Friday, October 2, 2015

Six ways to get back on track by Halloween. Make that seven.


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Several years ago, a student in my first-year student seminar stayed a little bit after class to talk. This student looked and seemed pretty disheartened: slumped shoulders, scowly face. I could see the signs of a student who was ready to toss in the maroon towel.

"What happened to you?" I asked.

The reply: "Halloween."

Having experienced a few UMass Halloweens back in the day, I knew where this student was. Sure, that weekend celebration can be a lot of fun. But if you're not in good academic and emotional shape, Halloween can become your semester's Waterloo. It's the mid-point, the point where it becomes clear that you've taken on, or neglected, way too much. You might not be happy with your grades so far. Add in the usual stresses, roommate meltdowns, parental pressure, exhaustion, dead goldfish and you may be asking yourself: "What the heck am I even doing here?"

Don't let this happen to you. Here are a few tips for staying, or getting back, on track in October.

1. If you're stressing, ask whether you're experiencing a temporary bump or real signs of depression. College is a big transition, and an NIMH study found that about a third of college students reported feeling "so depressed that it was difficult to function" in the previous year. So it's a good idea to consider whether you might need some professional help. (And if you have had professional help in the past, it might be time for a tune-up.) If you see these symptoms in a roommate or friend, don't be afraid to reach out and encourage this person to get some help. This is how community works. You can start by connecting with the UMass Counseling Center. The center can offer you counseling services and work with you to manage your issues.


2. Talk to a teacher. Sometimes, actually, a lot of times, when you're stressed out, things look way worse than they actually are. A chat with a faculty member can help you get some perspective. The Journalism Department is your home on campus, so start here, with a teacher you have  in class. If he or she is not around, try me, Raz or Kathy.

3. Whiteboard the stuff that's stressing you out. Sometimes I have a student jot out all the issues he's struggling with on the whiteboard in my office. And I mean everything. Courses, job, career worries. All of it. The board sometimes looks like a weird physics formula. Then we sit back and look at the list, and the student figures out himself what he can do about each item. He or she usually is able to figure out some fairly easy solutions to many of the issues. (There's just something about getting these things out on a whiteboard that helps. We're using Realtimeboard in Entrepreneurial Journalism, check it out.)  As we physically erase those points from the board, the bigger issues come into focus, and then we try to figure out how to manage them. I've worked with probably hundreds of students, and for most, the problems center on time management, course management and fears about the future.

Which leads us to points 4-7.

4. Develop your own time management system. There are tons of time management tools out there and you have probably have tried a lot of them. My system is patched together from a lot of sources, including Getting Things Done (I love you, oh, labelmaker), and Julie Morgenstern's Time Management from the Inside Out. But everyone has different time demands, and in the end, it's what works for you. Here's what I advise to squeeze more time out of your week.
  • Get up an hour earlier. You folks tend to sleep, ah, rather late. Most working grownups are up by 7 a.m. or earlier. (Just sayin'.) Try getting up earlier a couple of days a week and see what happens. If you can't do an hour, try 15 minutes. Or a half-hour. If you can do this every day, you'll end up with several more hours in your week. You may also find yourself less rushed, and better able to cope with the day. Some students make this happen by purposely signing up for early classes.  
  • Work on Friday. Most people have very few classes on Friday afternoon. Instead of taking an early weekend, spend a few hours on Friday afternoon on schoolwork. Even a couple of hours can make a difference in your performance and stress levels. 
  • Get your week set up on the weekend. Take a half hour and check in on all the assignments due and tests for the week, and book your study and assignment work times as though they were haircut appointments: non-negotiable! If you're picky about food, spend a few hours on Saturday getting some dishes cooked and in the freezer. Figure out your outfits for the week. 
  • Figure out what's the most important thing this semester and make that your time priority. Everyone takes on way too much. Don't try to do everything at once. Set some priorities. Remember, a semester is 13 weeks long. You can always do something next semester, or next year. If you need to drop something, do it. It's okay.
  • Get your tech under control. If you're an online addict--and let's face it, we all are--and can't stop wasting time on social media, leave your phone at home and go to the library. WHAAA? Okay. I know that's not going to happen. BUT. There are plugins and apps like Freedom that will limit your access to distracting sites. Give them a try.  
5. Be pro-active about managing your courses.

  • Don't take two big writing courses in the same semester. Oy! It looks easy at first, but once you get into the reporting and writing stages of your stories, you're going to be singing this Ray Charles classic. 
  • If you are falling off a cliff in a class, don't just stop attending. People fall off cliffs all the time, but they recover. You can recover, too, if you deal with it instead of hiding out. (The prof will probably see you around the ILC anyway. Awkward.) Talk to the prof. Don't BS it, but explain that you'd like to recover. If you can, figure out a recovery plan for yourself (Use a line like: "I can get this homework made up by next Monday if you'd still accept it and that's okay with you.") No prof likes flunking a student, but it's up to you to show her that you want to be an active part of the class community.


6. Get a study strategy for tough courses and large lectures. They're a fact of life at UMass, so you need a system. Here are some links that might help.
  • Take advantage of the Learning Resource Center. Most of the big first and second year courses have tutors available all the time. Why would you NOT take advantage of free tutoring offered on a walk-in basis right in the DuBois library?
  • Team up. Find a couple of partners in the class and get a study group together to manage the course. You may find this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
  • Create a study guide for difficult material. A student in my first year student seminar came up with a very good plan. She hand-writes notes in class (research shows people who handwrite notes retain the info better than laptopping), THEN she types them (one more chance to process the information). THEN she carries them with her and goes over them a couple of times before the next class. This is the way you learn and internalize new or difficult concepts. Don't try to cram the night before a test. It won't work.   
7. Don't worry too much about the future. The future doesn't care that you're worried about it. Focus on how you're managing today. Don't ask whether you're "good enough." Ask:  am I doing my best work today? And if you're not, what do you need to change? If you are, the future will work itself out. Nobody knows where this economy is headed, or  who you'll be, or what your own interests will be in ten years.

What we do know is that the skills of good research and writing, critical thinking and a strong work ethic will always be in demand. And the relationships you build today can become a fun and valuable part of your life.

Journalism alum Elisa Thomas gave some advice at a networking discussion recently.

It was simple: "Everything's going to be okay," she said. "You're going to be all right."

I couldn't believe the response. The whole room lightened up. It was like a giant weight was lifted from everyone's shoulders to hear this.

But she's right. I've seen it. Students grow in ways that they can't even imagine during the first year of college.

You don't need to have all the answers right now, so don't worry if you don't have them.

I'm asking my First Year Seminar students to offer some tips of their own in the comments section, and if you have ideas, please post them below.

Now get to work on that costume. I'm lovin' these ones below..
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