March 21, 2017

The Importance of Reaching Out: Advice for New College Students

By Caitlin Mongillo, College Success Mentor

Caitlin Close Up SmilingAs I made my transition from high school to college, I felt prepared for most things. I knew how to be an advocate, was fairly familiar with technology and wasn’t shy about asking for assistance in getting my needs met. The summer before I started my freshman year, I attended a week-long program for blind and visually impaired youth sponsored by my state’s blind services agency. We lived on a college campus, ate meals in the dining hall and attended a plethora of workshops to help prepare us for note taking, advocating and dealing with the rigors of academic life. If the program had been an exam, I would have gotten an A. I diligently took notes and asked questions. However, in my program evaluation, I noted that I learned nothing I wanted to know; in short, how did you make friends?

I went to a large high school, but I was the only blind student in my grade. Everyone knew me by sight, as I was the only one wielding a white cane everywhere I went. I was nowhere near popular, but I always had a solid group of friends to support me and to hang out with. My lunch table was never empty, and my weekend social calendar was always occupied with either a trip to the movies or a coffee date or a sleepover. It was important to me to make new friends at college, but I was shy and not entirely sure how to do it.

Friends with Service DogI quickly learned, though, that if I wanted friends, I had to seek them out. Everyone in high school accepted me as part of the landscape of classrooms and packed hallways. But in college, no one seemed to be used to the sight of a blind person. I felt obvious and uncomfortable in a group of strangers.

I felt like everyone was judging me and hyper focused on how different I was. Everybody could read with their eyes, so what did they think of my Braille Note? Everybody could read the numbers on the classroom doors, so didn’t they judge me for asking another student in the hallway for directions to a room I was right beside?

I was so focused on thinking I was the center of a universe filled with criticism and morbid curiosity, that I didn’t realize everyone was in the same boat as I was.

So, I’m here to tell you, when you’re a freshman, you’re in an excellent position to meet people. Nobody knows each other. College is new and scary for everyone. All the other students in your year are coming in with nothing but a few old high school friends and a high school social status that is now obsolete. It doesn’t matter if you were the most popular student in high school, or never had a friend to speak of. The beauty of starting college is that you can recreate yourself; you can start again. Everyone is new and different and friendless and needs to work to build a new core group of friends. You are not the only one coming in alone and unknown.

But … how do you do that? How do you cultivate new relationships and find your way in a new social hierarchy? It sounds crazy, but you just say hello. Or your greeting equivalent.

Group of college studentsYou make casual conversation wherever and whenever you can. Introduce yourself to people in your classes, read the emails from student activities about upcoming events, and attend them. Try not to hold yourself up in your dorm room to study, and do some reading on the quad or at the campus coffee shop. The more visible you are, the more chances you will have to meet people. Realize that nobody knows you yet, so you are in control of what they see. You may be shy, but this is your time to be an extrovert. Smile, laugh, be engaging and interesting. If you still feel shy, try out introducing and talking about yourself with just one or two people, rather than with a whole group—for instance, at a table in the dining hall or with the person sitting next to you in class.

Remember, too, that everyone else is new. You are all passengers on the same boat, just trying to navigate the rough waters of the college social scene. Though you may think your blindness sets you apart, realize that everyone else is probably worried about only themselves and could care less how you ask for directions or use your technology or need to read large print textbooks. Be brave, be confident, and never be too shy to say hello. It can make all the difference.

LALogo_V_Tag_RGB - Copy - CopyCaitlin is a mentor in Learning Ally’s College Success Program, a program designed for students who are blind or visually impaired. Want to learn more? Log into LearningAlly.org

 

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– Kristen Witucki


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