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Unprepared, unaided and alone

7 mins read

As we approach the end of the fourth week of classes, many of us are probably starting to feel the pressure that we associate with Swat academics. This escalation of academic stress can be especially hard to deal with as a freshman, especially if a student’s high school education did not prepare them for the specific rigor of an American college.

While it’s commendable that Swarthmore accepts students from various kinds of school systems, both international and domestic, it can often be the case that such students are not given the appropriate support needed to adapt to Swat’s academic rigor.

Some current Swatties went their entire high school careers without writing an academic paper or taking a formal examination. And while the college provides resources for students to hone the skills required for both these activities, it doesn’t necessarily have a system in place to develop these skills from scratch. Consequently, once pass/fail is over and freshman spring arrives, students can find themselves a little under-prepared to earn good grades, or just find themselves trudging along a steeper learning curve than others in their year.

I had never written an academic paper before coming to Swarthmore. My school taught me to write long essays without supplementary material to ace three hour examinations, but it did not teach me how to plan ahead and structure a paper. It took me all of freshman year, three writing courses, large amounts of coffee and anxiety, and some disappointing grades to settle into a sustainable rhythm at Swarthmore.

In addition to the limitations posed by a lack of writing and/or examination taking skills, some schooling systems are not as insistent upon regular assignments and reading as Swarthmore is. Nobody ever accused a Swattie of being good at time management, but learning to deal with competing priorities for the first time or feeling the weight of every assignment affect your grades can be a crippling feeling that not everyone is equipped to deal with.

When you’re a freshman feeling overwhelmed by everything Swat has to offer, it can be challenging to pinpoint what you need help with or even who to go to. It’s not that resources to help students with writing, studying, time management and picking classes do not exist. But they are often generalized for all students at Swarthmore and assume a certain level of competence that can overlook the limits of some. Swarthmore does not need to establish entirely new institutions or systems to help a specific set of students, but rather consolidate and tweak the existing ones into a more efficient and helpful version.

When it comes to academic advice, most freshmen naturally turn towards their advisors. It is important to have advisors who understand where their advisees are coming from, so they can direct them to the resources they’ll need to do well at Swarthmore. There should also be some kind of uniformity to smooth over the vast differences in advising styles adopted by various professors here. While some are perfectly willing to listen to all the minute details of your life, others are happy to glance at your add/drop and send you on your way.

This can lead to a student not taking the right courses required for developing the reading and writing skills they might lack, or taking on the kind of courses that they simply are not prepared for. This kind of experimentation is a part of the first pass/fail semester but if you flounder during these first three months, then you may find yourself having a hard time the following semester when grades do start to matter.

Obviously, a student’s advisor is not the only one responsible for a student’s academic decisions and one can seek out the many resources that the campus offers for time management and writing.

The Time Management Workshop held at the beginning of the year may be enough to guide the transition from a rigorous high school life to Swarthmore’s, but doesn’t necessarily teach how to develop and then maintain these skills if you’ve never had to exercise them before. For someone who never had to deal with a regular workload, or is used to working periodically during exam periods, it can be hard to inculcate such habits while dealing with the multiple stressors that accompany the big transitioning to college.

SAMs and WAs are a wonderful and well-used resource on campus but they should not be expected to teach a student how to study or write academic papers, respectively. And WAMs are assigned to those that demonstrate an acute need for help, but are limited in how many students they can take on. Admittedly, these skills take time to develop and won’t sprout after one semester of attempting to learn them but it is important to get on the right track as soon as possible.

It took me a year to learn how to manage my time and learn how to write an adequate paper, and now I’m learning how to go from adequate to good. Students’ backgrounds should not adversely affect their academic success, especially at a place like Swarthmore where most people are willing to help each other improve in different ways. We just need to get the right resources to the people that need them.

The Phoenix