- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 13, 2006

People, wear flip-flops in the shower,” Rick Treter tells an auditorium of 254 soon-to-be college freshmen.

“I know your feet aren’t funky — hers are,” Mr. Treter says, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Mr. Treter, American University’s director of residence life, is advising incoming freshmen during an AU summer orientation session on topics ranging from the importance of wearing shower shoes to how to live with three people in a dorm room built for two.

Despite Mr. Treter’s warnings, some students will forget to wear shower shoes anyway. After all, freshman year is all about making mistakes.

The biggest mistake incoming freshmen make, students and university officials say, is taking on more classes, activities and jobs than they can handle.

“Some people try to spread themselves way too thin,” says Gregory Hachenburg, 20, a junior at George Washington University.

Freshmen may think they’ll have plenty of free time to fill since they have only a few hours of class each day. What they don’t realize is college classes require several hours of studying outside the classroom. Many freshmen sign up for service groups, the student newspaper and club soccer in August, only to realize midway though the semester they can’t do it all.

When you find yourself starting homework at 1 a.m., going to bed at 4 a.m. and struggling to wake up for 8 a.m. classes, you know you need to cut back, Mr. Hachenburg says.

Most students and university officials recommend getting involved on campus, but they suggest that freshmen pick just a few things they love and do them well. Unlike in high school, Mr. Hachenburg says, students can’t do everything in college.

What freshmen always should do — but don’t — is go to class and do the reading.

K.C. Arbour, 21, a senior at Georgetown University, says professors notice when students don’t come to class. Show up, Miss Arbour says, even if you have to walk in late.

Many caution that just because freshmen don’t have homework to turn in or teachers reminding them to read doesn’t mean they can get away with not working.

“Once they get to college, they have two papers and a final exam, and no one is asking how they’re doing on that paper,” says Tiffany Sanchez, director of New Student Programs at AU. “The responsibility sits much more with the students than with the teacher.”

Though the consequences of slacking may not be apparent immediately, freshmen who get behind on reading during the first few weeks of school can have difficulty catching up.

“Your priority here is to go to school,” says Stevie Carnation, 21, a senior at GWU. “A lot of people look at it as a 24/7 party.”

“In hindsight, there’s a lot of nights I wish I would have stayed in and studied organic chemistry,” Ms. Carnation says.

Miss Arbour says many freshmen are too shy or intimidated to go to see professors during their office hours or to ask questions in class, but she says students need to do both.

“Go talk to professors even when you don’t know what question you have,” advises John Hyman, director of the college writing program at AU and the leader of a freshman orientation session on academics.

If you’re having problems in class, just say so. If you’re not having problems, Mr. Hyman advises, go talk to teachers anyway to ask for advice or reading material. Just getting comfortable having conversations with professors is important.

For many freshmen, college is their first time living on their own. They can eat ice cream for dinner, stay up until 3 a.m. and, if they’re not careful, get into trouble.

Freshmen are most likely to experiment with alcohol, drugs and sex during the first three to six weeks of school, a time Sara Waldron, associate dean of students at AU, calls the “red zone.”

“This is a time when students push boundaries and test limits,” Ms. Waldron says.

The combination of freedom, excitement and the stress of starting college can lead some students to make choices they normally wouldn’t make, sometimes with negative consequences for their health, grades and relationships. Jonathan Sawyer, associate vice president for student life and dean of students at Catholic University, says sometimes these decisions are fueled by freshmen’s stereotypes of how college life is supposed to be.

“Somebody went to college and said this is what it’s like, so you come to college and you think you have to act that way,” Mr. Sawyer says.

A classic example is alcohol consumption. Mr. Sawyer urges students to listen to the messages they hear at freshman orientation and use common sense. Students don’t have to conform to the “Animal House” or “Old School” stereotypes, he says.

What happens when students don’t connect with friends or roommates and need to talk out a problem?

University officials report that many students no longer know how to have in-person conversations, particularly unpleasant ones, in part because technology makes them so easy to avoid.

“I see a lot more students coming to college that don’t know how to have that face-to-face dialogue with their peers,” Mr. Sawyer says. “They’re so used to dialoguing on computers.”

Mr. Treter, AU’s director of residence life, knows roommates who have sat in the same room and conducted arguments entirely using instant messaging. It’s becoming more common, he says, for students who are having problems to come to his office with pages of e-mail correspondence though they haven’t actually talked.

“The number one thing I can tell you is keep the lines of communication open,” Mr. Treter advises students at the AU orientation. “Start that process now.”

Freshmen inevitably make mistakes, but the good news is, most mistakes can be fixed.

Roommates can be changed, grades can be raised. Even disciplinary citations and failed courses can be learning experiences.

“Failing a course is not the worst thing in the world as long as you know you can retake it and do well or get the help that you need,” Mr. Sawyer says.

If students recognize where they went wrong and change their behavior, freshman-year mistakes don’t have to ruin their college careers.

As Jonathan Kandell, assistant director of the Counseling Center at the University of Maryland at College Park puts it: “One semester does not college make.”

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