The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, June 4, 2010

CCHS alumni share the “real deal” about beginning college

A team of seasoned experts returned to Concord-Carlisle High School (CCHS) last Tuesday to speak to juniors and seniors about what to look forward to in college, in a program sponsored by the CCHS Parents Association: “If I Knew Then What I Know Now . . . the real deal about leaving CCHS and beginning college.”

Those experts included CCHS graduates Giles Pettingell, a sophomore at Tulane; Avery Newton, a sophomore at William and Mary; Caroline Cronin, a junior at Elon; Robert Schmidt-Chang, a junior at Babson; Ryan Miller, a junior at Harvard; and Joanna Orlando, a recent LaSalle graduate. The panel, monitored by Adjustment Counselor Kelli Kirshtein, offered sage advice to seniors heading off to college: take advantage of the opportunity to experience a broader world and define yourself; don’t think drinking is a necessity; and remember your family is still there for you. The students also provided tips for those still in college search mode.

Opportunities and diversity abound

New experiences come in many varieties. Pettingell said he has befriended a boy from Colombia whose family has endured kidnappings and negotiations with drug dealers. “That’s something I’d never, never be exposed to in Concord,” he observed. Orlando was inspired by a friend from Tokyo who took on college courses and internships in spite of a limited command of English, “She’s so ambitious, and fears nothing.” Cronin spoke of the international perspective of a friend who attended boarding school in Switzerland.

Miller’s Harvard roommate is from Mississippi and went to a mostly black high school where many of his classmates already had children. “He has a very different background from anyone I met in Concord,” says Miller, “Yet he succeeds with the most affluent.” Newton said that a public school such as William and Mary includes “an amount of diversity that is unbelievable,” including a friend who attended the G20 summit. Opportunities for international travel also contribute to a broader view of the world. Cronin called a trip to Costa Rica “the time of my life” and looks forward to London next year. Miller travelled to South Africa last summer, and will be returning to study there again.

When Orlando went off to college, she was determined to make a change from her less than stellar high school academic career. “You can be anyone you want to be,” she says. “No one knows who you are.” She used the opportunity to define herself as “an intelligent person, a creative person” and recently graduated cum laude with a 3.7 average. She says she is the perfect example of how “a non-successful high school student can become a successful college student.”

Drinking common, not a necessity

Drinking is a big part of college culture, but not a necessary part, the students agreed. Cronin said, “There are some who do a ton of drinking, and some who never take a sip of alcohol. There are always some people there who don’t party.” Orlando noted that peer pressure is high during freshman year when everyone is trying to make friends, and advises looking for others who share your values, “Honestly, not everyone else is doing it,” she adds. Schmidt-Chang pointed to a soccer teammate who “doesn’t bend even slightly to peer pressure,” adding, “It’s good to see you can be accepted for who you are.”

Pettingell cautioned that it’s often the students who stayed away from drinking in high school who are the most likely to “go out and go absolutely crazy.” But, he says, over time, most students come to the conclusion that “drinking to get plastered is an immature thing.” Cronin agreed, noting some freshmen “get blown away” when they realize, “I’m on my own, no parents. Let’s go crazy.” But eventually, she says, “Your morals are still going to be there.” Adds Schmidt-Chang, “Maturity is down the first year, then most realize that grades are important.” That first report card can be a reality check, he adds. Miller summarized, “The take away point is, you should find your own spot. It’s really important not to do anything you’re not comfortable with.”

Dealing with homesickness, stress

In spite of great times at school, these students valued time at home, if only to get a “mom-cooked” meal. Cronin noted her surprise that after a semester away, she felt closer to her brother, distance having made their time together “that much more special.” When a visit isn’t realistic, Pettingell suggests subscribing to Skype. “It’s not just a phone call. You get to see each other, so my mom knows I’m not all bloody or messed up,” he joked.

Cronin found phoning her parents was a good way to deal with the stresses of college, and said Facebook is a great asset because it maintains connections with old friends. But Newton has classmates whose parents text and Facebook their children all day long. “That is way too much,” she said. Orlando also cautioned parents against prying questions, noting that deciding what to share is “part of the independence.”

So how much homesickness is normal? Although some adjustment period is expected, Kirshtein says many parents encourage kids to stay when changing schools may be the answer. Orlando knew it was time to leave her first school when, after months of unhappiness, she called home at 2 a.m. and her dad said, “It sounds like you’re in prison.” After taking some time off, she transferred to LaSalle.

Orlando says that admitting you need help with stress or loneliness “is not awkward or weird, it’s something really important to do.” She adds, “My advisor was my best friend.” Newton says at William and Mary, mental health “is a very big concern” and services are “very, very accessible” through a hotline. When stress hits, she visits a meditation room. Orlando notes yoga and Pilates classes are also stress-reducers.

Miller has no idea what services are offered at Harvard, and said that students going through orientation week should listen more carefully than he did. “This is when they give you the information to help you get through school,” he adds. Schmidt-Chang also suggests being familiar with policies; for example, Babson has a one-time amnesty for students sick from drinking. But Miller notes an ambulance ride can cost $1,000, “so don’t get that sick,” he advises. And just in case you ever need it, “Know where the hospital is,” says Orlando.

An audience member wondered if a gap year would better prepare a student for college. Pettingell had considered a gap year, and said he wished it had worked out. He believed he would have developed time and money management skills that would have put him “in far better shape for freshman year.” He suggested a job or destination is critical “so you’re not just sitting around watching TV.” Schmidt-Chang’s sister had taken a gap year in which she’d found new direction. “Now she’s excited about school,“ he said. Orlando believed it could be a broadening experience, “We’ve been in school since age four and that’s all we know how to do.”

How to find a school

Further questions from the audience concerned the college search and admissions process. The panel had some advice for students on the college quest: visit and see if you feel at home, submit an application essay that comes from the heart and don’t become so wedded to a first choice that you don’t give other schools a chance.

Newton had reviewed all the facts and figures before seeing William and Mary, but she says deciding if a school is right is “a completely subjective experience” that can only come from a visit. While on campus, she asked herself questions, such as, “Did I feel like that could be my home? Are these people I could be friends with? Are there activities I could enjoy?” In the end, she says, “You feel it.”

Orlando said she looked for people “that look like me” in what they wore and how they interacted. Pettingell put it another way, “Could you imagine going to school with those kids?” Miller agreed there’s nothing like a visit, and, if possible, an overnight stay to see dorm life and perhaps get a chance to attend a class or two.

A question about college applications prompted Cronin to advise, “Enjoy your essay.” She picked a topic of interest to her, and believes her essay helped her admission. Orlando added, “It’s so important that it come from the heart. You want them to think, ‘I want that student at my school.’” She suggests, “Write like you talk, and share a story.” Schmidt-Chang advised taking writing workshop the fall of senior year, “It helped me a ton to have teacher and peer editors.”

Miller works in the admissions office at Harvard, and noted, “There’s a lot of pressure to get into a big name school,” but he has observed, “they’re not necessarily looking for the best overall, but for the best match for their environment.” He suggests taking seriously the schools that accept you, even if they aren’t your first choices. “They are very good at picking students that are a good match for the school.” He paused and concluded, “You don’t need the big name to succeed.” ∆

© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito