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Surviving the Transition to College: Tips From a Rough First Year

May 16, 2019

I just completed my first year at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Spoiler alert: no, it was not the best year of my life and no, I did not ‘thrive’. I dealt with extreme homesickness, loneliness, roommate issues, and an overwhelming sense of not belonging. I did not settle in quickly and I never fell in love with my school. But don’t let this all scare you. My first year experience may not have been the start to the ‘best four years of my life’, but I learned a lot and don’t regret my decision at all.


After committing to McGill

Looking back on my first year, there are many things I could have done to make it more positive. However, I also made a lot of good choices. So, here is a list of what I believe you can do to have a better first year and grow as much as possible:

1. Go far away from home, if possible

I want to start off by saying that I know many students are not able to go to school far from home. I am lucky to have dual citizenship and thus the benefit of very low Canadian tuition. But, if you do have the means to move far from home, even if still in the same state, do it.

If you asked me during first semester about my decision to move far from home, my answer would be the complete opposite. I experienced homesickness to the extreme for months. As the homebody of all homebodies, the fact that I would not able to go home until the spring semester was terrifying. I cannot tell you how many transfer applications I looked at or how many times I wished that I chose a California school. Seeing my friends being able to visit home on random weekends while I was stuck across the continent was very hard.


Exploring Old Montreal

However, I sit here writing this now with absolutely no fear of moving away from home again and the confidence of living on my own. I’m not sure I’d be able to say that if I went to school close to home with the opportunity to easily come home whenever. I needed that extreme separation to free myself from homesickness for good. And for that, I am absolutely thankful for my decision of choosing McGill.

Even if you aren’t a homebody like me, moving to a new place is still very beneficial. I absolutely fell in love with Montreal. Montreal is a Francophone city with diverse cultures, a deep appreciation for the arts, a rich history, and so many unique places to explore. McGill is very diverse as well with students from all over the world. Going from living in a suburb like Dublin to living in the middle of a thriving city like Montreal changed me for the better. I grew stronger in ways I never would have if I stayed in my comfort zone. Living in a city was extremely frightening and stressful at first, but it has made me more confident, independent, and outgoing.

This isn’t me trying to tell you to go to school in a different country, move across the continent, or live in a city. My advice is just to go somewhere new. Figure out what you like and don’t like. It will grow you as a person and allow you to discover new things about yourself. Most of what I learned from first year did not come from the classroom, but from living in Montreal.

2. Form a work-life balance

This is something I certainly failed at. Academic stress consumed most of my mental space and time this year. There was rarely a time when school stress was not in the back of my mind. I often felt guilty when I spent time away from my school work. While my grades certainly benefited from the amount of time I devoted to school, my mental health did not.

There is no question that college is going to be more stressful and time-consuming than high school. If you want to succeed, you need to put in the hard work. However, college offers so many opportunities for social and personal growth. Don’t let your excuse for not getting involved be because of school stress like it was for me. It is possible to have a good GPA while also making mental health a priority. Take those Friday nights for yourself, go out with friends, meet new people, try new things. I certainly was at my desk way too often and deprived myself of great memories that could-have-been.

So, while working hard is very important, balance is just as important. You shouldn’t feel guilty to take a break or hang out with a friend. This is advice I wish I took and I am still working on finding that balance. Be kind to yourself. Grades don’t define you.

3. Set realistic expectations


Day One at McGill

I think we have all heard people call college ‘the best four years of your life’. I went into school with the expectation that I would suddenly become this whole new confident, outgoing person who easily makes friends. I thought all my insecurities would suddenly disappear. I expected to thrive.

Obviously, these expectations were not a reality. While I did grow as a person, the change was much more subtle and very gradual. I did not thrive. Insecurities that I had in high school followed me to McGill. There was no dramatic new fearless me, but I did grow stronger in my morals when put in situations where they were tested. I became more solid in my sense of self. I was confronted with challenges and became aware of parts of myself to improve on. Don’t expect to become some new, ideal version of yourself just because this is a new chapter of your life. Take each day in stride.

Expect that your transition to college may not be as smooth as you hope. You may end up having homesickness you didn’t foresee, conflicts with your roommate, or stress from classes that you never experienced in high school. Your transition to college may take a week, a month, a semester, or even a whole year. I didn’t feel truly settled in McGill until well into second semester.

College may not be the best four years of your life. I truly hope that you do have an amazing time and make some of the best friends and memories ever. However, don’t worry if you get off to a rocky start like I did. I am at peace with the fact that I may not ever fall in love with McGill, but I plan to do everything I can to get the most out of the experience.

4. Find a community

This is something I went into first year with the full intention of doing and never truly found. No one really warns you how hard it can be to find a community to settle in with and feel like you belong. College can easily be a very isolating environment and I definitely had my fair share of loneliness.

But don’t worry, there are many ways to get involved on campus. A community for you is there, it just may be more difficult to find than you expect. Because of my love for Disney, I started my very own Disney Club at McGill. Through this, I made some friends with similar passions and interests as me. It immediately made me feel much less alone.

There is a community for you at school. I know how hard it can be to push yourself to go to new things and meet new people, but it is always worth it. I wish I would have pushed myself out of my comfort zone more–I know how much I would have benefited. It is never too late to try out a new club or join an organization you’re interested in. You never know, you could just find a community that will change your entire college experience for the better.

5. Be picky

The beginning of college offers you the unique opportunity of forming a completely new friend circle. Throughout high school you probably were friends with the same people you knew from elementary or middle school. College will introduce you to a whole new sea of people who could change you for the better or worse, and that is completely up to you.

You have the sole authority of picking who your friends are in college. My advice is to be picky. I met my best friend at McGill because I went in seeking real friendships. Every close friend I made has helped me grow as a person and are people that I am fully comfortable around. The friendships I made are what I look back on the most fondly from first year. They did not come quickly or easily. True friendships may take a long time to form, but they are so worth it when they do.

It is okay to be picky. It is okay to stop hanging out with a friend group because they make choices you disagree with. It is better to make genuine friendships than to have a lot of friends for the sake of having friends. Don’t be afraid to be bold. Find those true friends.

To conclude

I can’t say college will be the best four years of your life, but I can say that they have the opportunity of being very influential. I hope your first year is better than mine, but if you end up having a similar experience, know that you are not alone. The start may be rough, but it really does get better. I am going into second year with the full intentions of making the most out of it and finding ways to have the best experience possible. My first year at McGill University was very difficult, but it grew me as a person in ways no other experience could.

During her senior year at Dublin High School, Class of ’18 Evelyn Morehead was named a Dublin Rotary Student of the Month, earned an Italian Catholic Federation First Year Scholarship, Italian American Federation of the East Bay Scholarship, Dublin High PFSO Scholarship and Dublin High Athletic Boosters Scholarship, was named a California Scholarship Federation Life Member, and received the Presidential Gold and Gael Scholar awards. 

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  1. Irene Padnos permalink
    May 16, 2019 10:54 am

    Fantastic article Evvie! Very proud of you and the amazing young lady you have become!

  2. melissa picache permalink
    May 16, 2019 8:43 pm

    As a parent of 3 students in Dublin and the eldest who will transition to be a Freshman at DHS this Fall, thank you so much for this article. It is very well grounded. It is also very personal, so yes, food for thought. Best of all, it is so very inspirational. Kudos Evelyn! Thank you again. AND best of luck!

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