIME MANAGEMENT AND STUDY HABITS

As an instructor, I like to spend one of my first class sessions answering questions from students about Salt Lake Community College, being a student, and/or the course. (Honestly, those discussions are the main inspiration behind this chapter. See, students make change!) Some of the common questions/comments I receive from students are about study habits and time management. My immediate response is always “figure out what works best for you ― what works for me isn’t necessarily going to work for the student sitting next to you, and what works for them won’t necessarily work for you.”

However, there are a few broad tips & tricks I’ve picked up over the years that I’d like to share.

Keep Your Brain Healthy

Figure out your brain’s preferred environment. Start by considering when your brain feels most active (perhaps, check in with your rest/wake (circadian) rhythms). I know, sometimes, working and studying when your brain is most active isn’t possible because of different work or life schedules. If that’s the case, consider the environment in which you’re working or studying.

Personally, I know I’m a night owl. My brain works most efficiently in the evening, so I tend to schedule most of my important work and studying after 4pm. I try not to work or study in the morning, because my brain isn’t on yet. (On the opposite side of that though, I know people that like to wake up between 4 and 6 in the morning to get some of their work and studying done.)

& Happy

Play with your study environment to figure out what makes your brain happiest. Try working in vastly different environments while incorporating variables to see what works best for your brain.

Personally, I know I like to have a silent space where I can put my headphones on and “tune in” to my work while listening to very specific playlists. In addition, I like to be warm and cozy; I have to be wearing long sleeves while writing or studying. I like to have some space where I can have my laptop open, with additional physical material to reference next to me. I don’t tend to work well in minimal space. I’ve learned what works best for me through many trials and errors, attempting to study in different environments and work with various variables. I have narrowed in on what makes my brain happy. I recommend doing the same.

& Efficient!

Figure out your learning style. If you can figure out what type of learner you are, it’s easier to narrow in on study habits that will be most helpful.

For example, I know I’m a visual/auditory learner, so I’ve picked up some study habits best suited for my learning style. I’ll use different highlighting and note-taking techniques. I’ll have Google voice information to me as I try to remember something specific. Even if you can figure out which senses your brain primarily learns from, that will help you narrow in on your effective study habits.

 

TIMELINE

There are two rather concerning myths in academia: the two-year and four-year degree. We are finding that students generally attend college for at least one year longer than what their “average” degree path might be (Lewin). This is all to say, if you can complete all the courses needed for your desired outcome within the anticipated timespan, that’s fantastic. But if you can’t, don’t stress over it. The trend lines are showing us that it will be more common to take longer than anticipated for degree completion.

Personally, my four-year degree took me five years to complete. During that fifth year, there were moments in which I found myself trying to rationalize why it had taken me so long to complete what other students had already completed, even though I had completely valid reasons for needing extra time. Luckily, the members in my community were (and still are) incredibly supportive and continually reminded me that I was part of a growing trend in academia.

 

TRANSFERRING

If you are considering transferring, I’d recommend looking into some transfer-student resources. There are some scholars working hard to try to alleviate transfer shock for students. If it’s possible to talk to one of us (perhaps there’s an email listed on a faculty resource page related to transfer-student resources), I’d highly recommend it.

After attending Salt Lake Community College, I transferred to the University of Utah in order to complete the degree needed for my current position (with our Writing Studies Scholars program). I experienced what is referred to as “transfer shock” within some educational research (Hills; Ishitani). The term is oddly fitting as I felt like I was in shock the entire semester; the buildings were different, the people interacted strangely, the community held opposing values, the different expectations of students felt jarring. It was really difficult to transfer institutions. I bring this up not to discourage any student from transferring between and through whatever institutions desired or needed, but to illuminate that students are not alone in feeling like it’s a difficult experience.

 

TRADITIONAL EDUCATION

Unfortunately, we are still recognizing and learning that college was originally intended for “traditional” students ― those who could devote much of their lives to being a student, focusing entirely on education without distraction. College was not designed for non-traditional students ― students who work full- or part-time jobs, students who have a variety of family and friend relationships to attend to, students whose primary focus, time, and attention isn’t school. Students like me! If you feel overwhelmed because you took the 9 credit hours sometimes required for financial aide and have obligations outside of school, (again) you’re not alone. In fact, I believe the majority of students are working to balance school, work, and life. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed, under pressure, anxious, and stressed.

(It’s also okay to fail. Personally, I failed a few different times over the course of my eight years being a student. Sometimes, that was literal, as I received an “F” in a course or two. Sometimes, I felt like I failed because I didn’t meet the goals I set for myself or I let other people down in various ways. I failed, and yet someone still allows me to have a job where I can stand in front of a classroom.)

 

THAT’S ALL!

Wow. That was a lot of information. None of which replaces the information you get as a student in orientation (if you still have those materials, I’d recommend reviewing them briefly). The really scary word count on this document might be a good indication of how difficult navigating college is. I really encourage everyone to keep that in mind. Being a student is hard. Teachers ― please take a moment to explain any or all of these things with your students if it seems like they need it. Students ― please don’t be afraid to ask for what you need, even if it’s an explanation on what the number two means in your ENGL 2010 course. Many of us (teachers, advisors, librarians, staff members) are surrounded by this jargon and discourse each and every day. We forget that “retention” and “turn your assignment in through canvas” and “visit the library” are terms and phrases that might need some explanation. And students, I wish you luck achieving your goals here at Salt Lake Community College.

 

Sources

Harwell, Jerri. “How to Do College.” Open English @ SLCC. Pressbooks, 2016. openenglishatslcc.pressbooks.com/chapter/how-to-do-college/

Hills, J. R. “Transfer Shock: The Academic Performance of the Junior College Transfer.” Journal of Experimental Education, vol. 33, no. 3, 1965, pp. 210–215.

Ishitani, Terry. “How Do Transfers Survive After ‘Transfer Shock’? A Longitudinal Study of Transfer Student Departure at a Four-Year Institution.” Research in Higher Education, vol. 49, no. 5, Aug. 2008, pp. 403–419.

Lewin, Tamar. “Most College Students Don’t Earn a Degree in 4 Years, Study Finds.” New York Times, 1 Dec. 2014. www.nytimes.com/2014/12/02/education/most-college-students-dont-earn-degree-in-4-years-study-finds.html

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Open English @ SLCC by Cassandra Goff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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