By Jerry Riendeau
So you’re about to start your freshman year at college. Or maybe you’re transferring to a four year school after finishing community college. Or maybe you’re just starting another year and want this one to go a little differently.
Regardless, below are a few things I have observed over the years that have helped students get off to a great start. Theoretically you could do one of these each day for the first week of the semester.
(Almost) all of these things would be more fun with a friend. Grab an acquaintance from high school, or better yet, meet someone on your hall and bring them along. Trust me, every other freshman on your hall is hoping someone will invite them to do something.
Travel to Your Classes Before the First Day
You’re going to be nervous on your first day of class. That’s unavoidable. What is avoidable is being stressed because you can’t figure out which bus goes to campus or why in the world room 105 is not next to room 106. In the age of Google maps being available in your pocket, most of us assume we can figure out how to get anywhere without planning ahead. In my experience, college campuses, especially old ones, are unique creatures that heroically resist being conveniently labeled and located on map apps.
Extra credit: If your campus has a bus system, jump on a couple of them and just ride the whole circuit. This may confuse the driver, but it will give you a good sense of how to use the buses to get around in the future.
Your mom did not pay me to write this. I am a firm believer that college can be the most relationally exciting season of your life. But that does not happen overnight. You will, almost certainly, feel lonely for some period of time. A call home may be just the thing you need to help you over the hump. On top of that, don’t underestimate how difficult your leaving home is for your parents. They may have put on a brave face when they dropped you off, but their lives have just irreversibly changed. A call from you would certainly do them good.
I know not everyone has a relationship (or a good one) with their parents. If that’s the case for you, reach out to another familiar voice. It could be a friend from high school or a sibling. The point is that a dose of familiarity and affection will greatly improve your first week.
Visit Several Campus Ministries
Ok, so this is probably not one you can reasonably do in one day. Nevertheless, it is very important. You may be tempted to say “I need to focus on classes my first week, I’ll check out the Christian ministries after I settle in.” That would be a huge mistake. That first week every freshman and transfer student is in the same boat. It is not weird to show up and not know who to sit with. In addition, the upperclassmen are geared up and ready to meet you. No matter how hard the ministry tries, they will not seem as welcoming week two or three as they will week one.
Your college certainly has a website that will tell you about all of the college ministries and when/where they meet. Ask your pastor back home if he would recommend any particular ministries at your college. Check out several that first week and be prepared to give them another try the next week. Eventually you will want to choose a particular ministry to really invest in, but that can wait.
Update Your Calendar
For some of you, the first step for this one will be to start using a calendar in the first place. This is a must. Do not fool yourself into thinking you will be able to manage college well without a calendar of some form. Even if you think you are succeeding at doing so, the people around you will not. You do not want to be known as the person who always forgets about group project meetings and friend hangouts.
You basically have two options here. You can use an electronic product like Google Calendar or you can buy an actual, physical, planner. To my continual surprise, many of the college students I work with still prefer the second option. It is not uncommon for students to reach into their bag and pull out their planner when I ask them when they are free to meet. There are some advantages to that route. For one thing, if you are artsy, your planner becomes not only a useful tool but another form of expression.
Regardless of which option you choose you’ll need to add your class, work, and social calendar. I would also highly recommend that you go through all of your syllabi the first week of college and add every single assignment due date. Just the process of adding them will help you internalize your responsibilities.
College towns are strange bohemian colonies plopped sporadically around the country. The ratio of coffee shops, restaurants, and thrift stores to population is always absurd. There are entire industries built up specifically to entertain you. Beyond that, the town almost certainly has a rich history and culture all of its own. It will take you a couple of years to really grasp how awesome your college town is, so start early. Take an afternoon and just stroll through town that first week. Stop into a couple of stores and buy a cup of coffee and a used book of poetry (possibly at the same place).
Go to a Game
I am a sports fanatic. Attending both home and away games was my primary hobby in college. But even if you aren’t into sports at all, don’t miss out entirely on this aspect of college life. At many colleges, sports are a primary expression of school spirit and community. They are places where you go to cheer for your community. In some respects, the game itself is secondary to the experience. Check out the athletic schedule and attend one event that first week.
Visit a Church and Don’t Leave Right Away
This is the most important piece of advice on this list. Go to church the very first Sunday you are in college. If you skip even once you will start to get into the habit of sleeping in on Sundays, and that is a very hard habit to break.
Sunday mornings on college campuses are… weird. No one is moving around. If you live in a dorm with old plumbing like I did, you might find that it takes like 10 minutes for the hot water to start flowing in the shower. I got into the habit my freshman year of going to the hall shower, turning the water on, and then going back to my room for a bit while it warmed up.
There are two mistakes you need to avoid here. First, do not believe the lie that you don’t need to find a local church because you visit your hometown church sometimes. The obvious exception here is if you go to college in your hometown. Church is intended to be both local and constant. You can’t take four years off of being a member of a local church.
Second, don’t get into the habit of showing up late and leaving as soon as the service is done. You’re a college student, so arriving late may be unavoidable. That means you need to stick around a little while after the service so you can get to know people a little. If you’re an introvert, this may be a challenge, but it will be worth it. Say hi to a few people you don’t know, preferably non college students. Not only will this help you connect with the community, it could open up some really valuable relationships for you. Need a place to do laundry for free? A home cooked meal? A quiet place to study during exam week? The families you meet at church have all of these things!
Jerry Riendeau is one of the directors of Cru at James Madison University. He is married to Katherine. Together they have three children, ages five years and under. You can contact Jerry at email@example.com. You can follow him on twitter here.