The freshman year of college can be a make it or break it moment for many. To give advice and insights on how to survive that tricky first year of college, Bill McGarvey, co-author of the book The Freshman Survival Guide, talked with College Talks & More hosts Hanna and Cari about doing just that. He co-authored the book with Nora Bradbury-Hale, and it helps freshmen get through the first critical year of college. Incoming college students will face the biggest challenge of their life when transitioning from high school to college.
This book isn’t just about paying for college or finding a job after college, but it really gets into the nitty gritty of the academics, relationships, and the social emotional aspects of your freshman year at college. Now let’s dive deeper into the book. Bill, can you please introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your professional and educational background?
I am originally a musician, songwriter, and performer. I’ve written many records over the past couple of years and made a number of short films with music. I’ve also been a writer for many years and an editor. I’ve been a columnist for America Magazine, and written and contributed to numerous outlets around the United States like NPR and BBC over in England. I write a lot on the intersection of culture and sometimes religion. I’m basically a writer and creator. I guess that’s the easiest way to say it. I went to Georgetown University
In The Freshman Survival Guide, you write a lot about friends. What kind of friends should you try to make in college?
When we’re talking about friends, it’s really a lot of what we talk about in the book, which is it’s about helping the student understand how to become an authentic human being as they’re growing into young adulthood. It doesn’t tell you what a good friend is, except it says that a good friend is obviously somebody that is not destructive to you. It takes the best instincts the student has had so far and helps them dig into those a little more deeply so that they can discover for themselves what gives them life.
You’ve spent the first 18 years of your life in relationships with family and friends, you’ve made friends in your local community, and you arrive at college knowing what good friends are. Don’t feel like in the first week or first month of college, you’re going to make the same level of friends that you made over 18 years growing up. We advise folks, “Yes, of course you absolutely should be entering into new friendships and relationships, getting to know people. But also you want to take your time and to trust that these people you’re meeting might be wonderful, lifelong friends.” I think people are often thrown into the deep end of a new experience, and they try to make deep friends right away. They don’t realize that making deep friendships takes time, and they shouldn’t put all their heart out there on the line right away and expect it to work. That’s what I think we mean by good friends, making good friends.
A lot of students may find their life partner or get into some serious dating relationships in college. When it comes to dating relationships and sex in college, what is your advice?
Dating is about getting to know people, right? You might meet your future husband, wife, or life partner, whatever you choose. It takes really getting to know somebody on a deep level, and getting deep doesn’t happen quickly. It takes time. We advise people in the book to take your time and to also get to know yourself. Once you get to know yourself, you’re going to be better at picking somebody that you think really compliments who that self is. We have some great other voices, a good friend of mine at Boston college, Kerry Cronin, does a lot with dating on campus and has for years. She has been nationally recognized on television and newspapers throughout the country for her work at Boston College with students on dating on campus. One of her assignments is you have to ask somebody out on a date, and she really wanted people to take a step back and not just simply run into each other’s arms, into the deep physical energy. She wanted people to go on dates and to talk.
I think that’s a really good place to start in any sort of healthy dating relationship, whatever your background is. You should really get to know somebody. Love is a very powerful thing. It can be very powerful in a good way, but it can also can be destructive if it’s abused or not used in a healthy, respectful way. That’s what we try to emphasize in the book, really pay attention to your heart and pay attention to the people you’re bringing into your life.
Why do you think religion and prayer are so important in the college experience?
Our book is not a religious book in the sense that we talk about any one religion, but we basically say that we know that human beings are made up of our hearts and minds, our emotions, our bodies, and our spirits. We have the intellect, we have the physical, and we have our spiritual side. In this day and age, we certainly know that young people are not particularly religious or less religious than ever according to some studies. It’s not about saying that everybody has to be religious, or that you have to pray this way, or you have to go to this church, temple, etc. It’s about asking the big questions, “What do I want my life to be? What do I want my life to be about? What kind of purpose do I want my life to have? What do I value in life?” Those are spiritual questions on some very deep level. In the book, we talk about brain cells and hormones. But it would be shortsighted to not also talk about our spiritual selves on some level too, and how those all work together, hopefully to make a whole person.
Between sexual assaults and drunken assaults, how does a college students staying safe on campus?
Most colleges, the vast number of colleges are enormously safe spaces in terms of crime. Colleges take security extremely seriously, because they understand that if their students aren’t safe, the parents aren’t going to want to send their kids there. Like any human community, there are going to be some people and some crimes that might happen, but the truth is campuses are extremely safe spaces for the most part. But we do talk about the reality that there are dangers in any walk of life and we ask young adults to just be really smart and thoughtful about what they’re doing and who they’re interacting with.
Most students will have experienced drinking or drugs throughout college. Not necessarily that they partake, but they certainly come across it. There’s stories in the book about people that were at a party, and somebody slipped something into their drink that could be really, really dangerous for them. And so we simply advise, “Make sure that anytime you’re drinking, your friends are with you. And make sure that nobody’s able to touch your drink other than you.” Just be smart and thoughtful. If you are going to be out there, and you might be drinking, certainly be with friends who can help get you home. Be with people you trust if, for some reason, you overindulge, which happens from time to time. Just be smart about it. Have people who care for you who are going to make sure that you get safely back to your bed at night and nothing further can happen because you’re impaired. I don’t think it’s something people should be obsessively worried about, but you know, you have to be smart and be aware. You’re no longer under your parents’ roof, and you need to be conscious of the world around you and your possessions, and just make sure you don’t act carelessly.
What’s your advice on getting along with a roommate you have never met before?
Chapter 3 of our book is titled “Living With a Weirdo and Other Roommate Issues“. Many roommate stories go relatively well, but it is important to understand that you are being put in a situation with someone you have never met before. There’s lots of groups to meet people online, such as Facebook, to try to find someone you get along with beforehand. You might get someone who is very different than you with a different background and worldview. Part of being in college is learning about people with different backgrounds. That’s part of growing up. The fact of the matter is the world isn’t made up of people who were raised with values and a worldview just like yours. And that’s part of the value of college. Your world gets bigger, hopefully by meeting different types of people. We try to help people understand that part of the experience of growing up is learning to live with people from different backgrounds and try to understand within reason. But there are times when you legitimately come across people where it’s not sustainable to live together, maybe your roommate is up all night, smoking pot or drinking, or having their boyfriend or girlfriend over, and you can’t get any studying done. You can’t get any sleep. And you’ve talked to them. We advise people to have a sit down, like adults, to try to talk about boundaries and what’s reasonable.
Sometimes it doesn’t work out, and you need to get someone else involved. There are staff on campus, resident life, and resident assistants whose job is to talk about the living situations and bad roommate situations. And when it comes to that, you can sometimes switch off to a new roommate or request a new roommate. But we try to give you some advice in the book about how to diagnose some different problems that the students we interviewed for our book had experienced. This is really the core of our book, the interviews we had with tons of students over the years of what they’ve seen and done, and how they handled various situations.
What happens when a student is not happy with this school? How long should they give it before transferring?
The fact is, certain students realize that their college doesn’t fit and they don’t enjoy it. It could be something as simple as they realize now that they’re really interested in engineering, and their college might not offer those programs. It could also be a bit more of an emotional or a values issue. It might be that they don’t like the town, the feel, or the culture on campus. They might decide they need to go to a smaller school, or they need to go to a bigger school. Some people go to very small, private colleges, and they realize they really want a bigger experience.
I think it’s important to really take your time and make sure you make a good decision. Then look with some thoughtfulness toward what you really want in a school. Look at how you are going to make that transition to a new campus and community. It certainly takes some thought and some consultation with people in your life, your folks, or other mentors who are important to you to make sure you’re not just getting homesick and deciding to go home.
We do talk about homesickness in another chapter. That’s a very real thing on campus. You don’t want people to go to school, and in the first six weeks realize they miss their friends back home. They miss their parents, and they miss their bed. They might start thinking about commuting to a school right in their hometown or near their hometown. You want people to really give it a shot. We advise people not to go home to visit, or go visit friends, for the first four to six weeks of school. For that first month or so, just stay on campus. Just be there, and try to not stay on the phone 24/7 with your friends back home or with your parents. Try to be with the people you’re with on campus and try to get to know them a bit.
What are some of your suggestions for saving money during the school year?
We don’t advise people to go into a lot of debt. I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to come out of college saddled with a hundred thousand dollars in debt, because it puts you immediately behind the eight ball. We have stuff in the book about how to spend your money, how to budget, and how to budget your time. A lot of people don’t realize you’ve got to really budget the amount of time you have.
You also have to budget your money. I went to school with one of the kids who was a part of the Woolworth family, a very famous, wealthy American family. You hear stories of students who go on spring break, and they go to the Alps to go skiing because their family’s very wealthy. If you’re not from that background, trying to keep up with those folks will be impossible, because they have a different budget than you do. They have different resources than you do. We really try to tell people to be smart about the way they spend money. And we encourage people not to spend money or time carelessly.
At a certain point, if you’re hanging out with people with much deeper pockets than you, you’re gonna have to say, “Look, I can’t go out to this fancy restaurant or go out to this expensive club. I just can’t afford it.” A good friend will understand that. If somebody makes you feel guilty, or they pressure you to spend money you don’t have, that’s probably not somebody you want to spend a lot of time with, to be honest with you. So once again, it’s about looking at your own values and what you have, and you have to be realistic about it.
How does a student keep themselves from getting too angry, lonely, hungry, or tired?
We talk about how to get not too hungry, angry, lonely, and tired, because it’s a classic decision-making strategy that psychologists will talk about. The strategy is not to give into those really difficult circumstances that we come across. In other words, you don’t make your best decisions when you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. I think we can all relate to that. If we really look at our lives at our lowest moments, it’s probably not the best time to make a big decision, such as going to school or not, giving up on a major, or giving up on a friendship. You might need to give it some time when you’re in a better frame of mind, when you are rested. You want to make sure that you’re making good decisions, and not decisions based in the moment of fear, anger, or deep loneliness.
What advice do you have for students commuting to college who feel they are being cheated of the college experience because they don’t live there?
The truth is there’s a lot of students who do commute, and we talk about the commuter life in the book. So what you need to do is get involved. The truth is, whether you live on campus or not, you’re paying for access to college life, which is more than simply classrooms. There are an awful lot of activities on campus, they can be sports or any number of different clubs and organizations on campus that do interesting things.
We really advise commuters to use those resources on campus, because it’s where you’re going to meet new people. Just because you don’t live in one of the dorms does not mean you cannot participate in campus life. We really advise people when making a schedule that it isn’t just for class. In other words, don’t show up, go to class, and go home or back to your job. The truth is, a lot of students have to work a job in order to pay for college, or they need to work a job to help support their family. We try to advise them to really take some time to make sure you have time on campus, and to always be looking at the endless number of resources and events on campus that you can participate in. You should give yourself the opportunity to share those experiences of college. Those are very formative experiences where you’re going to make friendships, to learn things outside the classroom, and learn things about yourself and about others.
Please support the author, Bill McGarvey, by purchasing his book The Freshman Survival Guide.
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