First Person

Losing My Fear Of Having To Handle College Alone

This piece is the third in a series by students and counselors from Bottom Line, a nonprofit that aims to bridge the college-readiness gap by supporting high school students as they transition into college.

“No one will be there for you. At college you are on your own.”

This was a line that was continuously repeated to me in high school. I first heard it freshman year and only appeared more frequently as I got to my senior year. Soon, it became my biggest fear for attending college. “What if no one is truly there for me? What if I’m really a number amongst hundreds of thousands of smarter and more talented numbers?” I thought to myself, “How am I going to make it all on my own?”

But after the first week of being a freshman at the University at Albany this fear went straight down the drain. I met more than enough people willing to lend a helping hand and a shoulder to lean on. After spending just a month on campus I’ve met faculty and friends who I feel like I’ve known for my whole life. My Bottom Line counselor has visited me on campus a few times and being friendly and practicing positive body language truly does take you a long way. I’ve noticed that the students who are outgoing and maintain higher spirits are the ones who receive the most support in college, rather than the students who maintain a pessimistic vibe.

Unlike high school, college provides a lot of freedom. However, with that freedom comes even more responsibility. In college I am in control of every decision I make. I can do whatever I want but with every choice there is a consequence. I can choose to party all night long, have sleepovers every night with my friends, or even play manhunt until 7 a.m. — but if I choose to do these things then that means I am choosing to accept whatever consequences come with it. In high school, my parents and teachers were always around hounding me to make sure things got done, but in college there is no one to take on that role. In college if I choose not to attend class or do my homework, the only person who will notice is me. In college you get out what you put in and if you slack off and don’t care it will definitely show in the future when you look at your report card or try to get an internship. It also probably isn’t the smartest choice to slack off when you are paying thousands of dollars for an education.

Don’t get me wrong though, college isn’t only about the academics. There are many ways to get involved both on and off campus and attending a couple of parties isn’t a bad idea.

The biggest thing I’ve learned in the last two months is that you have to learn to balance your time. I have had a lot of help learning to do that by attending many sessions about time management and how to be a successful freshman both with my Bottom Line counselor and with my freshman study skills group. For me, the previous techniques that I learned in high school no longer worked with my new life at school. I had to learn new ways to keep track of assignments, prepare for tests, and maintain a healthy schedule. I tried a few techniques shown to me by Bottom Line, like creating to-do lists and leaving little post-it reminders around my room and in my notebooks. I keep a calendar of the semester filled with all my syllabi information, due dates, and test dates. Therefore when there is an upcoming test I can study ahead of time. Those are some methods that worked for me, but learning how to manage academic excellence with a social life is something that each student has to use discretion about and figure out what works for him or her.

Adjusting to college can be overwhelming but I have learned that is not a process that I have to take head on by myself. There are numerous people that work on campus and other organizations that I can reach out to for help. When it comes to asking for help, I am reminded of a quote I once heard: There is nothing such as a dumb question — it’s only dumb to refrain from asking a question.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.