6 students share advice, experiences about college

For Grace Kaupas, transitioning from Grassfield High School in Chesapeake to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville was a shock.

“It was nothing like what I had expected it to be,” said Kaupas, now a rising sophomore at UVA. She said she felt the information those around her were sharing either wasn’t completely true or didn't match reality.

Like Kaupas, about half of all US high school students don't feel prepared for college, according to a survey conducted by YouthTruth, a nonprofit that surveys students about their experiences in schools and classrooms. With students focusing on grades, classes and getting into a college, the survey found students are not developing other skills necessary for college, like managing time and finances.

Six college students share their experiences at college and give advice to college-bound students.

Focus on academics

Kate Garnache, 19, is a rising sophomore at James Madison University studying to be a dietitian.

“I picked JMU not only because it had a beautiful campus, but I also picked it because it was the only college I had applied to that really offered dietetics as a major. At other colleges, it was only available as a minor study.”

Garnache said the university is crowded, but not chaotic. “Eventually everyone gets into a rhythm.” She said she has never felt unsafe around the campus.

Still, there were some growing pains. Her first dorm was in an older building.

“It had no AC, it was dirty, and I had an ant infestation at the end of the year. It was really gross,” she said. But the newer dorms are “spacious and really nice,” she said.

And it's nothing like home.

“You take convenience in a full fridge and closet. It’s a harsh reality to realize that in college you don’t have those things.”

Similarly, sick days at college just aren't the same as home. “When you get sick, it’s bad," Garnache said. "You have to force yourself up to classes.”

Looking back on her first year at JMU, Garnache said she wished she had been more involved in some of the fun things taking place around her. This year, she wants to expand and become more involved in clubs and organizations. But within reason.

“Don’t go too hard on the partying," she said. "You have a ton of time. Academics is easy to get behind in, and you can get strikes if you’re caught drunk. Also, no binge drinking. You’ll be a hot mess.”

And Garnache said she enjoys being on her own.

“You get a taste of independence and what it’s like to be an adult. Everyone says you’ll feel like it when you turn 18, but I think you feel it when you finally move out of the house,” she said. “It’s easy to adjust as long as you get good friends and a group to make you feel at home and relaxed.”

Get involved

Alexandra Vansteeter, 27, is a senior studying American Sign Language and English interpretation at Tidewater Community College.

Vansteeter said she loves the campus because of its central location, academic buildings, student center and new construction. She said the environment is “positive, fun, and the students care about being involved.” Her drive to the campus isn’t far, but she said she misses the experience of dorms.

If she could do it again, Vansteeter said she would get more involved in the community earlier.

“Maintain balance with studies, get involved in college and in other organizations to grow yourself,” she advised upcoming college freshmen. “The work did end up pretty stressful. It took up my weekends, but it was definitely worth it.”

Make a plan

Aurora McGowan, 28, has her bachelor's in mechanical engineering. Tidewater Community College is the second college she has attended; UC in Kentucky was her first. She said she enjoys the campus, and has had good experiences with her math professor. She likes TCC for its learning environment, smaller classes, and faculty availability for questions. She hasn’t had any problems at TCC, and says that there is good parking (at both the Chesapeake and Virginia Beach locations).

But if she could, she said she wishes she “got it right the first time” instead of being focused on sports at UC. She also said she would have picked a school with more options for majors that were interesting to her. After TCC, McGowan plans to attend ODU.

“Make sure to have a plan and execute it well," she said. "Good plans fuel motivation. Also, trade schools are overlooked. They are really great options.”

Apply to several schools

Caleb Bilekin, 20, is a rising junior at the College of William & Mary studying computer science and has valued his experiences with professors.

“I’ve had some great professors and some mediocre ones," he said. "I haven’t been amazed with anyone really except one professor I had in a class called Upward Mobility in America that did a great job at facilitating discussions. Literally all we did every class was spend two hours talking about books, but it was wonderful.”

Bilekin said he was able to spend a lot of time with his professors one-on-one, and had the opportunity to build relationships with them.

“I know it’s nerve wracking, but just go to office hours and ask questions or ask about professors’ research," he said. "Also, set realistic expectations for the amount of studying you will do and the grades you’re aiming for. If you plan to study for 10 hours a day you’re not going to be successful because your goal isn’t something sustainable.”

Looking back, Bilekin said he wished he'd known earlier that he wanted to major in computer science. With that knowledge, he said he likely would have gone to a different school. But there are other factors, too, he said.

“It really is OK if you don’t get into any of your top choices. I’ll be the first to say: I didn’t actually want to go to William and Mary. I just got the best financial aid package there.

"Apply to a lot of schools if you can. More schools than you think you need to. I know it’s expensive, but in my case, it was worth it. Don’t apply anywhere you can’t picture yourself going. Pick safety schools that you would be willing to actually attend. Life exists after college - it’s less important whether you go to Harvard or a state school than it is what you do at that school.”

Bilekin's favorite part of college is the freedom that he has.

“You can do what you want to do - you can do literally anything - for probably the first time. It’s honestly amazing, and I’ve met so many great people and become so much happier since starting college.”

Take time to discover who you are

Hannah Waldrop, 20, is a junior at Tidewater Community College studying science at the Chesapeake campus.

“Before going to college, I wish I had known a bit more of what the 'real world' is like," she said. "In high school they make it seem like you’re going to get through college knowing exactly what you want to do (and) be, and then end up getting that job. It’s not like that at all.”

But there are rules, as Waldrop learned.

“I was told I only needed two more science classes to finish my degree. Turns out I need two more sequential (like an A and a B) science classes, thus the reasoning for why it’s taken me three years instead of two,” she said.

Looking back, Waldrop said the best part of college has been being able to discover who she is.

“In college, you’re able to take all these different classes, and with those you get to figure out what you’re good at and what really interests you,” she said.

For Waldrop, attending a community college was the right choice.

“Community colleges have such a bad rap for being schools for the not-smart people or for older people or for people who can’t afford to go to uni," she said. "Upon going there though, I quickly realized that it’s not like that at all. I mean, sure, there’s people there who could be my parents (or) grandparents, and there’s the occasional high school dropout, but really there’s just a lot of people my age who weren’t ready to go away to college or wanted to save some money before going away. Going to TCC was one of the best decisions I’ve made.”

Find balance

Kaupas, 20, is set to begin her second year studying biology at the University of Virginia and said she loves the school's culture and atmosphere.

“The campus is huge, and we have so many different people from so many different places around not only the country, but the world,” she said. “The staff is caring and reach out to students with their office hours, even with 300-kid classes. The talks in 15-people classes are never demanding, and always encouraging.”

Her freshman year, Kaupas said she had some challenges.

“In college no one is holding your hand," she said. "You have to find a balance. It took me a semester to figure out how to plan your life.”

And some challenges became opportunities. Before school started, she said she was afraid she wouldn't make friends.

“I was lucky enough for a really old dorm room with no AC," she said. "I got a fan and opened the windows. That’s how I met the people on my hall. We all had our doors open and because of that we developed a trust that we wouldn't steal each others things.”

Her first semester, Kaupas said she had a lackluster professor and wasted money on books she didn't need.

“Talk to students who have had the class," she said. "They know the professor and have been through it before.”

Leaving high school, Kaupas said she would recommend that student to “leave your ego at the door. Take the advice of people who are much smarter than you so you don’t do what I did and take a class that is way way too hard,” she said.

“Take a step back when you get stressed. Think if this is going to matter 50 years from now. You won’t remember the stress, you’ll remember the relationships and friends you’ve made and the memories that you had.”