College… Ready Set Go!

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The road from high school to college is a winding one, frequented with obstacles from course planning to financial and location issues. Tania McCartney looks at how you can take control of the wheel and cruise into your college years with style

Starting college is a life-defining moment. It sets you on an educational course that will shape the rest of your life – academically, socially and career-wise. Things are much different to high school. Not only is course work far more intense and living arrangements bordering basic, a questionable cash-flow, moving away from friends and family, and learning to live independently make it a pretty overwhelming life experience.

Nonetheless, your college years will also become some of your most memorable. For those ready to leave the nest and embark on an exciting future, grab your suitcase full of dreams and get ready to go!

Your Career

What do you want to do with your life? If you are undecided on your career direction, think about what you love to do and what subjects you’ve already done well in. Research jobs in your general area of interest – you may be surprised what you find. Discovering your passion is important before you commit to study, but remember it’s also okay to change course part way through your college degree.

As you prepare to leave high school, it goes without saying that doing well in your final exams will help secure a place at the college of your choice. Francis De Silva, a Year 12 student at WAB, wanted to be extra-prepared for his chosen course in Chemical Engineering. “I know it will require a lot in workload and time management, so I’m preparing myself by taking the International Baccalaureate Diploma,” says the 18-year-old. “IB is basically a very challenging curriculum that helps you become well-rounded, and I do think the course gives you a boost for university.”

Francis: Take a day off from your Year 12 studies and dedicate it to filling in all your college applications. These forms can be tedious and time-consuming but it’s vital to focus and get them done well – it’s your future.

Kevin Huntley, IB Diploma Coordinator at Dulwich College Beijing, agrees that taking an IB can enhance college readiness, but he also believes that showing initiative and drive are very important. “Try to show leadership during your high school education, as this is favorable when it comes to obtaining a scholarship,” he advises. “Leadership activities might include captaining a sports team, running a club, directing a play or becoming a member on the Student Council. Be dynamic. Universities do look for people who have shown these skills.”

Choosing a College

It’s never too early to start thinking about college. Many Year 12 students spend their last year of high school heavily embroiled in studies, however, investing a little time sourcing information is vital to help you decide on your future path.

Vanessa Lloyd, a year 11 student at ISB, is already thinking ahead. The 17-year-old won’t head off to university in the United States until August 2009, yet she is already aware of the importance of choosing the right university. “College is a major part of setting up my future, so I’ve attempted to do well in school to be able to attend a decent college,” says Vanessa. “My parents have already taken me on various campus visits, which will definitely help when choosing where to apply.”

Visiting campuses in person is certainly ideal, however, this is harder for expat kids residing in China. For those who will attend college in their home country, beginning the search during vacation visits is a great idea. For those who can’t make it home at all, there are plenty of online sites that can make the search easier (see Website Connections).

Francis De Silva researched colleges online, searching for top Chemical Engineering schools in North America before applying for five of the best. He suggests starting your college search early, taking your time with it and getting to know the background of each institution as best as you can. “I would also suggest looking into backup plans – we don’t always get what we want, so keep your college options open.”

Overall, there are three top considerations when searching for the right university. The first is course syllabus – does the college offer what you want and does it offer it well? The second is cost – can the college offer this course at a rate you can realistically afford? The top universities generally come at a heftier price, however bear in mind that Ivy League schools are not the only institutions offering excellent curriculums. The third consideration is location. Francis De Silva may choose the University of British Columbia so he can be closer to his sister, who lives in Toronto. Considering such location factors could mean the difference between a triumphant or more challenging freshman year.

Living on or off campus is another matter students should look into early. “Many colleges in the U.S make this mandatory,” says Vanessa, “I think it will be an interesting experience living onsite.” Living with peers can help students fit into university life much faster, making homesickness less likely, and studies more effective.

Money Matters

Once you have your college sorted, the next concern is how to pay for it. Planning financially for a college education is an important step, and it’s something that needs to be planned well in advance.

Erwin Verschueren, partner at Austen Morris Associates, a financial planning and wealth management company in Beijing, says parents need to start planning their children’s college education early, and can do so more effectively by using a combination of tax efficient financial plans, the stock market, and savings options available offshore. “Most parents postpone financial planning because they feel their kids are too young to start thinking about college,” he says, “But parents really need to start saving from elementary school at the latest.” Mr Verschueren also says that parents underestimate the cost involved with a college education. “Unless they are certain where their child is going to study, they need to save for the worst case financial scenario. Higher-end universities are not cheap.”

If time is running out (three years or less before studies commence) and the college fund is still a little dry, Mr Verschueren advises looking into the financial aid, scholarship and work study programs offered by most universities. He also suggests avoiding the stock market but maximizing savings growth by investing in high yield term deposits and bonds. Other ways to come up with fast cash include utilizing equity from a home or investment property, mortgaging existing investments or assets, looking into tax breaks in your home country or taking out student or personal loans.

As for students entering their first year on campus, it’s vital to remember you’ll be responsible for your own budget. A sense of sudden financial freedom can be a dangerous thing if you don’t watch your pennies. Don’t shop, and avoid using a credit card. Eat on campus wherever possible and perhaps think about a part time job if your studies allow it.

Twelve Months Sabbatical

Starting college straight after high school graduation may be the norm for most students, however, some are taking the option of a gap year very seriously, so long as it suits their unique situation. Seventeen-year-old Julian Potten decided to take a gap year after committing to a lengthy and intense degree in Mining Engineering at the University of Queensland in Australia, which should see him immersed in studies for up to six years. Already half-way through his 12-month sabbatical, he decided to travel, and arrived in Beijing three months ago where he is just finishing a short internship.

Julian: Don’t follow your friends, stick to what you’re really interested in, and follow your own path.

“I decided to take a gap year because it puts life into greater perspective, and I came to Beijing because I wanted to improve my Mandarin skills,” says Julian. “I also wanted to gain valuable contacts and have lots of fun before I commit to study.” Julian says his parents were supportive of his decision to take a year off. “Because I’ve committed to such a difficult course, they were happy for me to do it, so long as I managed the year well. Beijing is going through an economic and cultural explosion, so I’m loving it here and have made valuable and influential contacts already.”

Kevin Huntley from DCB feels taking a gap year is highly subjective and should suit the student in question. “One advantage is that students can gain new experiences,” he says. “Kids can really mature and take more responsibility for themselves after a gap year.” Of course, there are also disadvantages. Julian says he won’t know anyone on his course and will be a year behind in his chosen profession. For other students wanting to take a gap year, Julian believes it’s imperative to plan your year wisely. “Perhaps have a blend of work, travel and skills-building through internship or part time work. Do your research,” he says, “But also enjoy yourself.”

Freshman Year

So you’re all set. You’ve chosen your course and college, you’ve got the finances sorted and you’re on your way. The next step is learning how to cope with your freshman year – academically, socially and practically.

Nineteen-year-old Stephanie Lloyd (sister to Vanessa), has just completed her first year at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where she is studying International Relations. “My first year was amazing,” says Stephanie. “I had a lot of fun and learned a lot about life.” Things weren’t always easy, though. The hardest thing for Stephanie was feeling like an outsider because she has lived overseas for most of her life. “I overcame this by finding common interests with people, and embracing who I am rather than pretending I don’t have an international background.”

Getting to know your peers is probably the most rewarding way to help settle into college life. Ryan Jessee, 18, has just finished his first year at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, where he is studying Computer Science and Japanese. “At UH, everyone is new – they are students from the mainland or overseas, so everyone’s on an equal footing,” says Ryan, who believes it’s important to get to know your neighbors. “There are lots of ice-breaking events and campus tours when you first arrive – freshman briefings, BBQs and sports. Get everyone’s cell phone numbers and email addresses. This will help you connect with study partners, too.”

Diana McPhillips, 21, lived in Beijing for 18 months before heading to Sydney University in March 2007, where she is completing a Bachelor of Arts Degree. “Everyone is encouraged to get involved in all the activities, and at Sydney Uni there are loads of inter-residential college things to do.”

Diana actually believes that living on campus is a must if you want to enjoy the college experience. “It’s the only way to make lots of friends. Orientation Week throws everybody into the celebrations, and the friends I made then are the ones I’ve remained closest to.” Living on campus is also helpful during the settling-in period of a freshman year. Diana’s parents are still living in Beijing, so Diana made dorm-living easier by creating a little oasis in her room. “The nesting process is important so I made sure to pack things that reminded me of home.”

Diana: If you live on campus, don’t get trapped in the “uni bubble” – take a bus into town or get a part time job. Don’t miss out on the fun things on campus, either. Oh, and go to class.

As you enter your freshman year, make the transition easier by staying fit and healthy, by taking responsibility for your actions and by making time for you – sport, relaxation, connecting with friends and family. Also, be prepared to feel overwhelmed at times. It’s normal.

Study Plans

Every course is different and every student has their own unique study preferences, however, pondering a study action plan before you start college is wise. Balancing your studies is probably one of the most challenging things you’ll ever do, so it’s important to think ahead.

Stephanie Lloyd’s general study plan is simple. “I go to the library without my laptop and only my textbooks, notebooks, highlighter and pens. I sit at a cubicle on the quietest floor and as I read, I highlight and take comprehensive notes.” Stephanie also says regular breaks are vital. “But stick to a break-time limit,” she advises, adding that eating well before study not only empowers the brain but staves off distracting hunger pangs.

“Go to class”, says Ryan Jessee – a recommendation that may sound obvious, but with 50 percent of college students failing to turn up for lectures, his advice is pertinent. “Most professors base tests on their lectures more so than textbooks. So if you are in class taking comprehensive notes, you would hardly even need the textbook.”

If you spend time formatting a solid study plan in your freshman year, your subsequent years will prove much more effective. Be sure to mix up easy classes with more intense ones and don’t be tempted to overlap – spread sessions throughout the week. Take thorough notes, keep a schedule of when assignments are due and if you find yourself struggling, ask for help – many colleges offer free tutoring and study skills workshops.

Also, find a good study partner, eliminate distractions wherever possible, and be easy on yourself. If you over-schedule yourself in your first year, you could run into trouble. “A friend who started a Chemical Engineering degree in the States told me not to take on too much at first,” says Francis De Silva. “He said to give myself time to get into the swing of things.”

Empty Nesters

Now that you’re all set to start your new life at college, what about mum and dad, left behind to feather an empty nest? Paul Mooney, a freelance journalist living in Beijing, is about to wave his second daughter off to college in the States. Teresa, 19, will study architecture in New York city, and is hoping to gain a place at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville.

“I think we’ll be okay when she goes,” he admits. “We’re actually not as apprehensive with Teresa,” admits Paul, who says things were far more traumatic when his older daughter went off to college. “With Annie, Eileen couldn’t bear to walk into her room. But with Teresa… it’s more the fact that if she needs us, we are too far away here in Beijing. That worries me a bit. I don’t want her to become homesick or depressed.”

Elaine Lloyd, mum to Stephanie and Vanessa, thinks her youngest will do fine at college. “The only thing I’m really worried about is how Vanessa will adapt to such a new life. I hope she can maintain a strong study discipline and keep up a healthy routine overall.” Elaine says she has mixed feelings about living in an empty nest. “I have a feeling of emptiness but at the same time a sense of ‘mission accomplished’”, she smiles. “We’ll have to deal with the change by finding new hobbies. And – “ she admits, “I’m planning to move back to the U.S, just to be closer to my daughters. That’s my way to cope with it.”

In the meantime, Elaine says she is thankful for the internet. “It’s a great way to keep in touch,” she says. “I think it’s important for parents to communicate with their kids as much as possible. Join Facebook,” she advises. “It’s a great way to keep in touch.” Paul Mooney says he plans to get his daughter an iPhone the moment she leaves the nest. He also plans to help Teresa with her course work via webcam. “She’s a Beijing kid. All her friends are here so she’ll be happy to come back for visits. We may go over to see her once a semester…” he adds sheepishly.

For other parents about to watch their kids fly the coop, Paul advises not to worry too much. “Semesters go by fast. It’s not as bad as you think it’s going to be. It’s such a positive time for kids – and they’ll be back asking for money soon enough, anyway,” he smiles.

Looking Ahead

The future is looking bright for all these students, with plans well under way to begin or return to studies. But what are their hopes and fears during this important time in their lives?

Vanessa Lloyd is looking forward to the amount of interesting classes she’ll be able to take when she starts college in August 2009. “As an extreme non-morning person, I must say I can’t wait to start my day a little later!” she laughs before adding that probably her greatest concern is that she has never really lived in the U.S. “Because I’ve always lived overseas, I’ve kind of depended on my family and I think that the prospect of independence in college is a little daunting.”

Francis De Silva says he is ready to be independent and to start something more challenging this August in Canada. “I also get to go to a brand new country with brand new people. I’m a bit cautious about who I’m going to meet and about the workload as the year progresses, but mostly I’m excited about it being a brand new experience. Oh, and I get to focus more on science and maths,” he smiles.

Julian Potten has no regrets about delaying his university education until February 2009. “I’m looking forward to getting on with that part of my life and getting my career on track,” he says. “I’m a little worried about the time management component – balancing army reserve with study and regular life, but it will be great to be back with people my own age.”

Ryan Jessee is worried about having more sway over subject choice when he enters his second year at the University of Hawaii. “Seniors get to choose coursework first, so I’m hoping to achieve better classes.” He is, however, looking forward to a change of residence. “Last year, I had to share a bathroom with 24 others, but this year, my roomies and I will have our own bathroom. I’m also looking forward to staying fit with my soccer. It helps me relax and remain in a good state of mind.”

Stephanie Lloyd is excited about returning to all the wonderful people she has met on campus at her college in Virginia. “My friends at college are the best friends I’ve ever had and I’ve never been happier, socially. College really gave me a chance for a new beginning and really helped me break out my shell – to talk to people more and be less shy and more outgoing.”

Diana McPhillips is looking forward to continuing her second year studies at Sydney University without the homesickness she experienced when she first started her course. “It came in at about week seven,” says Diana. “My friends at colleges overseas experienced the same homesickness timing.” Being in contact frequently with family and friends makes it easier to cope as Diana ploughs through her degree. “Getting little care packages from my family in Beijing is great, too – DVDs especially!”

Website Connections

First published in Little Star magazine.

1 comment:

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